Houses hewn, troglodyte-style, out of rock; an ancient cave with a history of witchcraft and magic; a winding river in a steep, wooded gorge overlooked by the ruins of a Norman castle … Is this the valley of the Lot or the Dordogne? Or some fairy-tale landscape on the Rhine in Germany? No, it’s Knaresborough, North Yorkshire – a hidden gem, filled with history, and beauty.
For a honeypot, it’s surprisingly easy (and cheap – £1.80 for a whole day in the Waterside car park) to find a place to park, even in the height of summer. The gorge, up to 120-feet deep and carved into the magnesian limestone and sandstone rock by the River Nidd, is over 16000 years old. It’s the reason for Knaresborough’s existence, and it’s always been important to the town.
A tourist hotspot once a hive of industry
On the far bank is Mother Shipton’s Cave, England’s oldest tourist attraction. A walk through the remains of Knaresborough’s Royal Forest leads to the eponymous cave and neighbouring petrifying well. It’s a scene that’s hardly changed in centuries. But across the river this tourist hotspot was once a hive of industry. In the 1800s the river powered mill wheels for flax spinning, and Knaresborough became so famous for its linen that it received Royal patronage from Queen Victoria.
In 1851 the railway arrived, connecting the town to Harrogate with a four-arch viaduct of stunning beauty. But the one we walk beneath today – spanning the 200-metre gap with four 57ft arches – is the second to be built. Just days before its official opening in 1848, the first viaduct collapsed, its debris raising the river level by 12 feet and lime from the mortar killing hundreds of fish.
A steep climb to the castle – but worth it
Higher than the viaduct, at the top of the crag, is Knaresborough Castle, built by Baron de Burgh as a stamp of Norman authority on land granted by William the Conqueror. King John not only used the castle as a base for hunting expeditions but made the first recorded Royal Maundy presentation here in 1210, giving gifts to 12 Knaresborough paupers. Captured during the Civil War by Thomas Fairfax, the castle was slighted, leaving only the ruins visible today. The view from the castle, taking in the viaduct, is among the best vistas in the UK. Worth the steep climb, and perfect for pausing and catching your breath.
A break for ice cream watched over by a master road builder
After all that exercise, we’ve certainly earned an ice cream. There are plenty of shops to choose from; one has a sign in the window quoting a study by London’s Institute of Psychiatry: “just one lick is enough to stimulate the orbitofrontal cortex”, it declares, “an area of the brain associated with the pleasures of eating!”
We sit and light up our brain’s pleasure zones on a bench in the marketplace, next to a bronze statue of Blind Jack of Knaresborough, complete with trademark ‘viameter’ or surveyor’s wheel. Sightless from the age of six, John Metcalf (to give him his proper name) nevertheless became the ‘father of modern roads’, responsible for building hundreds of miles of well-drained turnpikes, the like of which hadn’t been seen in Britain since Roman times.
Fascinating history – and breath-taking nature
Refreshed and inspired in equal measure, we feel strong enough to track back down the hill, passing the chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, carved into the rock in 1408 by John the Mason as thanks for his young son miraculously dodging a falling boulder. There’s just time for an hour on the river (£25 for a family ticket from Blenkhorns) and, while the kids argue over who should take the oars, we’re suddenly stunned by the sparkling green jewel of a Kingfisher flashing past just inches from our boat. It’s a breath-taking glimpse that somehow makes the stress of navigating past dozens of other zig-zagging rowers (and a few near misses) all the more worthwhile.
Besides, we’re still on a high from our ice cream!