“And in the air men shall be seen, in white and black and even green.”

               – Mother Shipton’s propechy on the invention of aircraft.

Knaresborough is a market town in North Yorkshire situated on the River Nidd and with a population of 15,000 people. The town is known for having one of the oldest tourist attractions in England and hosting an annual bed-race.

Knaresborough was once home to one of Yorkshire’s most famous residents, Ursula Southeil, more famously known as the fortune-teller, Mother Shipton. She was born in a Knaresborough cave in 1488 and became famous for her prophecies about the future, including the Great fire of London in 1666, the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the end of the world. In 1630 the cave and nearby Dropping Well, which was known for its healing powers and ability to petrify objects into stone was bought by Charles Slingsby. He started charging visitors to see them, creating the oldest tourist attraction in England.

Nowadays the petrifying well and cave are still open to the public. The well, the only one of its kind in the country, can be seen turning everyday objects, such as a teddy bears, footballs and hats into stone. Nowadays some objects are left to be petrified by celebrities who visit the site. Once thought to be the work of magic the petrifying process has been analysed by scientists in more recent times and is caused by an unusual high mineral content found in its water.

The famous petrifying well at Mother Shipton's Cave. Picture credit Chris Gunns wikipedia creative commons.
The famous petrifying well at Mother Shipton’s Cave. Picture credit Chris Gunns wikipedia creative commons.

On the same site is also Mother Shipton’s Cave, which explains the life of the fortune-teller, houses a wishing well and has a museum nearby. There are also woodland walks, a play area and gift shop too.

Knaresborough Castle is a Norman ruin and was an important Royalist stronghold during the Civil War, before being taken and destroyed by Parliamentarian forces in 1644. Nowadays the ruin, including the 700-year old King’s Tower is open to the public and visitors can explore its dungeons and learn about the history of the castle through guided tours. The grounds include the Courtroom museum, where visitors can experience a Tudor court and find out about crime and punishment during this period.

Another notable landmark is the statue of local character, John Metcalf, otherwise known as “blind Jack,” on a seat in the market square. Born in 1717 and blind from the age of six he was responsible for building some of the North’s first turnpike roads, most notably a section between Harrogate to Wetherby, becoming a pioneer in road-building and route-planning, despite his severe disability. Throughout an interesting life he was also an accomplished violinist and tour guide.

Nowadays, Blind Jack’s roads have been modernised, making Knaresborough well connected to other Yorkshire towns and cities. It is directly next to the A1 motorway, linked to York and Harrogate by the A59, while Leeds is only a half-hour drive away along the A658.

Furthermore Knaresborough has a railway station, situated on the Harrogate line, between Leeds and York. The current station was re-built around 1890, near the four-arched stone viaduct, across the River Nidd, built 1851. The signal box at Knaresborough station is unusual in that it is joined onto the gable end of a row of terraced houses because of a lack of space at the level crossing. Buses run to local towns, such as Boroughbridge, Harrogate, Ripon and York.

Knaresborough is not a town normally associated with sport, although their football team plays, at the time of writing in the West Yorkshire Football League. The town also has two cricket teams, who both play in local Yorkshire competitions.

Every June, Knaresborough hosts its annual bed race, in which 90 teams of six runners and one passenger race to complete a 2.4 mile course around the town. It has been held since 1966, when the newly formed Knaresborough Round table wanted a new fundraiser for the community. The event has since become a highly anticipated and popular event around the county. The course starts at Knaresborough castle, where the teams are judged for the best bed design. At 1pm they parade through the town centre in fancy dress. Afterwards the decorations are then stripped off in preparation for the race itself, which includes a 20m swim across The River Nidd and through the castle gorge. The average time for the winners is around 15 minutes and the event generates an estimated £100,000 for charity. Knaresborough also featured in Stage two of the Tour de France and won an award for being the best-dressed town on the route.

The Knaresborough Bed Race in 2013. Picture credit: Terry Madeley flicr wikipedia creative commons
The Knaresborough Bed Race in 2013. Picture credit: Terry Madeley flicr wikipedia creative commons

The Frazer theatre is located on the high street and is owned and run by the Knaresborough players, an amateur dramatics society formed in 1962. The building is named after the philanthropist who first rented the hall to the players in its early days. The venue hosts not only productions by the society including an annual pantomime, but also a wealth of music, drama and comedy throughout the year by well- known acts on the circuit. Knaresborough festival (feva) has been held in the town each summer since 1996 and features ten days of visual art, dancing and music.

In the marketplace lies the oldest chemist shop in England, which was established by John Beckwith in 1720, although the building itself dates back to Medieval times. Nowadays it is a gift shop selling jams, confectionery and herbal remedies. Outside, Knaresborough Market is held every Wednesday and has been since 1310.

Knaresborough is a pleasant corner of Yorkshire, mixing fascinating history with wonderful scenery.

Knaresborough has always been an important place on the tourist’s map. Picture credit: Olya Marsh (IFY Community)

The town of Knaresborough is first mentioned in the Doomsday book of 1086 as “The manor of Chenarsberg” and like many places in the area a castle was built to maintain order over its natives and defend the town. This also gave Knaresborough the first of its many colourful characters, Hugh de Morville, who was amongst a group of knights which murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett in 1170. The assassins returned and hid at Knaresborough castle after their crime. In 1205 the lands around the settlement was acquired by King John, who held the first Maundy Thursday ritual, where silver coins are given to the poor three days before Easter in Knaresborough five years later. During the reign of Edward II much of the town was burned down by invading Scots, including the parish church. The castle remained, however until the Civil War when the Parliamentarians ousted the Royalists and destroyed it.

A constant throughout Knaresborough’s history so far was the town’s dropping well, which from ancient times had been noted and feared for its ability to turn objects into stone. Throughout its earlier history the area near the well was a no-go area for locals, believing it to be magic and the work of witches. However by 1538 it was believed to have healing powers, attracting visitors from miles around. The co-incidence that Mother Shipton was also born in a nearby cave further intensified the interest in the location and gradually it became the first tourist attraction in the country from 1630.

During the Industrial Revolution the town did develop some industries and mills, becoming most notable in its production of linen cloth. However, due to its difficult location, on higher ground, it became difficult for Knaresborough to import raw materials by canal and rail. There were several failed attempts to build a canal from Knaresborough and the stone viaduct over the Nidd was built at the second attempt in 1851, after the first one collapsed into the river when it was near completion. Moreover the success of other towns and cities in the area, such as Leeds and Bradford meant that Knaresborough never expanded in the same way as them. Instead it lent itself more to tourism, which due to its river and dropping well has had a long history in the town.

Knaresborough is an important place on the tourist’s map. Picture credit:Olya Marsh (IFY Community)

More recently, Knaresborough hit the national headlines in October 2013 when its town centre was put into lockdown by armed police after they received a security call centred on a takeaway shop. The alert however turned out to be a malicious hoax. Knaresborough is a town full of traditions, scenery and history.

The Domesday Book records Knaresborough as Chenaresburg, which apparently means Cenheard’s Fortress.
The Normans built Knaresborough Castle in roughly 1100.

In 1170, The Lord of Knaresborough, Hugh de Morville, was one of the four Knights that murdered Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

The first Maunday Money was given by King John in 1205.

Edward II granted a Royal Charter for Ripon to hold a market, although markets had been held in Ripon since 1206. The market is still held each Wednesday in the market square.

After their victory at Bannockburn in 1314 there were repeated raids by the Scots into England. In one of these Knaresborough was almost burned to the ground.

Knaresborough Castle sit on the top of a high cliff of 120 feet. It is now a ruin. In 1646 , following the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, the castle was besieged and fell to Parliamentary forces. It was ordered to be destroyed by Parliament. Much of the destruction was carried out by locals who took away stone for building purposes. The castle is open to visitors.

A famous ex-resident of Knaresborough is Mother Shipton. ( 1488-1561)Her real name was Ursula Southeil and was a renowned soothsayer and prophetess. She is said to have been born in a cave which is now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave. Also associated with Mother Shipton is the Petrifying Well, (The Dropping Well). People leave objects under the falling water and given time will become coated in stone.

Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, records that Mother Shipton predicted the Great Fire of London.
Other famous people include Blind Jack. Jack was blind from the age of six but became a very good musician. He was also a guide and a road maker. There is a pub named after him.

Each year, on the second Saturday of June, the town hosts the Great Knaresborough Bed Race. It was first staged in 1966 and in 2013 it attracted 30,000 people.