>While I was in England this summer, I took a weekend to see my good friend E. in the Leeds area. She asked me what I wanted to do and I said, “Let’s go to that adorable town, Knaresborough, that I keep seeing from the train on the way to York.” (Note: that’s on the line to and from Ilkley, which is the line my friend is on, so I’ve ridden that route a couple of times before or after visiting her and also going to York for various reasons.) And she said she hadn’t been there since she was a kid and would love to go back, so go we did. And it turned out to be the *perfect* place to have a picnic lunch and spend an intermittently sunny and pleasant English Sunday with a friend and her three-year-old little girl, as well as a place of interest to medievalists in the area temporarily or permanently (I’m looking at you, TO’D!), as well as anyone else who’s looking to do something in Yorkshire and has visited all the usual suspects.
First of all, you might be wondering what it was I could see from the train that so delighted me. Well, first of all, let me give you a view of where the train passes through. The following picture is one I stitched together from three or four other photos and is taken from the edge of the castle and its gardens high on the cliff side (click to “embiggen,” and it won’t look so fuzzy, though you will still see where I stitched it together):
So, you’re traveling through the rolling hills and flatter fields of West Yorkshire when all of sudden you’re on this lovely 19th century bridge (which is better appreciated here than on the bridge, of course) with a town opening up not only in front of you, but above and below you, too. (Btw, in the big version, if you look closely on the horizon on the left, you’ll see the house that I will someday make mine. If I win the lottery, that is.) Here are some more pictures of the part of the town on the terraced cliff side and below, including one when the sun was brighter, and one of “The Old Mill House” (now a private residence):
Now, the center of town and its high street is actually on the plain above the river. I should’ve taken more pictures, because it’s pretty exceptionally cute, even by cute English town standards. But here’s a picture of the statue honoring the Historical Town Character, Blind Jack, who was a surveyor, bridgebuilder, and roadmaker despite being blind — hence his surveyor’s wheel in the statue:
His *actual* surveyor’s wheel is in the town museum, the Courthouse Museum (on the castle grounds), which is actually quite a good local history museum if you can ignore the god-awful misinformation about the Middle Ages in the kid’s hands-on exhibit (though there are fun costumes to try on!). The stuff about the Middle Ages in the *actual* museum, where the old stuff is — at least what I saw in the limited time before the three-year-old got impatient — was quite good. I wonder if part of what made it interesting both to me and to the town that keeps it up was that this seemingly little, out of the way town often played a part in national history, especially in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. (Here‘s the Wikipedia overview, but you can read more about the castle and its history here at Knaresborough Online.)
I don’t have a whole lot of pictures of the castle because there’s not a lot of it left. It’s been reduced to little more than Romantic-lite garden ornament, having been ordered destroyed by Parliament in 1646 (*shakes fist*)–though the tower was kept intact as a prison, and another part used as a courthouse (hence the Courthouse Museum). Here’s what’s left of the East gate:
And here’s a bit of the castle proper:
There’s enough left that you can climb up part of it (where I took the above picture) and climb down into the “dungeon” (uh, it’s just the undercroft), but it’s not so challenging that our three-year-old companion couldn’t do it. There was some more silly signage in the castle, including one about what was obviously a medieval-era coffin (which looked like the one on this site) that said something like, “This could be a coffin — it’s shaped like a body — but if it is, where has the body gone?!” Um, to the charnel house so they could reuse the stone? That’s one possibility, anyway. But hey, the views are lovely, and the garden/park that the castle grounds have been turned into included a mini-golf/pitch-and-putt area, and who doesn’t love mini-golf?! And when we were leaving at the end of the day, a brass band was giving a concert in front of the tower — lovely!
But the highlight of *my* day, anyway, was the visit to the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, including the walk there. It’s a *fantastic* surviving example of late medieval lay devotion and its survival, especially given it’s a Marian shrine, is all the more surprising given the destruction of the Trinitarian Friars’ abbey down the road during and subsequent to the dissolution.
The way to the chapel, along Abbey Road (no, not that one) is a lovely walk and there were plenty of other people making it — mostly locals from Knaresborough and the next village over, out enjoying a beautiful summer Sunday — but it gave me some serious real estate envy. It’s clear Knareborough is pretty prosperous and that it takes a lot of money to live along the river. The first clue? The Porsche parked outside of this cottage:
I didn’t get a picture of the following, but a number of the houses with fronts facing the road and backing up to the river had planters out front that were clearly made from reclaimed stone from the abbey. Some might have been troughs of some sort, but judging from the carvings, I’m pretty sure these were more coffins! But if so, where had the bodies gone?! Te-hee!
There’s also a posh-looking little gentleman’s farm, with these adorable heritage hogs and a marvelous wood pile outside of its wattle and daub walls:
And, of course, there’s the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag itself — which, by the way, is still used as a shrine to the Virgin Mary (even *more* remarkable in modern England, I’d say). I could never get a picture of the outside of it without someone in it — not to mention the ugly plastic chairs — so this will have to do:
As the historical records indicate, it was built by John the Mason in 1408, and as you can see, he gave it elements of a proper, full-sized church, including a glass window in the style of a stained-glass one (though not actually stained). Yes, I’ll get to that weird knight figure in a minute, but first here’s a picture of more of John’s details, including the “vaulted ceiling” complete with “roof bosses”:
The brochure I bought says that there’s no record of it being carved at the time John the Mason got the permit to carve the chapel, but then says there’s no reason not to believe it’s as old as the chapel. Really? My friend thought the face looked too “modern.” I think the mustache looks more 19th century that medieval, but dating by style is a tricky thing. More important, the carving doesn’t look worn away enough to be as old as the rest. Look at that weird little face again that I showed you above and how worn *it* is. Would the knight be as worn or even *more* worn, considering it’s outside? And why would John the Mason carve a knight? What do you think?
Anyway, I really recommend a trip to Knaresborough — especially in fine weather — if you have the time, opportunity, and inclination. My only regret is that we didn’t have time for the Hermitage of Robert of Knaresborough — the three-year-old could only take so much — but then again, I think the Lady of the Crag is more interesting, given that it’s surviving evidence of the intensity of lay devotion.
And let me leave you with one last picture just for the heck of it (it didn’t really fit into the narrative). Be sure to click on the picture to read the name of these “holiday cabins” and then marvel at how *wrong* that sounds!