For a real treat, visit one of the most enchanting towns in the North of England – there are plenty of things to do in Knaresborough.
With a 12th century castle, a soaring stone viaduct, and a glorious position above the River Nidd, Knaresborough is spectacularly scenic. It’s also home to Britain’s oldest paid tourist attraction, the town played an essential role in British Civil War history and it was painted by Britain’s greatest landscape artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) in the 19th century.
Knaresborough is a gem of a town, and it’s been welcoming tourists for centuries.
Here are the best things to do in Knaresborough England
On a time budget? Don’t worry! Even if you can only have one day in Knaresborough, you’ll be able to do most of these things. Knaresborough is a compact town and easy to walk around.
Explore Knaresborough Castle
In a commanding clifftop position high above the River Nidd, this mighty 12th-century fortress was the stronghold of medieval kings including King John, and Kings Edward I, II and III. The views from here across the Nidd Gorge are incredible.
As the castle was loyal to King Charles I in the English Civil War, the punishment meted out by the victorious Parliamentarians of Oliver Cromwell was for the castle to be ruined when the war ended. In true thrifty Yorkshire style, however, much of the castle’s stone was reused by homeowners in the town centre.
While only majestic ruins remain today, you can wander around the castle grounds and enjoy the sweeping views of the river far below for free. The castle’s ravens might also greet you with a surprising, Yorkshire accented “y’ alright luv”. Alternatively, take the tour for just £3.50 to peer into the dungeon, scale the King’s Tower and discover the secret underground exit known as a sally port.
Location: Castle Yard, Knaresborough, N Yorkshire, HG5 8AS
Discover History at Courthouse Museum
The one part of Knaresborough Castle still in good repair today is the Courthouse, within the bailey. It was constructed in 14th century as the “house of records”, before becoming a court for “The Honour of Knaresborough”. In the 19th century, a prison was added to the building.
Visit to see the original Tudor courtroom and its original fittings, including a set of stocks. Find out about 18th century Knaresborough local “Blind Jack” (John Metcalfe) who built more than 180 miles of roads across Yorkshire and Lancashire despite losing his sight to smallpox.
Tip: Knaresborough Castle and the Courthouse Museum are open from Easter to September. At other times, you can visit by appointment.
Marvel at Knaresborough Viaduct
The Victorian railway viaduct at Knaresborough is one of Yorkshire’s most iconic landmarks. Constructed in 1851 to connect the town with Harrogate and York, the 330 feet long, four-arch viaduct stands nearly 80ft above the River Nidd. With castellated walls and piers, the viaduct was designed to blend in with the ruined walls of Knaresborough Castle.
Stroll Along the Nidd Riverside Walk
The Nidd riverside in Knaresborough is a firm favourite with photographers and walkers alike. Cheery little independent cafes dot the waterfront beneath the castle’s cliff, some with terraces where you can sit and enjoy the view of the viaduct and the river.
In summer months, stroll along with icecream or hire a rowing boat. A meander along under the viaduct gives a different perspective of the bridge and the castle.
It’s pleasant to stroll along the riverside to Our Lady of the Crag, a tiny medieval chapel excavated from the sandstone. Just 13ft x 8ft it was reputedly built by a grateful stonemason, to thank God after his son was saved from falling rocks. The chapel is only open on Sunday afternoons; however, it’s worth a visit to see the dramatic cliff it’s built into and to peer through the chapel window.
King John’s Hunting Lodge – The Old Manor House
The Grade II listed Old Manor House on the Nidd Waterside is visible from anywhere along the river, and it’s one of the most famous black and white “checkerboard” style homes in Knaresborough.
The house was built around 1208 as a hunting lodge for King John who enjoyed hunting in Knaresborough Forest. He would leave his men under a great oak by the river Nidd and eat under that tree on his return. The tree’s trunk is said to still be inside the house today.
During the English Civil War, Parliamentarians “Roundheads” defeated the Royalist “Cavalier” forces at the Battle of Marston Moor. The Royalists signed the Treaty of Capitulation at the Old Manor House, in the presence of the Roundhead leader Oliver Cromwell who was staying in the main bedroom.
Commune with Nature in the Nidd Gorge
The river Nidd has carved a 37-metre deep ravine into the soft sandstone between the village of Bilton and Knaresborough. Ancient woodland borders the river, providing a haven to 30 types of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, plus more than 80 species of birds. If you’re quiet, you may be lucky and see roe deer, herons by the water or green woodpeckers in the trees.
There’s also the now-defunct 104 feet high Victorian Nidd Gorge viaduct. Built to carry trains to Ripley, Ripon and Thirsk, today it carries part of the Nidderdale Greenway Cycleway and provides a spectacular view of the river far below in the ravine.
Visit Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Petrifying Well
The oldest tourist attraction in England is located in a cave above the River Nidd. According to local lore, Ursula Sontheil, was born in this cave in 1488. She grew up to become a witch/prophetess, known as Mother Shipton, making her living telling the future. Legend suggests that she predicted key events, including the Great Fire of London in 1666, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the invention of iron ships.
There’s also a “petrifying well” just outside the cave which turns items to stone thanks to the amount of carbonate and sulphate in the water. Items suspended beneath the cascade, soon form a crust of “stone”.
Discover St Robert’s Cave
On the south side of the town, there’s another historic cave. It’s where Robert of Knaresborough lived as a hermit early in the 13th century.
Born into a wealthy family, Robert left home left to become a monk at Fountains Abbey in Northumberland before moving to Knaresborough.
The cave contains a shelf, believed to have been used as an altar. Outside the cave, the foundations of a chapel built to hold Robert’s tomb is visible.
While Away Time at Bebra Gardens
The town’s Moat Gardens have been renamed Bebra Gardens to honour Knaresborough’s German twin town. Located on a steep hill in the grounds of Knaresborough Castle, this small park features swirling paths, mature trees, well-tended rockeries, and herbaceous borders.
Spot Ye Oldest Chymist Shoppe in England
One of the most fascinating stores in Knaresborough’s market is the oldest pharmacy in England, located at 16 Market Place. Records show there was a chemist shop (drugstore) here in 1720, but it’s widely believed that the pharmacy could be at least 200 years older.
Ride the Beryl Burton Cycleway
The busy road between Knaresborough and Harrogate is probably the last place that most cyclists would want to tackle. The Beryl Burton cycleway is scenic and traffic-free from the River Nidd to Bilton Hall Drive, before connecting onwards to Harrogate with the Nidderdale Greenway.
Knaresborough’s cycleway pays homage to Beryl Burton (d. 1996), a champion Yorkshire cyclist who won more than seven world titles. In 1967 she broke female and male records with her 12-hour time trial record. Beryl’s record stood for two years before any man could beat it.
Step Back in Time at the Church of St John the Baptist
“A large and rewarding church built of Magnesian limestone, set in a spacious tree-lined churchyard.”Pevsner
The interior of the church is impressive, with soaring arcades in the nave, supported by 15th-century octagonal piers. The chapels in the north aisle are striking. The Slingsby Chapel has wonderful 17th-century family memorials. In contrast, St Edmund’s chapel has some of the oldest Gothic masonries. Take time also to see:
- The Nave altar rails (C17th)
- The font cover (c1700)
- Paintings of Moses and Aaron (C18th)
- Stained glass by renowned Victorian Arts and Crafts designer Morris & Co (1870s/80s)
Follow the Knaresborough Town Windows Trail
King William III introduced window tax as a property tax in 1696. One legacy of this hated tax is visible in Georgian houses across the country. Many have windows bricked up (to avoid paying the tax).
Knaresborough has dozen of these in the old town centre. Now the town has started to use them as an artistic canvas, commissioning artists to create Trompe-l’ œil paintings of people and events from the town’s history.
Various artists have completed 10 windows so far. Look out for figures like Mother Shipton, and King John who conducted the first-ever Royal Maundy in Knaresborough in 1210. Check the location of the windows here.
Browse Knaresborough Market
Knaresborough Market has been open for business every Wednesday since 1310. Today, the 100+ stalls trade from 08:30 til 16:00 selling fresh local seasonal meat, seasonal fruit and vegetables plus fish, sweet treats, and delicious Yorkshire pork pies. You’ll also find cheese, beer, household goods, decorative crafts, plants, pet products, clothing, and loads more besides. It’s a thriving, local hub and a proper taste of Yorkshire.
Aim to arrive just before 11 am or 1 pm to hear the “oyez, oyez” of the town crier proclaiming all the local news.
As you potter around the market, look out for the bronze statues of Blind Jack and Mother Shipton too.
Stroll in Jacob Smith Park
North of Knaresborough, this park was bequeathed to the town by Miss Winifred Jacob Smith who worked the land with her sister after inheriting it from their father. Covering 20 acres, the park is encircled by a stone wall and planted with ancient trees. It’s a serene place to wander the many footpaths.
Watch the Great Knaresborough Bed Race
The eccentric Great Knaresborough Bed Race has taken place every year since 1966, raising money for worthy local causes. 90 teams of six runners plus one passenger take part. Each team pushes a bed on wheels along a tough 2.4-mile course which ends with a traverse of the fast-flowing cold waters of the River Nidd.
Racers all wear fancy dress, with a parade in the town before the start of the race. As the race starts, teams set off at ten-second intervals to race through Knaresborough’s streets. Crowds line the streets and nearby pubs burst at the seams with cheering spectators. It’s peculiarly British and it’s magnificent.
How to Visit Knaresborough
Getting to Knaresborough
Knaresborough is just 45 minutes from Leeds or York by train, with Leeds only 2 hours away from London. The nearest airports are Leeds and Manchester.
Getting Around Knaresborough
This is a compact town – most of the attractions are within an easy (albeit hilly) walk of the train station. Expect to find myriad steep steps up and down between the riverside and the town.
If you’re planning to drive to Knaresborough, there is plentiful parking, but anything near the town centre is payable. If you’re looking for some independence when it comes to transport, hiring a car is probably your best option.
Eating in Knaresborough
Knaresborough has excellent independent coffee shops and tea rooms for light snacks, teas and coffees. Ignore the corporate chains and head instead for the delightful Cafe di Lucca, quirky little Number Thirteen, riverside Ugly Duckling Tearoom or the atmospheric Old Ticket Office at the train station. It’s Yorkshire, so expect generous portions!
For something more substantial, Mother Shipton’s Inn and the Guy Fawkes pub are comforting eateries, serving excellent meals. Make sure you’re hungry if ordering fish and chips at the Guy Fawkes, as it’s huge!
Staying in Knaresborough
One of the nicest ways to stay in Knaresborough is to rent one of the cosy riverside cottages. Teardrop Cottage is an absolute delight! If you’re looking for a luxurious treat, opt for the private historic royal stately home and gardens of 400-year old Goldsborough Hall.
5 Packing Essentials for Knaresborough
I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of the 17 best things to do in Knaresborough.
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