Castles, Abbeys and Rivers

28.01.22 A journey north.

It has been quite a few years since I have driven the car for more than three hours on a journey and this trip was no exception, our target of seeing the beautiful county of Durham lay three and a half hours away so an overnight stay in Knaresborough was included.

We arrived at our accommodation spot-on midday, the Kestrel is a pleasant country pub just outside Knaresborough and close by Plumpton Rocks. After scoffing salmon sandwiches and coffee we drove the short distance to Knaresborough Castle. Our journey was not without incident, on nearing the castle along a narrow lane that tightly wound its way through cottages clinging to the steep cliff-side we came across an unfortunate lady who somehow had managed to brace her car across a low wall and effectively blocked the traffic in both directions. I and a few other ‘patient’ drivers tried to lift her vehicle off the wall but to no avail. However, on returning to our car and attempting to find an alternative route we discovered in the meant time that more ‘cavalry’ had arrived and had managed to successfully place her finely balanced vehicle back onto its four wheels.

Parked up we ambled our way upstream along the very pretty River Nidd, passing underneath the ruined castle battlements and by several well-populated cafes. The climb up to the castle was a bit of a challenge but soon accomplished with several stops to take in the views. Over the centuries the castle has been used as a royal residence and as a prison for Richard II. It was largely destroyed during the Civil War, with only the King’s Tower and courtroom surviving. Unfortunately, the tower and museum were closed for renovations, but the river’s views and surrounding town were well worth the effort.

Descending back down to river level, we headed upstream towards probably the town’s most famous visitor attraction,  Old Mother Shipton’s Cave.  Old Mother Shipton was born in the cave beside the Well. She was born Ursula Sontheil, in 1488 to the 15-year-old Agatha Soothtale during a violent thunderstorm, and was deformed and ugly, born with a hunchback and bulging eyes. It was believed she was a witch and in later years became known for her accurate prophesies.  Again, disappointingly it was closed, at this time of year, it is only open at weekends. It will have to wait for another time, maybe.

We returned to the car via the town centre, passing its very pretty train station on the way.  We were impressed by the visible history and architecture of the place and were amused at a rather scruffy and inebriated couple emerge from a Bentley resplendent with an HRH registration plate, and staggered their way across the town square. Seems royalty has hit hard times!

We checked into the Kestrel by 3 pm and chose to eat in its restaurant that evening.

29.01.22 A pleasant and stormy day.

A comfortable night’s sleep was undisturbed by the storm raging outside, so it was with some surprise that on drawing back the bedroom curtains we could see scattered beer-garden furniture and toppled trellis. Over breakfast, our waitress informed us that several roads into the town were currently blocked due to fallen trees and disappointingly, on checking the internet we discovered that Richmond Castle (our planned visit for today) was closed due to extreme weather conditions. Hmmm…

With one of today’s activities cancelled we changed focus and after breakfast headed to nearby Plumpton Rocks, but alas, that too was closed! Through a resurging wind, we headed back into Knaresborough to Sir Roberts Cave beside the River Nidd which is a rare survival of a medieval hermit’s home. It is thought that King John, who often stayed at Knaresborough Castle visited him in his cave. Robert lived in the cave for thirty years and though there is little left of any structures other than the cave itself, it was easy to imagine oneself transported back to the 12th century whilst exploring his little abode. Well worth a visit and easily missed.

Our journey to Richmond was through an increasing wind with leaves and small branches whipping dangerously across the road as we made our way northwards. There was plenty of evidence along the route of last night’s carnage, with fallen trees chainsawed into neat piles at the side of the carriageway.

As usual, we attempted to locate our accommodation for the night, the once elegant Georgian coach house, Black Lion Hotel, before setting off to explore. Due to the one-way system and narrow cobbled streets, it was not easy, but after parking on the periphery of the town and walking in, after receiving instructions from the barmaid we eventually found the hotel’s carpark.

Setting off to investigate this busy little town we decided on circumnavigating the market square which was lively with Saturday stalls and locals bustling for bargains. We grabbed a couple ourselves in one of the many antique shops on route. Squirrelling away our treasure into the boot of the Mini, I fired up my GPS and we set off on a trail that took in the castle and Easby Abbey, one of the best-preserved monasteries of the Premonstratensian ‘white canons.

Leaving the base of the ramparts we dropped down steeply through cobbled streets to river level where we joined a well-walked path alongside the watercourse. The Swale through Richmond is wide, rocky, and fast-flowing an adequate deterrent to any aggressor, it also makes for a lovely walk with plenty to see, at least along the section we covered. The trail was covered in fallen branches and twigs and the howling wind above, rattling through the treetops at times made for a disconcerting walk.

Reaching St. Agatha’s Abbey (Easby), once painted by Joseph Millard William Turner, we spent some time exploring its extensive ruins before entering the still-active parish church within its grounds to admire its display of 13th-century wall paintings. Carrying on, our path was inevitably blocked by a large fallen tree which necessitated some nimble clambering and crawling by runners, ramblers, and dog walkers alike, it was a bit of excitement and a demonstration of the power of the wind.

We crossed the river by way of an old railway bridge, following the now missing track, back to Richmond. We stopped briefly at the old station which had been usefully and tastefully turned into a restaurant and cinema complex. Checking out the films on show we considered returning later in the evening for some entertainment.

Arriving back at the hotel we had a very acceptable meal in its restaurant before returning to the station to watch a 7.45 pm showing of ‘Belfast’, a story of a young boy and his working-class Belfast family experience the tumultuous late 1960s, based on the life of its director. We came away thinking that it missed a  great opportunity to show the grimness and tensions of life in Northern Ireland during those times and as such we were disappointed.

30.01.22 A calm but chilly day.

With storm Malik having moved on overnight, after breakfast in the Black Lion we walked the short distance to the castle, confident that it would be open and it was. We were first through the gate at 10 am, choosing to visit the adjacent museum first. Though small, its displays and exhibits explained the history of the castle well and added greatly to our enjoyment and understanding during our tour of the various buildings. Despite being sunny the slight breeze felt bitterly cold, ensuring that we didn’t spend very long on the high ramparts. The castle was originally called Riche Mount, ‘the strong hill’ and though today it is a poor shadow of itself, the 12th-century keep, symbolising the power and strength of its builder, Duke Conan of Brittany, dominates the surviving remains. It was well worth our Malik delayed visit.

Before moving on to our next planned venue we took the opportunity to ‘mooch’ around the Artisan Fair being held in the town centre.

A half an hour drive to The Morritt Hotel situated in the pretty hamlet of Greta Bridge in the Teesdale countryside, it is a charming country house hotel, wedding venue, and spa and was our accommodation for the night. The hamlet is famous for Charles Dickens having stayed there and mentioned it in his novel Nicholas Nickleby. Satisfied that we had located the hotel we drove on to Barnard castle.

As in Richmond, we used our English Heritage membership to gain entry. The remains are more impressive than at Richmond but the history is nonetheless intriguing, if it hadn’t been so bone-chillingly cold we would have dallied much longer. Starting from the castle we had planned a ramble along the River Tees to Egglestone Abbey and were keen to warm up with some determined exercise we set off.

The circular 4-mile trail was under leaden skies but as it followed the course of the river downstream to the Abbey we were sheltered from an increasing breeze that heralded the arrival of an overnight storm named Corrie. There was plenty of evidence of Malik’s power with many trees along the river bank felled, deboughed, or just shredded, so sad to see the destruction. We stopped to lament this devastation with the occupant of a  once medieval watermill, now a very desirable riverside property. A little further on we discussed otters with a local out for a walk while we watched a lone Shelduck diving for food into the dark depths of the Tees.

It was spitting with rain when we reached the small monastery of Premonstratensian ‘white canons’, and its 13th-century church and a range of living quarters, with traces of their ingenious toilet drainage system. We gave the ruins a thorough investigation before continuing on our way. Thankfully the rain didn’t come to anything and it was getting late in the afternoon as we returned to The Morritt Hotel.

As usual, we opted to take our evening meal in the hotel’s Dickens Bar and Bistro, and what a fine pie I had in gorgeous surroundings. The walls were painted with amusing scenes by John William Gilroy (1868-1944) and the roaring log fire added to the atmosphere.

31.01.22 A day of  Roman roamin’.

With another excellent breakfast consumed, we checked out of the hotel and pulling on our walking boots set off on a short ramble along the nearby River Greta to find the Scotchman’s Stone, the subject of a painting by John Sell Cotman and a poem by Mark Crowson.

Not a cloud in the sky, but a residual, bitterly cold breeze from last night’s storm made for a shivery jaunt. Our path immediately took us through an ancient Roman Fortress, part of which must lay under The Morritt Hotel but now can only be witnessed through bumps and ditches in the adjacent field. The stone is reached by a steep treacherous side path that quickly descended through trees high above the watercourse from the trail. Deftly negotiated we found ourselves next to the focus of many artistic musings. We guessed that this lump of limestone originated from high above on the cliffs on the opposite side of the river millennia ago, and had bounced its way to its present position. It was hard to see what was so special about this particular rock, but it provided us with an hour’s diversion and exercise, so we are grateful for it.

This evening we are staying in a Walworth Castle and that is where we made our way to next. Having checked out its location we moved onto our planned activity for the day, the nearby remains of a Roman bridge in Piercebridge. The site is soon reached from the carpark by a path that briefly follows the River Tees. You can see what is left of a large bridge that carried Dere Street, the Roman road that linked York with Corbridge, near Hadrian’s Wall after the ravages of time has done its work. Several information boards adequately explain what can be seen, and what was. Very interesting.

We moved on a short distance to the village of Piercebridge to see the associated Roman fort and settlement that grew up around and protected the bridge. The fort was built around AD 260, perhaps replacing an earlier military facility on a different site which remains visible today, it was probably known as Morbium. The remains are very well explained through the many information boards dotted around the site. Well worth a visit.

Feeling cold and in need of some warming exercise, we drove a short distance down the Tees to the small settlement of High Coniscliffe to begin a circular ramble that followed part of the river. The river here is a much calmer affair than witnessed yesterday, it is shallower and wider, dotted with sandbanks perfect for wildfowl, etc. The flattish terrain made for uninteresting walking, the wildlife was far wiser than ourselves and remained snug, out of sight in their hide-holes! The highlight of this ramble was opening a tube of Pringles as we slowly chilled to the bone.

We were relieved to check into the warmth of the castle and a cosy Edwina’s bedroom, once occupied by  Edwina Cynthia Annette Ashley, the granddaughter of Sir Ernest Cassel and who married Lord Dickie Mountbatten in 1922.

We again chose to eat ‘in-house’. The restaurant was situated in the old kitchen and retained much of its previous character, parts of the walls had been stripped back to reveal the original castle brickwork, and coupled with the subdued lighting and fitments we could easily imagine the hustle and bustle of a 12th-century kitchen. When our order arrived it turned out to be a feast, I had planned to test out the cheese board for dessert, but the sheer quantity of food on our plates meant there was no more room left in the Inn! I can see why they have 66 weddings booked in for the coming year.

01.02.22 Looking for cake.

Thankfully, breakfast wasn’t in the same quantity as last night’s meal but filling nonetheless. After check-out, we headed south towards our next destination, Pontefract.

It was another blustery day but not on the same scale as Malik and Corrie, yet it was sufficient to move the car around at high speed on the A1. We arrived at our accommodation at the King’s Croft Hotel situated on the edge of the town at 11 am to check on its location before moving on to our first activity of the day, Pontefract Castle, built-in 1070 AD by Ilbert de Lacy, who had fought for William at the Battle of Hastings.

Thoughtfully, the entrance to the castle and carpark is free, so even on such a windy day there were quite a few encouraged to brave the elements and grab a bit of history. As expected, the upper battlements were taped off (more Health and Safety) and annoyingly the visitor centre isn’t open on a Tuesday! However, we made the best of the situation by taking in all the information boards and risking certain death by catching the views from on high.

The town is well known for its production of the Pontefract Cake and to discover more about this childhood sweet we next went in search of the museum. After asking several locals we eventually found our quarry in the town centre and wearing the obligatory masks we investigated this small but rewarding depository. A large display concerning the herb liquorice is the first thing you see as you enter. A side cabinet containing commercially produced jars, packets and tins of this ‘wonder’ sweet took Sue and me back to the sixties and a lengthy discussion on our favourite ‘Liquorice allsorts’. Other displays included the castle (of course), holiday posters, and art-deco glasswork.

Moving on we went in search of some ‘cake’ to buy, and roamed the surrounding shopping area, being distracted for quite some time by a large multi-story antique establishment. Resorting to Google we located an establishment some 20 minutes walking time away and chose to return to the car and drive. Guided to our target we were disappointed to find that Google had lied and taken us to a large food factory with no public outlet. Disappointed, we returned to our hotel and checked in.

Lazily, we took our evening in the hotel’s restaurant, the wind had returned encouraging us to remain in the warmth of the King’s Croft rather than risk hypothermia on a short walk into town in search of a place to eat.

02.02.22 A journey south.

We were one of the last ones into breakfast, a large wedding party from the previous day must have been early risers and been keen to return home as the carpark was quite empty, many of the tables in the restaurant hadn’t been cleared indicating a hurried repast.

Our journey home was SatNav led and intriguingly decided that the ancient Great North Road was the route of choice. We were hoping to break our journey on a visit to one of the historical and natural attractions along the route, but on checking each one as we approached using Google and our English Heritage handbook, we were disappointed to discover that none were open this early in February. We were home by 11 am.


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