Harrogate, Knaresborough and Nidderdale


Nidd, the river of Knaresborough gives its name to Nidderdale and is a Celtic river name thought to mean 'brilliant'. Several pecuiar place-names can be found in the Nidderdale area including Kettlesing, Kettlesing Bottom, Birstwith, Blubberhouses, Burnt Yates and Bedlam. Some of these place names are explained in the section on place-name meanings.

The extraordinary Brimham Rocks are a particularly interesting feature of the lower Nidderdale area. They form an impressive stone scultpture park nestled amongst the bracken and heather high up on a hill overlooking the Vale of York. The rocks, some 20 feet high, have been carved by the forces of nature alone through various weathering processes and form many strange and mysterious shapes that capture the imagination. They have intriguing names like the Druid's Writing Desk, Dancing Bear, Flowerpot, Blackmsith's Anvil, Lover's Leap, The Idol, The Eagle and the Sphinx.

There are many other impressive natural features in the Nidderdale area including How Stean Gorge in Upper Nidderdale. This is a deep ravine sometimes known as Yorkshire's Little Switzerland. Then we have the Stump Cross Caverns west of Pateley Bridge that are half way between Nidderdale and Wharfedale. Here fossilized bones of large animals like bison have been found that lived here 200,000 years ago.

The little town of Pateley Bridge with its Georgian houses is the capital of the upper part of the dale and is home to the award winning Nidderdale Museum. Pateley Bridge has been a market town since the fourteenth century and was once a centre for flax and linen making. Above the town are the ruins of a medieval church dedicated to St Mary.


The B6165 road follows the Nidd valley south from Nidderdale to Knaresborough and Harrogate, and passes close to Ripley Castle on the Harrogate to Ripon road. The castle has been the home of the Ingilby family since the 1320s and nearby Ripley village was an estate village laid out by William Amcotts Ingilby in the 1820s.

Ripley's residents have included Henry Ingilby, a tax collector for King Edward III. Another Ingilby resident was a Francis Ingilby, who like many other prominent family members in the Ripon area couldn't resist being involved in a Catholic plot against the monarchy. He was executed in 1586.

A Royal visitor came to Ripley in the form of King James I who stayed in the castle in 1603. Only two years later the Ingilbys were amongst the notables involved in the Gunpowder Plot with which prominent Yorkshireman Guy Fawkes is most closely associated.

Harrogate's Spa Wells

Harrogate's name derives from Har-low-Gata meaning Grey-Hill-Road and of course the name Harlow is still nominally remembered at Harrogate in the beautiful Harlow Carr gardens. The fame of Harrogate as a spa town can be attributed to one William Slingsby who discovered spring waters, similar to those he had tasted abroad, in a well at Harrogate called Tewitt well.

Today a dome marks the site of the well within the large open space at the centre of Harrogate known as the Stray. The Harrogate Stray is one of the many pleasant features of this lovely town and covers some 200 acres. It was created by an act of Parliament in 1770.

Harrogate ultimately owes its modern grandeur to William Slingsby and his spa. Before his time, the place was merely a village close to the historic town of Knaresborough. Today Harrogate is much bigger than its historic neighbour across the River Nidd to the east and Knaresborough is now part of the administative district called Harrogate Borough Council.

Victorian Harrogate

A Victorian illustration of Harrogate

Harrogate the spa town, famous for its sulphur and iron rich waters increased in popularity during the eighteenth century when a physician called Timothy Bight claimed the spa water at Harrogate had healing properties. It was claimed that the waters of Harrogate could cure almost anything, including nervous tension, gout, rheumatism and lumbago.

The Tewitt Well at Harrogate can be found on the Stray along with a number of other wells, notably the seventeenth century St John's Well. This particular well was named after a church, later replaced by Christ's Church in Church Square. The well was discoverd by a Dr Michael Stanhope and featured in his publication Cures without Care in 1627. Other wells at Harrogate include the Magnesia Well which was discovered in 1895. It is located in Harrogate's valley gardens along with many other mineral wells. Perhaps the most famous of Harrogate's wells was a suplhur well known as the Stinking Spaw. It is incoporated into The Royal Pump Room, which is now a Harrogate museum.The pump room dates back to 1842 and the present museum depicts the history of Harrogate as a spa town.


Knaresborough was, perhaps, originally a Knar - a stump situated on a 'burgh' or fortified site though it is rather a prosaic beginning for a town with such an interesting history. The town is situated in a deep and beautiful gorge formed by the River Nidd, about a mile to the east of Harrogate. The gorge is overlooked by the ruins of Knaresborough Castle which was built in Norman times by a baron called Serlo de Burg.

The castle was rebuilt in the fourteenth century and the ruins of today date from that period. Many famous people are associated with Knaresborough Castle including King Richard II who was imprisoned here in 1399 prior to his imprisonment and murder at Pontefract castle. Over two centuries before, the murderers of Thomas a Becket used Knaresborough Castle as their hiding place for three years. The castle's life came to an end in 1646 during the Civil War when this Royalist stronghold was destroyed by Parliamentarian troops.

Knaresborough is a market town centred on a market place where a market has been held on a Wednesday since at least 1310, although an earlier market was recorded in 1206. Today the market place is most famous as the home of England's oldest chemist shop (a pharmacy) which started trading in 1720. Some claim the chemist's trade was started here in the thirteenth century.


Knaresborough and the River Nidd. Photo : David Simpson


Knaresborough's most famous resident of all time was undoubtedly Mother Shipton, the famous 'witch' of Yorkshire who was born in a cave in Knaresborough in 1488 during a violent thunder storm.

Mother Shipton's original name was Ursula Southeil and her mother, Agatha, died giving birth to Ursula. The birth was said to be accompanied by eerie screams, though some may think that not so unusual.

Throughout her childhood Ursula was associated with myserious events, such as furniture moving up and down stairs of its own accord. Later she married Tony Shipton near York in 1512 and became well known as a fortune teller. Her crooked facial features frightened many - though presumably not Tony - and she was often thought to be a witch.

Mother Shipton is associated with many famous predictions and is said to have foretold the Great fire of London and the defeat of the Spanish Armada as well as the invention of telegraphs and trains, although these last two predictions are now thought to have been fabricated in the nineteenth century:

Carriages without horses shall go

and accidents fill the world with woe

Around the world thoughts shall fly,

in the twinkling of an eye.

Iron in the water shall float

As easy as a wooden boat.

Even if you don't believe in witches or Mother Shipton's prophecies, you cannot deny the magic power of the petrifying well near Mother Shipton's cave which can turn things to stone. Objects, most notably Teddy bears and dolls are hung up inside the cave and the limestone drenched water from the petrifying well gradually turns the objects to stone with its sediment .


Apart from Mother Shipton and the murderers of Thomas a Becket , a number of other famous folk are associated with Knaresborough. Guy Fawkes once lived here, Edward III visited here, Oliver Cromwell slept in a Royal fishing lodge here and Richard II was imprisoned here. Other Knaresborough notables included William Slingsby (died 1634), the founder of Harrogate's spa who is comemorated in Knaresborough's church and Blind Jack Metcalfe (1717-1810) a violinist, road surveyor, forest guide and smuggler.

Saint Robert's chapel, which was carved into a rock face alongside the River Nidd in 1408 commemorates Robert Flower (1116-1218) a hermit who lived in the cave there. He reputedly had a gift for healing. In a later century a shoemaker was murdered by a schoolmaster in St Robert's Cave, adding yet more to the superstition that surrounds this area. A strange, larger than life carving on the cave of a knight drawing a sword is said to be a representation of Robert. The body of the figure has a medieval appearance but his moustached Edwardian appearance looks like it may have been added in the nineteenth century. Next door to the cave is a famous Knaresborough folly known as the House in the Rock.

Knaresborough's growth beyond its Medieval core was stimulated by the development of the textile industry though Knaresborough never developed to the extent of the wool towns further to the south and it is still essentially an historic market town. Mills were recorded here as early as thirteenth century and a cotton mill was here in 1791 later coverted into a flax mill known as Castle Mill. Today Knaresborough is a place of great beauty with the castle towering high above the River Nidd and the elegant railway viaduct of 1851.


Notable places around Harrogate include Wetherby to the south which today is principally known as the location of a major junction on the A1 or Great North Road. Historically it seems that Wetherby was a Viking settlement as all Yorkshire places that end in the letters 'by' were once Scandinavian manors or farms, usually of Danish origin. Wether is the name given to a castrated ram. Wetherby is officially part of the City of Leeds.

Boston Spa to the south of Wetherby on the road to Tadcaster takes its name from the mineral spring founded here in 1744 by John Shires. The town is noted for its Georgian houses but as a spa town it never seems to have achieved the same popularity as Harrogate.

Boston Spa and Wetherby's local river is the River Wharfe which flows through the countryside here east towards Tadcaster and then beyond to join the Ouse near Selby. The whole of this region is lowland country within the Vale of York and the actual dale of Wharfedale lies further to the west.

Yorkshire has its share of unusual place-names and one such name is Folifoot between Wetherby and Harrogate. This is apparently where the sport of fighting wild horses (foals) took place in Viking times. Horse fighting was certainly noted as a pastime carried out by the Vikings. The name can be translated as 'foal fight'.

Spofforth near Folifoot is the site of Spofforth Castle, now a ruin but it is famous as the birthplace of Harry Hotspur Percy who was immortalised by Shakespeare. Hotspur and the Percies were more closely associated with the county of Northumberland. Spofforth Castle was built in 1308 by Henry Percy. The grave of the eighteenth century smuggler Blind Jack Metcalfe can be seen in Spofforth church.

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