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)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (45) 23 May 2023

The Ascension depicted in the East Window in the Church of Saint George the Martyr, Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Eastertide and Ascensiontide continue throughout this week, until the Day of Pentecost next Sunday (28 May 2023).

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. I am reflecting each morning during Ascensiontide in these ways:

1, Looking at a depiction of the Ascension in images or stained glass windows in a church or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The East Window in Saint George’s Church was designed by the stained-glass artist Marion Grant (1912-1988) and was installed in 1951 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The East Window, Saint George’s Church, Southwark:

This morning (23 May 2023) I am looking at images of the Resurrection in the East Window in the Church of Saint George the Martyr, Southwark.

Saint George the Martyr is around the corner from the USPG offices on Trinity Street, and is within walking distance of Southwark Cathedral. Saint George’s is, historically, the parish church of Southwark, and many people also think of it as the parish church of ‘Little Dorrit.’

Thousands of years ago, the area that is now Southwark was mainly a series of gravel islands on the south bank of the Thames estuary. By the Roman period (43 AD to 410 AD), this area was effectively an extension of the Roman city of Londinium on the north bank of the Thames, and there is archaeological evidence of Roman habitation on the site of Saint George’s Church.

Saint George’s is in the Borough district of south London, and within the Borough of Southwark. It is a Grade II* listed building on Borough High Street, standing at a busy junction with Long Lane, Marshalsea Road and Tabard Street.

Saint George the Martyr is one of the oldest churches in England dedicated to Saint George. According to tradition, Saint George was a soldier in the Roman army and was killed on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian in 303 for refusing to persecute Christians and for confessing to his own Christianity. The present church is said to be the third on this site.

The East Window in Saint George’s was designed by the stained-glass artist Marion Grant (1912-1988) and was installed in 1951 to replace an earlier window destroyed by bombing in 1942.

The central window has an image of the Ascension with Christ in majesty. At his feet are a number of pilgrims and saints, each holding a scallop shell, the symbol of pilgrimage. In the centre of the group is a pelican. It is said the pelican pierces her own breast to feed her young, and so the pelican symbolises the sacrifice of Christ and the salvation of humanity.

The left-hand window shows Saint George trampling down the decree of the Emperor Diocletian. The right-hand window depicts the Archangel Michael destroying the devil, who appears as a dragon.

The church also has strong associations with Charles Dickens, whose father was jailed for debt in nearby Marshalsea prison. The surviving wall of the prison adjoins the north side of the churchyard. Charles Dickens lived nearby in Lant Street, in a house that belonged to the Vestry Clerk of Saint George’s. This was the darkest period in his life, when he had to work in the ‘blacking factory,’ and his literary career must have seemed an impossible dream.

Later, Dickens set several scenes of his novel Little Dorrit in and around Saint George’s Church. One cold night, Amy Dorrit sought shelter in the vestry.

A small representation of Little Dorrit in Marion Grant’s east window, below Saint George, shows her kneeling in prayer as her woven bonnet falls across her back like the wings of an angel.

Dorothy Marion Grant was born in Bromley in 1912 and studied art at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1931-1935, including heraldry and stained glass among her subjects. At the end of her course she was apprenticed to the stained glass designer Francis Spear and also undertook work for Martin Travers, designing drapery for figures. Grant worked from a studio let by the London stained glass manufacturers Lowndes and Drury.

During World War II, she worked for the Air Ministry designing camouflage for aircraft hangars. Her design for a window at All Saints’ Church, Bradbourne, Dorset was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1940. She designed the East Window of the Lady Chapel in Exeter Cathedral in 1951. As post-war church restorations led to new commissions, Grant was able to obtain her own studio off Portman Square, but continued to use the Lowndes and Drury kiln.

Marion Grant was a fellow of the British Society of Master Glass Painters and served on the society’s council for several years. She retired in 1972 and continued to live in London until she died in 1988.

A pelican at the feet of the Ascended Christ, amid pilgrims and saints, each holding a scallop shell, the symbol of pilgrimage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 17: 1-11 (NRSVA):

17 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’

The East Window above the High Altar in Saint George’s Church, Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) this week is ‘Accountability and Care.’ USPG’s Research and Learning Advisor, Jo Sadgrove, introduced this theme on Sunday, when she reflected on accountability on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death on Thursday (25 May 2023).

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Tuesday 23 May 2023):

Let us pray for the work of USPG as it seeks to come to terms with its colonial past. May it learn to sit with discomfort and may its partners grow in confidence.


O God the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Eternal God, giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom:
confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saint George’s Church, Southwark … many people also think of it as the parish church of ‘Little Dorrit’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org