For a contrast to Harrogate, try neighbouring Knaresborough, three miles distant. The train heads out of town round the Yorkshire Tea factory, past the golf course and onto the viaduct, and whoa! A deep gorge lies beneath, the broad sweep of the river Nidd at its foot, with houses and cottages clinging to the cliff on the far side. Atop the first bend are the ruins of the Norman castle around which the town first grew, connected to the riverbank via steep steps, and beyond that a warren of medieval streets. How could you not get off the train thirty seconds later and explore? [12 photos]
Sorry, that's not a photo from the train, that's the view from what's left of the castle. By the time I'd got my camera ready the trundle across the viaduct was over, and the windows of a Pacer aren't photogenically transparent anyway. But I did get out and explore, finally arriving in a town I'd wanted to see ever since Treasure Hunt visited in 1984. I was one of the few students in college with my own TV at the time, and the biochemist three doors down the corridor wanted to come and watch because his nextdoor neighbour appeared in Clue Three. Knaresborough was Clue Four ("A bear of very little brain is well and truly petrified by the Nidd"), and Anneka ended up with a damp backside after a spell of punting, as I remember.
Knaresborough, it turns out, is a delight. This is immediately apparent outside the station, where the subway morphs into a cobbled street that forks as one branch descends precipitously to the waterside. Some of the neighbouring cottages are thatched, and others painted in a black and white chequerboard pattern that's also to be seen decorating other buildings in the vicinity. Alternatively take the stone steps down from opposite the church, which twist appealingly on the descent, and be careful to mind your footing if they're slippery. Some of the garages down here on the access road must be at least two storeys beneath the houses they serve, suggesting the view from the back garden is grand. In spring and summer you can hire a rowing boat from Blenkhorn's on the riverbank, or Marigold's on the opposite side of the viaduct, but in February alas not so.
The Tour de France sped across High Bridge in 2014, and a trio of sleek peloton sculptures has been installed at the foot of Bond End alongside a pair of wooden sheep. On the far side of the bridge is the entrance to Knaresborough's most famous (and long-lived) tourist attraction, Mother Shipton's Cave. The crone in question lived over 500 years ago and was famous for her prophetic visions, which may have foretold the Spanish Armada and the Great Fire of London, or else her utterings were merely brilliantly vague. For £7 you can follow the track along the western bank to enter her cave and a small museum, plus the Petrifying Well which turns small objects hung from it to stone. A transformation once thought to be evil magic is truly only mineralogy, and 4-month-old calcified teddy bears are readily available in the shop. But not in February, which is a damned shame, and that was my Treasure Hunt target dashed.
To the castle instead, whose grounds are always open, mainly because there few walls remain. King John was the first monarch to take an interest in this easily-defended site, specifically as a base for hunting in the adjacent forest, while a century later Edward II installed his 'favourite' Piers Gaveston in luxury within. Various cycles of dereliction and repair ensued before a Civil War siege resulted in wholesale demolition, bar the Courthouse and a bit of the King's Tower. The town's war memorial now sits within what used to be the inner courtyard, from which there must be the best public views in town... deep into the gorge towards the viaduct and across towards the undeveloped bank opposite. I may have uttered the word 'wow' out loud, not that the lone dogwalker nearby seemed to have noticed. One good thing about visiting in February is that branches which might part-obscure the panorama are bare, and one bad is that the town museum in the Courthouse is firmly closed.
Which left the town to explore, which was both open and charming. Unlike Harrogate, Knaresborough still has the feel of an old market town because the central maze of streets survives relatively unscathed. Delicatessens, soft furnishers and soap merchants intermingle with banks and betting shops, with the range of services offered just about sufficient to ensure residents don't have to leave town too often. I confess I might now be addicted to pork pies topped with mushy peas and mint sauce now I've sampled one from Hirst's Bakery on the High Street - so much tastier than the whopper I bought in Leeds last month. I also enjoyed tracking down the modern tromp d'oeil paintings in many a bricked-up window, which feature several local personages from Guy Fawkes to cyclist Beryl Burton (leaflet here). Sure, by coming in February I missed a lot, indeed too much. But if you're the one-time sidebar blogger who moved here, congratulations, you chose damned well.
This'll be the last of my three long distance jaunts up north, courtesy of a ridiculously cheap deal offered by Virgin Trains East Coast last November. First I got to Leeds for £5 each way, then toDarlington for a tenner, and on this particular trip I reached York for five. I even had time after my zip round Harrogate and Knaresborough to spend some of the afternoon in the National Railway Museum, which I've visited before but on a day when it was rammed. Next up I'll be heading out west, courtesy of a cut-price GWR ticket offer, to a couple of cities my life has somehow avoided thus far. Until then, let's focus on turf nearer home for a bit.