23 May 2023

A stroll beneath
Knaresborough viaduct
and a search for
Mother Shipton

The railway viaduct in Knaresborough was built with castellated walls and piers to blend in with the ruins of Knaresborough Castle and opened in 1851 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Knaresborough is full of surprises with its castle and town centre perched on cliffs above the River Nidd, offering breath-taking views of the railway viaduct across the Nidd Gorge.

Charlotte and I visited Knaresborough earlier this month, hopping off the train journey between Harrogate and York, and exploring the castle ruins, the warren of mediaeval streets, ancient walkways, cobbled alleys, secret passageways and the stone staircases that weave their way up and down the hill.

Knaresborough is a market and spa town and is mentioned in the Domesday Book as Chenaresburg, meaning ‘Cenheard’s fortress.’ The town developed around the castle from around 1100 as a market town. The parish church, Saint John’s, dates from the same time.

Knaresborough Castle remains a royal possession as part of the Duchy of Lancaster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Hugh de Morville, who was granted Knaresborough in 1158, led the band of four knights who murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. They fled to Knaresborough and hid at the castle.

Knaresborough Forest once stretched far to the south of the town, is was one of King John’s favourite hunting grounds. When the Stuteville family died out in 1205, King John seized the opportunity to grab Knaresborough for himself. The first Maundy Money was distributed in Knaresborough by King John on 15 April 1210.

Edward III granted Knaresborough, including the castle, town and forest, to Queen Philippa in 1328 as part of their marriage settlement. It then passed to their younger son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and ever since the castle has been a royal possession as part of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Parliamentarians ordered the destruction of the castle in the 1640s, but it was destroyed mainly by residents looting the stone, and many buildings in the town centre are built of castle stone.

A sculpture of Mother Shipton in the Market Place in Knaresborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Market Place is filled on Wednesdays with stalls selling tasty produce, wholefoods, plants and flowers. But it was a Thursday afternoon, and it had been raining earlier in the day. There, however, we viewed the sculptures of two of Knaresborough’s legendary characters, Blind Jack and Mother Shipton.

Blind Jack or John Metcalf (1717-1810) was born in a cottage beside the churchyard in Knaresborough. He was blinded by smallpox at the age of six, but grew to be a famous musician, guide, horseman, trader and pioneer builder of roads.

A plaque in Market Place marks the site of the 13th century synagogue at the exit to Synagogue Lane. The Jewish community in Knaresborough was dissolved in 1275, before Jews were expelled from England by Edward I in 1290.

The oldest chemist shop in England opened in 1720 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Here too is the oldest chemist shop in England. It opened over 300 years ago in 1720, when John Beckwith was the apothecary. The shop was especially famous under WP Lawrence and his son Edmund from 1884 to 1965, but ceased to be a pharmacy in 1997.

On a beam above the doorway are the intriguing words: ‘When I came to explain to them the ‘Nelson touch’ it was like an electric shock. It was new. It was singular. It was simple. It must Succeed!’ Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton.

While he was on shore leave in England in the summer of 1805, Nelson told his friend Lord Sidmouth about his ideas for his next sea battle at Trafalgar, describing these plans as the ‘Nelson Touch.’ After Nelson’s death, the phrase took on a broader meaning relating to his leadership style. But Nelson also wrote in a private letter to Lady Hamilton about ‘the Nelson Touch.’

The ‘Nelson Touch’ has since been interpreted as an innuendo, seen by some as a private sexual joke between the two.

I was intrigued, though, that, 60 miles inland from the sea, words from Britain’s most famous admiral were emblazoned above the door of a chemist’s shop, and that remains above a sweet shop and café.

Strolling beneath the railway viaduct and along the promenade at Waterside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

From the Market Place and the former almshouse at ‘Six Poor Folk,’ we made our way back down Kirkgate to the base of the cliffs to visit Saint John’s Church.

We walked beneath the railway viaduct and continued to stroll along the promenade at Waterside, gazing across the River Nidd at Mother Shipton’s Cave, and continuing on by the cafés and rowing boats.

We passed the House in the Rock, also known as Fort Montague, a local curiosity with tales of ‘the Woolly-Headed Boy,’ a strange child who lived there in the early 19th century.

But we failed in our efforts that afternoon to find our way up to the tiny mediaeval Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag.

The Mother Shipton Inn by the Low Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

We returned to the Mother Shipton Inn by the Low Bridge to hear more about Mother Shipton and her legendary links with Knaresborough. The 15th century pub beside the river retains an old world charm, and also boasts a table from Scotton Hall that belonged to Guy Fawkes in 1592 and a deed chest that belonged to Sir Henry Slingsby of Knaresborough, a royalist who was beheaded on Tower Hill in London on 8 June 1658.

The pub takes its name from Ursula Southeil (1488-1561), popularly known as Mother Shipton, who is hailed in local lore as a soothsayer or a prophetess. She has sometimes been described as a witch and is associated in folklore with foreseeing and predicting the future.

The first known edition of her prophecies dates from 1641, 80 years after her death. This suggests that what was published was legendary or mythical. One of the most notable editions of her prophecies was published in 1684. It gave her birthplace as the cave in Knaresborough now known as Mother Shipton’s Cave. The book said Mother Shipton was hideously ugly, that she had married Toby Shipton, a local carpenter, near York in 1512.

Mother Shipton’s portrait in the Mother Shipton Inn by the Low Bridge in Kanresborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Samuel Pepys was said to have told the royal family that Mother Shipton foretold the Great Fire of London. She is also credited with predicting the Tudor Reformation, the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the reign of ‘Bloody Mary’ and the ascent of Queen Elizabeth.

Some accounts claim she even predicted the invention of aircraft, television, radio, telephones and the internet, the building of dams and the harnessing of waterfalls for hydroelectric power.

Instead of trying to verify her predictions, we had a drink beneath her portrait above Henry Slingsby’s deed chest and Guy Fawkes table before walking back to catch the train back to York.

Stage 2 of the Tour de France from York to Sheffield passed through Knaresborough in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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