A-Z of Northern Towns. K is for Knaresborough
As far as Knaresborough’s place in the national political scene is concerned it could be said that history stopped in the aftermath of the English Civil war. At first this may seem a little harsh but I think it is one of the great strengths and appeals of the town. While the rest of the country has danced to the music of time, Knaresborough has gone about its business of being Knaresborough at the pace of the gently flowing River Nidd. It has acknowledged the world around it but it has gone its own way; leaving it a town with a gorge full of individual character in a world that has increasingly come to look like Luton.
It’s as Yorkshire as the magnesium limestone that provides the bedrock of the western section of the gorge that gives the town much of it’s splendour and character. Yet it feels unlike any other Yorkshire town. Harrogate is only four miles away. Both are glorious towns but they are as alike each other as chalk and cheese. One is riverless, expansive and outward looking; saying to the rest of the world, “Look at me, look at me, Aren’t I amazing?” (and it is), the other huddled into it’s dramatic riverside setting, inward looking and, though welcoming of visitors, has no great need to show off to the world. I know few people who haven’t been to Harrogate, I don’t know many who have been to Knaresborough. York lies downstream and shares not only the river (the Nidd joins the Ouse a mile or two up river of the Viking capital) but also a medieval past. There are far greater differences than similarities between these neighbours.
At one time Knaresborough was a town where national issues were settled. The “Honour of Knaresborough” was highly prized. The castle defended the safety of the nation; it was even the most valued of the royal hunting grounds. The lead knight in the bungled murder of Thomas Becket; Archbishop of Canterbury and turbulent priest, held the honour of Knaresborough. Hugh de Morville returned to seek refuge in his castle after butchering the priest on his altar. De Morville was later stripped of his lands, banished from the kingdom and excommunicated from the church. Few regard him as one of Knaresborough’s greatest sons.
In the Civil War Knaresborough suffered the fate of many fortified towns. It was taken by the parliamentary army before the Battle of Marston Moor and the castle was ordered to be destroyed. Some demolition was carried out but the majority of damage to the castle was done in the using of the dressed stone from the walls in building many of the older properties in the town centre. This wasn’t unusual. Good building materials have always been hard to come by. It would have been strange if local builders hadn’t taken advantage of the free stone on offer. Happily a good deal of the castle remains and I for one find castle ruins an awful lot more impressive than complete castles. When they are in such a location as here then the impression is so much the greater. Knaresborough Castle is a joy to walk around. The local authorities have done a first class job in using the natural spaces of the original building to incorporate gardens, planting, benches, lawns and other features to make it a delightful place to be. Beyond the remains of the curtain walls are the limestone and sandstone cliffs that drop so dramatically down to the deep brown waters of the River Nidd.
The view from the top is spectacular and delightful at the same time. Knaresborough is blessed with the natural geology of the gorge but has harnessed the jaw-dropping glories of the valley into a town that is very much built on a human scale. Everything is in keeping here. The little rowing boats on the river are not lost in the scale of the gorge and the massive viaduct and bridges nestle in without dominating. Such a balance of architecture and nature is rare. Knaresborough has done things very well.
It doesn’t attract visitors on the scale of York or Harrogate but it is a busy town that wasn’t designed for the motorcar. If it got too many more visitors it would become gridlocked rather easily and that would be a pity. If you are going to visit I would recommend arriving by train. Regular services run from York and Leeds and you get the advantage of being able to see the town from the top of that rather splendid viaduct. Schools enjoy making journeys to the town with Mother Shipton’s Cave and Brimham Rocks among the attractions. The first is England’s answer to Nostrodamus. The second are some of the most spectacular rock formations in the north of the country.
Ursula Southeil actually existed but claims that her art of prophesy ran to predicting the invention of the motor car and of steel ships as well as the end of the world (1881 if you are worried) are somewhat dubious. She’d been dead for 80 years before her sooth sayings began to be published and many a forger has joined in the authorship over the years. Knaresborough isn’t above taking a few pounds off you to be duped and they do it rather well. Mother Shipton’s Cave is announced as Britain’s oldest tourist attraction.
Another hero of the town is Blind Jack of Knaresborough. More properly known as John Metcalf he used his experience as a carrier and guide to build roads in the early years of the industrial revolution despite being blind from the age of 6. At school we were taught that he used his stick to see if he was building into a bog or marsh. Well, quite! Jack Metcalf built 180 miles of turnpike road by having a developed understanding of the relationship between geological contours and the weather. Many modern roads in Yorkshire, including some Pennine crossings, keep to the routes surveyed by this remarkable engineer.
We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and sat in slow moving traffic for a while. A cheap car park just out of the town centre on the York road became even cheaper when a smiling family insisted that we use their parking ticket. I put the money saved towards a big ice cream which we ate on the castle walls overlooking one of the great views of England. Two hours wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface but plenty of time to realise that here is a little gem; a town that is worth a proper visit. The shops looked good; plenty of them were independent. There is a weekly market in the square and the people were as relaxed and friendly as any we have encountered. The history is rich and the layout of the town justifies its remarkable geographical location.
The River Nidd was diverted several miles by the last ice age. If advancing moraines hadn’t cut off the original route the Nidd would never have cut the Knaresborough Gorge. Much of Yorkshire was shaped by ice. Knaresborough is shaped by water but water that only came to the town because of the advancing glaciers. The natural world is full of wonders and our trip to Knaresborough was quite, quite wonderful.