Knaresborough: The tourist-free alternative to York that’s filled with folklore

For a little market spa town in North Yorkshire, Knaresborough has mighty personality; yet it’s often overshadowed by its close neighbour, Harrogate. This is quite scandalous. Locals will tell you that Knaresborough is much more like York on a considerably smaller scale – you get all the good bits: the riverside pubs, medieval history, cobbled streets, boutiques, independent pubs, market square and architectural beauty, but without the throngs of tourists and hen parties.

Folklore reigns supreme in Knaresborough. It’s home to “England’s oldest tourist attraction”, Mother Shipton’s Cave, the dwelling of a prophetess born in 1488 complete with a petrifying well and has a castle dating back more than 900 years.

A picturesque viaduct looms over a boating section of the river, higgledy-piggledy cottages and historic inns line its streets, and there’s a distinct sense of community you don’t get in the bigger surrounding towns.

Getting there and around

Rowing boats on the river Nidd in the old historic town of Knaresborough
You can hire a rowing boat for a trip along the river Nidd (Photo: Getty)

Knaresborough has good transport links, so you’re well connected if you’re travelling car-free (although it’s only a 20-minute drive from the A1 if you’re bringing your own wheels).

There’s a train station – which is positioned in the middle of the York-Leeds line – serving York in approximately 28 minutes (singles from £4.80) and Leeds in around 45 (singles from £3.20; northernrailway.co.uk).

From both, connections run to London and Edinburgh, as well as northern cities including Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool – plus smaller spots across the moors, Dales and Pennines.

There’s a bus station, too, with direct routes to Ripon, Harrogate and Boroughbridge, plus further connections across Yorkshire and beyond (singles £2; transdevbus.co.uk).

Drop your bags

Image supplied by andrew.robson@inncollectiongroup.com
The Knaresborough Inn has been refurbished

Inns, B&Bs and self-catering lodgings make up most of the accommodation in Knaresborough, but there are a couple of good hotels. Slightly out of town, one of these is Goldsborough Hall, a beautifully appointed stately home that once housed King Charles III’s great aunt, Princess Mary. Rooms are comfortable and all different in character. One is wheelchair-accessible. Doubles from £125, goldsboroughhall.com.

Another is The Knaresborough Inn, a hop from the river. Formerly known as The Dower House of Knaresborough, the building dates to the 15th century when it was built by Sir Thomas Slingsby. After an extensive refurbishment in 2023, the property was brought back to life with 57 rooms (including one accessible), a pub/restaurant and an outside terrace. Doubles from £130 including dinner and breakfast, inncollectiongroup.com.

The historical ruin of Knaresborough castle at a winter sunset in North Yorkshire, England, UK
Knaresborough castle at sunset (Photo: mikeuk/Getty/iStockphoto)

Browse the shops

A cluster of independent shops on the market square and high street make Knaresborough great for a spot of artisanal shopping, from cheese mongers and butchers to clothing boutiques and antique stores. Among these, the gift shops are the prettiest and most varied.

Head to Green Dragon Yard just off Castlegate for hand-crafted knick-knacks such as prints, jewellery and cushions from Boggle Hole Yorkshire Gift Shop, and the Yorkshire Bees Candle Company for hand-rolled candles and honey sets.

Elsewhere, crafty curios can be picked up at Ye Oldest Chymist Shoppe in England and Handmade at Henshaws, a social enterprise selling artworks that supports people living with disabilities.

Cosy cafés

Spots worth bookmarking include Marigolds and the Black Mulberry – both of which are great for views of the river, but the latter very slightly edging out the former with its back story.

As it goes, there’s a black mulberry tree along the waterside which is said to have been planted during the reign of King James I 400 years ago. The king was trying to get the English silk industry off the ground and asked for 10,000 trees to be planted. This failed, allegedly, because silkworms prefer white mulberry trees, leaving this black mulberry tree to thrive.

Rainy day refuges

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag is located in an old quarry on Abbey Road beside the Nidd Gorge at Knaresborough and is an early 15th century chapel cut out of the sandstone of the river gorge cliff face.
The Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag is located in an old quarry (Photo: Getty)

Knaresborough Castle has a fascinating history dating back to at least the 1100s. It was built by the Normans, but subsequent incarnations include a military fortress, a residence for King Edward II, a Royalist stronghold, a courthouse/prison, and now a museum.

The Courtroom Museum at the castle is open between November and March when visitors can view the old dungeon, Tudor courtroom, ancient graffiti and special secret tunnel, as well as learn more about historical Knaresborough legends Blind Jack, Guy Fawkes and Mother Shipton. Tickets from £3.80, grounds free to roam, northyorks.gov.uk.

Another curious attraction is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, a tiny room carved out of the cliff in 1408.

For something a little more weather-safe, head over to Henshaws Arts and Crafts Centre or Frazer Theatre.

A drink by the fire

There are at least 28 pubs in and around Knaresborough. Among them is the Half Moon – it’s smart yet cosy, with a subtly trendy atmosphere.

Blind Jack’s is a very snug spot with a local crowd, range of craft beer, and a quirky edge, while Mother Shipton’s Inn is a lichen-flecked spot with wonky beams.

Dinnertime

The Bear at Carriages serves hearty fare with a lean towards British (and local) produce: Whitby crab cheese toastie and Swaledale leg of lamb flamed on the fire pit, a proud commodity that forms the heart of the gaff. The pub-style restaurant at The Knaresborough Inn also does classic plates (fish and chips, burgers) as well as a decent stone-baked pizza.

Goldsborough Hall, Knaresborough Yorkshire Image supplied by joel.graham@goldsboroughhall.com
Goldsborough Hall offers tasting menus (Photo: Peter Rollings)

For fine dining, Goldsborough Hall offers tasting menus in a very elegant setting (£90 per person, 6.30pm-8.30pm, Wednesday-Sunday). Here, chef Daniel Ife turns out exquisitely presented (and tasting) dishes with much of the produce sourced from the kitchen garden.

Winter walks

The Knaresborough River Walk is a gentle two-mile loop that starts at Knaresborough Castle and follows the River Nidd to Conyngham Hall. From the castle, head towards High Bridge and cross it to enjoy a lovely stroll through woodland before you reach a footbridge taking you back over to Conyngham Hall.

For a walk to Nidd Gorge, head from the castle towards High Bridge but take a right and follow the river from Lands Lane. On this seven-mile walk you’ll walk through Nidd Gorge woodland up to the Nidd Viaduct, along part of the Nidderdale Greenway, then through Old Bilton.

Three things you might not know about Knaresborough…

1. Knaresborough made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in June 2014 for breaking the world “bed race” record (the Harrogate Harriers won the 200m course in one minute 42.22 seconds). People travel from all over the world to see this event.

2. A Very British Christmas (2020) starring Rachel Shenton was filmed in Knaresborough.

3. Guy Fawkes’ mother lived in a village just outside of Knaresborough.