Monday, June 22, 2009

Knaresborough Castle, nr Harrogate

This Sunday last I was telling at Knaresborough Castle and Museum Medieval Day.

The medieval entrance towers still stand, although the outside 'curtain' wall is long gone
Click on any image to make larger!

I've never been there before and had no idea what to expect, but it was very different to Dover. For whilst Dover Castle like many of the south coast defences just kept on being modernised and getting bigger and bigger, Knaresborough was embroiled in some of the thickest fighting of the Civil War and after a long siege in 1644 was destroyed upon the orders of Parliament. That was not an uncommon fate for many a small and not so small castle about this time. At Knaresborough the original outside curtain wall and some internal structures were'sleighted' and the stone robbed out, presumably to build and repair many a house in Knaresborough town . Although as with many other castles I've worked at the keep was kept, because it served as a center for local administration and made a handy prison. Unfortunately most of the keep is now lost, but we did have a look about the cellars and 'dungeon' beneath the now ruinous 'King's Chamber' and in the original buttery; a small room of about 8 x 10 feet it is said that at one point it was a cell for 26 people.

The remains of the Knaresborough Castle Keep

The other side of the Keep and a great setting for my storytelling tent!

Down, down, down to the 'dungeons'

Some arrowheads- Looks to be prisoner graffiti

View out of the keep cellar

The now ruined top 'Kings Chamber' of Knareborough Castle keep

The castle itself is mostly lost, but what remains is excellent; a bit like one of those romantic ruins you see in old engravings and because its remains are in a public park there is plenty of access. I liked it because although there were some interpretive panels and various maps and documents in the museum, it was one of those places where its left to the visitors imagination to see it as it was. That works for me, because it allows for a little bit of colour and who knows what. Knights, damsels and even the occasional angry dragon intent on the destruction of man, which may well help explain why so much of the fabric of Knaresborough is now destroyed. Well those Roundheads couldn't have knocked it all down, after all they were far to busy giving the Cavaliers a right good kicking!

What was really exiting is that Knaresborough Castle really does have a tunnel leading out to who knows where in emergencies. For many years whilst working as an interpreter at Norwich Castle I had to endure many earnest tales about the tunnels that joined the Keep with the Cathedral and other places of local importance. But it is simply not true and I suspect most of the stories about tunnels from other castles dotted about the land are nothing more than tall tales as well. But not Knaresborough and I only wish that it had been open on Sunday so that I could have seen where it led. I like to think that it would have been a treasure laden tomb of one of the ancient Kings of Briton, or perhaps a druids temple. Either would have been good!

The entrance to the castle escape tunnel!

The small museum on site was also just my kind of place. It was originally the local courthouse, but now it is more like a really, really big cabinet of curiosities! There is all sorts to see including a model of 'Blind Jack'; a local character who in the 1700s walked from London to Harrogate and presumably the other way as well with his pedometer. He did it as a bet. Blind Jack was very famous locally and has a statue near the market cross in the center of Knaresborough town. But even this is different, because unlike many a statue where the local dignitary towers above us small inconsequential folk, 'Blind Jack' is set reposing upon a bench. You can sit next to him whilst you enjoy your fish and chips.

Certainly there is a relaxed feeling in Knaresborough and reminded me more of a Cornish village than a Yorkshire town. I say that because although I love the North of England some of the towns can be a bit austere; built as they are of imposing dark stone. Knaresborough however is a mix of all styles with a lot of what appear to be ancient timber framed and brick buildings dotted about here and there. There were also lots of little cafes with outside seating, all of which added to the relaxed laid back feeling.

The town square with Blind Jack enjoying a well earned rest upon a bench!

The road leading up to the castle gate

The other curiosity which really caught my eye in the museum was the shirt of the local Royalist, Sir Henry Slingsby; the shirt he was said to have worn at his execution on tower hill in London. He was accused of treason for his part in a plot to help the exiled Charles, son of Charles 1st to the throne. He was beheaded in 1658, although disappointingly there isn't a drop of blood on his shirt. That might sound a bit macabre to some, but I love objects like this. For one thing they are very personal and help you get closer to the past and for another they provide a 'hook' into history for kids and adults alike who can be put off by dry dates and facts.

Knaresborough Museum

The museum was excellent, but best of all was the view... We parked up and started unloading, not aware that immediately behind the Keep where we were to set up was a view like no other. It looked out over a gorge and train viaduct which spanned the river Nidd. And there was the wonderful sound of gently flowing water spilling over the rocks below. It was so peaceful and all I wanted to do was sit upon one of the many benches that overlooked the gorge and sleep. And below there were many terraces overlooking small cafes with yet more outside seating filled with people just sitting; just taking it easy and enjoying the view. All I wanted to do was sit on one of those chairs, enjoy a cool drink and do what everyone else was doing. But I had work to do and to be honest I had a really good days storytelling with a great audience and plenty of breaks in between to sit and stare..

View from the castle looking down over Mother Shipton's Cave

Alas, no interesting facts from Kim this day as she was just far too relaxed enjoying the view and playing with the castle ravens. We met the official keeper of the ravens and Kim held one and got pecked by one and was totally and utterly taken with them both! Its no wonder there are so many raven tales out there, for you've only got to look into their eyes to see that they are far wiser than any common or garden owl!

Kim with 'Gabrelle' the castle raven.
Normally free to fly, but tethered this day for their own protection

I did manage to drag her away for a look about the Keep and even to sneak a picture of her sitting in the garderobe (Toilet) There is a sign pointing out that it was the job of the gongfarmer to remove all the resulting waste from the castle and that was good because I was telling a story about a gongfarmer this day! The sign also pointed out that the garderobe holes were a weak point in the castle defences and that would be attackers might send boys or small men up them to get in and open the gates... So there's an interesting fact after all!

Kim sitting on the lav.
I suspect that there are many photos out there like this one!

Thanks to Diane for the opportunity to tell at the event and to all the staff who made us both feel so welcome.

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