In a scene out of a 19th-century landscape painting, the town of Knaresborough clings to a steep gorge crossed by a railway viaduct.
The riverside is as charming as it gets in summer when you can idle at a cafe terrace by the water or hire a wooden rowboat.
There are caves linked to a 15th-century prophetess and 13th-century hermit, as well as the ruins of a castle that welcomed royalty throughout the Medieval period.
Stairways and cobblestone alleys twist up from the riverside to the old town center, depositing you at England’s oldest pharmacy and a cozy rural market on Wednesdays.
Right upriver is the protected landscape of the Nidd Gorge where you can walk or cycle through ancient woods in the shadow of the gorge’s sandstone walls.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Knaresborough:
1. Knaresborough Castle
This ruined fortress has a commanding position high over the River Nidd on a cliff.
Built by the Normans at the turn of the 12th century, Knaresborough Castle was reinforced in stone a century later by King John and expanded further under Edward I and Edward II in the 14th century.
Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, took control in 1331 and would visit during the summers.
Although the castle was pulled down after the Civil War and its stone reused in the town center, you can peer into the dungeon and scale the King’s Tower.
You’ll meet the castle’s ravens, resident since 2000 and able to talk to visitors in a Yorkshire accent.
The castle and the Courthouse Museum in the grounds is a seasonal attraction, open from Easter to September, but you can make visits by appointment for the rest of the year.
2. Courthouse Museum
South of the ruined fortress there is a piece of Knaresborough Castle in good condition.
The Courthouse, within the bailey, dates back to the 1300s but was rebuilt at the turn of the 17th century.
It started out as a “house of records”, before becoming a court for the “Honour of Knaresborough” and the prison was added in the 19th century.
The Courthouse Museum inside reveals Knaresborough’s quirky cast of former citizens, like Blind Jack (John Metcalfe), who lost his sight to smallpox but still built more than 180 miles of roads across Yorkshire and Lancashire in the 1700s.
Above, you can step inside the original Tudor courtroom, which retains all of its fittings, while youngsters can be clapped in the stocks, dress up in Civil War garb and try out brass rubbing.
3. River Nidd Waterside Walk
The Nidd riverside in the center of Knaresborough is extremely photogenic for the high banks of the gorge and dense vegetation.
You can easily walk the length of the town center’s riverside, from Mother Shipton’s Cave down to Our Lady of the Crag.
The latter is a sweet early-15th-century chapel excavated from the sandstone.
A constant presence along the route will be Knaresborough’s Victorian viaduct leaping across the gorge.
In summer you can hire a rowboat to float down under the viaduct and see it from a new angle.
On the waterside, there’s a line of cafes under the castle’s cliff, with waterfront terraces where you can sit and take in this beautiful scene.
4. Nidd Gorge
Up the Nidd, between the village of Bilton and Knaresborough the river has hewn a ravine from the soft sandstone.
The walls are up to 37 meters deep, while the river is bordered by ancient broadleaf and coniferous woodland dating back to the 1600s and providing a habitat for more than 80 bird species, and 30 different types of mammal, reptile, and amphibian.
Go quietly and you may see roe deer, herons by the water or green woodpeckers in the trees.
There are man-made sights amid the greenery like the vaulting Nidd Viaduct, built for a railway and now used by the Nidderdale Greenway cycle route.
Eagle-eyed walkers can make out a defensive earthwork at Gates Hill and signs of historic coal extraction at Coalpits Wood on the south bank.
5. Mother Shipton’s Cave
Above the Nidd and next to the Harrogate Road is officially the oldest tourist attraction in England, charging an entrance fee since 1630. At that time there was a lot of interest in a (most likely fictional) prophetess named Mother Shipton who was claimed to have been born in this cave in 1488. Mother Shipton was thought to have predicted a number of events, like the Great Fire of London in 1666. Another source of excitement for hundreds of years is the “petrifying well” just outside the cave.
The high sulfate and carbonate content of the water soon forms a crust around anything that is placed beneath the cascade, and you’ll see a host of everyday objects suspended by string and being “turned to stone” by the water.
6. St Robert’s Cave
Some way down the Nidd on the south side of the town is another historic cave, this one anchored in real history.
Robert of Knaresborough was a hermit who lived in this little recess in the magnesian limestone cliff at the turn of the 13th century.
Robert was born into a wealthy family, which he left to become a novice monk at Fountains Abbey in Northumberland.
He eventually gave up and moved to Knaresborough, cutting himself a dwelling from the rock and becoming venerated for his piety.
Volumes of fanciful stories of miracles were attributed to him, although he was never actually canonized.
There’s a shelf inside, which is thought to have been fashioned as an altar, while on the platform outside the cave you can identify the foundations of a chapel constructed to hold Robert’s tomb after he died in 1218.
7. Allerton Castle
As an estate, Allerton Castle has a history dating back to the Norman Conquest.
In 1843 the premier Baron of England, Lord Mowbray, Segrave and Stourton commissioned an entirely new building with a fashionable design that blended Gothic and Tudor architecture.
From Easter to the end of October you can visit on Wednesdays for a comprehensive guided tour of a property that stands as a time capsule of English aristocratic life in the 19th century.
Arriving via the porte-cochère and its life-sized statues of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, You’ll pass through the theatrical interiors of the Great Hall, Great Stairs, Gallery, Ballroom, Drawing Room, Music Room and many more rooms that have original decoration and Victorian furniture.
Standouts are the plaster ceiling in the Drawing Room, the “Gothic” billiard table in the Billiard Room, the vaulted ceiling over the Great Stairs and the paneling and stained glass windows of the Dining Room.
8. Bebra Gardens
Formerly known as the Moat Gardens, Bebra Gardens has adopted the name of Knaresborough’s German twin town.
This small but elegant park is in the castle grounds on a stiff gradient and has a swirl of pathways under mature conifers and broadleaf trees, and past well-tended rockeries and herbaceous borders.
At the bottom of the slope is a paddling pool for the smallest members of the family, open from the spring bank holiday to the start of September.
9. Ye Oldest Chymist Shoppe in England
The oldest pharmacy in England sits on Knaresborough’s Market Place and is marked with an official blue plaque.
According to records, a John Beckwith ran a chemist shop here in 1720, but it is thought that the shop might be as much as 200 years older than that.
What is known is that Beckwith was using apothecary jars of “dispensatories and herbals” going back to the 17th century.
The shopfront was given its twee box windows with “Chinese Chippendale” legs in 1760, and in those days was famed for its lavender water, a remedy still produced by the manufacturing chemist that took over the business in 1994. The shop itself is now dedicated to Farrah’s Harrogate Toffee, and on show, inside is the leather pouch used by the Labour peer Philip Inman when he worked here as an errand boy in 1901.
10. Beryl Burton Cycleway
Developed by the sustainable transport charity, Sustrans, the Beryl Burton Cycleway is a paved route allowing cyclists and pedestrians to avoid the busy and dangerous A 59 road between Knaresborough and Harrogate.
The cycleway begins by the River Nidd and takes you as far as Bilton Hall Drive.
From there you can connect with another path, the Nidderdale Greenway, which will take you to Harrogate on a scenic comfortable ride, and also crossing that grand viaduct.
Knaresborough’s cycleway is named in memory of Beryl Burton (d. 1996) a champion cyclist who won more than seven world titles.
Her 12-hour time trial record of 277.25 miles, set in 1967, broke female and male records, and wouldn’t be superseded by a man until 1969.
11. Church of St John the Baptist
By the north bank of the River Nidd, the Church of St John the Baptist is a Grade I-listed monument dating to the 15th century with some earlier 12th-century architecture.
Like most churches up and down the country, St John’s was extensively restored in the Victorian period.
It’s a building that needs to be seen on the inside for the height of the arcades in the nave, held up by sturdy octagonal piers from the 15th century.
Make sure to look around the chapels in the north aisle.
The Slingsby Chapel has stupendous family memorials from the 17th century, while St Edmund’s Chapel has some of the oldest Gothic masonry, in the dog-tooth pattern on the arch, as well as the elaborate sedilia, piscina, statue niche and tomb recess.
12. Knaresborough Town Windows Trail
One feature of Georgian houses is that they often have “blank windows” that are bricked up, either to avoid historic taxes or to ensure symmetry in a terrace, and Knaresborough has dozens of these in its old center.
The town has found a creative use for these windows, commissioning trompe-l’œil paintings illustrating people and events from the town’s past.
Ten have been painted so far and you can download a map from the local tourist board, for an alternative tour around the romantic old center.
You’ll see figures like Mother Shipton, arguably English history’s most famous witch, Guy Fawkes, who spent some of his life locally, and King John who conducted the first ever Royal Maundy in Knaresborough in 1210.
13. Knaresborough Market
On Wednesdays, you can make for Knaresborough’s Market Place to witness a custom that has been observed at this very spot since 1310. The market trades from 08:30 til 16:00 and with more than 100 remains a pillar of the community.
Much of the meat, fruit, and vegetables is local and seasonal, so there’s something new every few weeks.
Many Knaresborough residents shop here for groceries, fish and sweet treats, as well as Yorkshire pork pies, cheese, beer, household goods, decorative crafts, plants, pet products, clothing and loads more besides.
14. Jacob Smith Park
This park in the very north of Knaresborough has only been open to the public since 2008. It was bequeathed by the local Miss Winifred Jacob Smith who had worked this land with her sister for decades after they inherited it from their father who died young in 1941. In 20 acres, the park is surrounded by an imposing stone wall and is scattered with ancient trees, along with more than 200 newly planted since the council took over.
As it is now, Jacob Smith Park is a romantic piece of Nidderdale countryside, with flowing meadows crisscrossed by paths and a nature trail set up for children.
15. Great Knaresborough Bed Race
First held in 1966 and never canceled, the Great Knaresborough Bed Race is an eccentric local tradition taking place every June.
Organized by the Knaresborough Lions community organization, the event raises money for local worthy causes.
Each year 90 teams of six runners and one passenger take part, literally maneuvering a bed on wheels along a grueling 2.4-mile course that also requires a quick dip in the cold waters of the River Nidd.
The racers are all in themed fancy dress, and a best-decorated team leads the parade before the start of the race.
They then set off at ten-second intervals to tear through Knaresborough’s streets on a course that has barely changed since the first race more than 50 years ago.