Top five best castles of Yorkshire

Yorkshire has always been a troubled region of England. It was on the front line of fighting between the English and the Scots and saw lots of action in the English Civil War, when the forces of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell fought the Royalists supporting King Charles I. Because of this, many castles dot the landscape, including some of the most magnificent the country has to offer. Here are five of the best.

York Castle
Dominating the skyline of the city of York is this unusual fortification, often referred to as Clifford’s Tower. The first fort here was built by the Normans in 1068 and was a motte-and-bailey castle. A wooden stockade and tower sat atop a large artificial mound. Around the base of the mound was another enclosure protected by a moat and wooden stockade. Motte-and-bailey castles were cheap and quick to build and provided sufficient protection against the rather basic siege techniques of the time. The Normans threw up hundreds of these in the years immediately following their conquest of England.

In 1190 the castle sheltered the city’s Jewish population during an antisemitic riot started by a man who owed money to a Jewish moneylender and didn’t feel like paying it back. The castle warden let the Jews hide there, but when he went out to talk to the mob the Jews wouldn’t let him back in, fearing the townsmen would swarm in with him. The warden lost patience and called out the militia, which besieged the castle. The tower caught fire and the Jews committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the mob. About 500 people died.

Like many motte-and-bailey castles, the wooden tower was eventually replaced with stone, in this case an odd design of four semicircles. The rounded walls helped deflect shots from catapults and in 1644 proved useful against cannon too. Local Royalist forces held out against a Parliamentarian army for several weeks before finally surrendering when it became apparent that no help was coming.


Raby Castle
Unlike most English castles, this one’s still lived in. It’s been the residence of the Lord Barnard since 1626 but actually was built by the Neville family in the 14th century. In 1569, seven hundred knights gathered in the great hall to plot the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth I and install a Catholic monarch. The Rising of the North, as it was called, was quickly crushed, and many of its leaders executed. The Neville family saw their castle and lands confiscated and the property was eventually transferred to the Barnard dynasty.

While this imposing castle and its beautiful grounds are private property, it is still possible to visit Raby Castle at certain times of the year. The rooms have decorations from various periods and include many fine works of art from famous artists such as Teniers the Younger and Van Dyck. Make sure to take a stroll in the 200 acre deer park, with its own herds of deer that have been grazing here since Norman times.

Raby Castle is actually in County Durham, but it’s a quick drive from York and too good to miss.

Bolton Castle
Less grandiose than Raby Castle, the castle at Bolton is more geared towards defense. Finished in 1399, it looks like a solid block of stone with four square towers. While the walls were good for keeping people out, they were also good for keeping people in. Elizabeth I kept her Catholic rival Mary Queen of Scots here as a prisoner.

During the English Civil War the owner of the castle supported the king. Most of Yorkshire was Royalist, like the city of York itself, so the region became a prime target for the armies of Parliament. A Parliamentary force besieged the castle but, despite having artillery, weren’t able to take it. The defenders held out for a year and only gave up in 1645 after running out of food. The scars from the cannonballs can still be seen.

Skipton Castle
Another strong fortress is Skipton Castle. Like York and Bolton castles, it also withstood a siege during the English Civil War, but this time for three years. Looking at it you can see why. It started out in 1090 as a motte-and-bailey, but soon developed into a massive stone stronghold. So massive, in fact, that nobody dared attack it until those pesky Parliamentarians decided to try their luck in 1643. Not even cannons could break the walls and three years later the Royalist garrison was still holding out. All other Royalist resistance in Yorkshire had crumbled and the defenders finally agreed to an honorable surrender.

Despite its ill treatment at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s men, Skipton Castle remains one of the best preserved castles in England. The fabulous gatehouse, towers, and Tudor-era courtyard really give a feel for what it was like in the not-so-good old days. It’s all very impressive, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck there for three years!

Ripley Castle
Like Raby Castle, Ripley Castle is a private residence but open to the public. This stately home been in the Ingilby family since it was built in 1309. It’s amazing they managed to hold onto it considering they remained committed Catholics when England became Protestant. One Ingilby was executed in 1586 for inciting a Catholic rebellion. Other members of the family were important members in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, who persecuted Catholics. The family played a very dangerous political game but they were good at it. They even had a secret room for their priest to hide in so nobody knew they were still keeping the old faith. They also had a hand in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up James I and all of Parliament and make England Catholic again. Even after the plot failed and Guy Fawkes was executed they still managed to wriggle their way out of trouble and keep their castle.

Ripley Castle is famous for its beautiful gardens and deer park as well as its historic interior. You’ll see a room that used to be a British navy ship, a sumptuous dining room, and take in sweeping views of the countryside from the drawing room. The library is much as it was when Jane Ingilby held Oliver Cromwell at gunpoint and took him prisoner. Cromwell escaped, of course, yet despite him leading the Parliamentary forces to victory and taking power, the family still kept their castle!

York: capital of England’s north

So far my journey through Yorkshire has been one of small towns and moorlands, yet the most popular destination in Yorkshire is the city that gives the shire its name–York. No trip to the north of England would be complete without checking out this historic city.

A brief look at York’s long history
Like many English cities, York’s origins are lost in prehistory. It’s first recorded in the late first century AD as the Roman city of Eboracum. It became an important trading center and it was here that the legions proclaimed Constantine emperor before he went on to convert the empire to Christianity. Some of the original city walls can still be seen.

After the Roman legions left around 410 AD, York remained a political and religious center under the Angles until the Vikings took it over in 866. Contrary to popular opinion, the Vikings weren’t all seafaring raiders. In England they came to settle, once they got their fill of looting and burning that is. Known as Jórvik, it became one of the biggest cities in the Viking world. In the Middle Ages its economic and religious influence continued to grow and it remains one of the biggest cities in the north of England today. The Yorkshire Museum gives a good rundown of the city’s history.

Five things to do in York
1. Visit the Minster. York’s cathedral is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. The minster is one of the most grandiose cathedrals built in the Middle Ages. Much of it dates to the 13th century but there are some older and newer bits as well. Soaring Gothic architecture, weird gargoyles, and beautiful stained glass windows make this a place you can stare at for hours.

2. Wander the streets. York’s medieval center still retains some of its historic charm. Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old, and the winding little streets give you a feel for past times, minus the Black Death and open sewers. Keep a sharp eye out for carved wooden figures that used to act as neighborhood signs in the days when most people were illiterate.

3. Vikings! The Jorvik Viking Centre is one of the most popular attractions in northern England. Set atop an archaeological excavation of the Viking city, you can see foundations of Viking buildings under a glass floor before hopping on a ride that takes you through a village of animatronic Vikings. No, I’m not kidding, and it’s as silly as it sounds. Anyone over ten will probably feel a little embarrassed by the whole show and leave knowing only slightly more about the Vikings than when they arrived. Your kids will love it, though, especially when they spot the constipated Viking groaning in the outhouse.

%Gallery-105370%4. Walk the walls. York has one of the best preserved medieval walls in England, and you can walk on all of it. The walk goes for two miles around the historic heart of York and is only interrupted in one small section. The walk takes you past some of the city’s highlights like the Minster as well as quieter residential areas.

5. Visit the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. Medieval churches and streets are a dime a dozen here in historic Europe, but how often do you get to see a medieval guildhall? As international commerce rose in the late Middle Ages, trade guilds became more important. Eventually their power displaced rivaled even the king’s and led to the capitalist society we have today. Merchants have been meeting in this timber-framed mansion for 650 years to plan voyages and explore new trade routes. On display are some of the treasures they brought back, as well as a letter to Henry VIII complaining that one of their ships got attacked by pirates!

There’s also a beautifully preserved Norman castle with a grim history. I’ll be talking about that in my next post in the series–Castles of Yorkshire.

Shopping in York
York’s labyrinthine streets are filled with shops selling everything from local produce (I highly recommend the cheese) to toys and fashion. It’s hard to give a breakdown of all there is to buy, since pretty much everything is available. Visit York has a good online shopping guide where you can search by subject. One thing I noticed was that it has one of the biggest selections of used and antiquarian bookshops of any English town I’ve visited. There are plenty of antique shops too, but they’re only for those with a healthy bank account.

Drinking and Dining in York
There’s no shortage of good eats in Yorkshire. Once again Visit York has a good online guide. My favorite was Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms, which for almost a century has been serving up great tea, scones, and desserts in elegant Art Deco surroundings. It’s usually packed, though, so be prepared to wait in line. They have a shop too. York has a large number of restaurants for all budgets and there’s a good selection of pubs serving Yorkshire real ales. I recommend Mars Magic by Wold Top Brewery and Black Sheep Ale by Black Sheep Brewery. Both are dark, rich, full beers that make your average lager look and taste thinner than air.

Pluses and minuses
York is a great destination for shopping, dining, and sightseeing, but try to go off-season. The city center is incredibly crowded during the summer, and most weekends no matter what the time of year. This is one of the most touristy spots in England, and lacking the hugeness of London it can feel a bit cramped. It’s still well worth a visit, though.

So if you’re traveling through England’s north, don’t skip its greatest city!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: The castles of Yorkshire!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

Brimham Rocks: weird natural formations in Yorkshire

What do you see in this picture? In Victorian times, the local people called this The Dancing Bear. In a more PC age where we don’t humiliate animals for our entertainment (much) the name has been changed to The Dog. Looks like he’s begging at his master’s dinner table.

This is one of many rock formations at Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire, England. An ancient river laid down grit and sand in this region more than 300 million years ago, forming a sandstone called Millstone Grit. Wind and rain have been scouring it away ever since. Softer portions go first, while those layers with tougher ingredients take longer to weather. Thus over millions of years the once-featureless stone has been twisted into odd formations like this one.

Needless to say the rocks have been a Yorkshire landmark since before recorded history. In Victorian times it became a tourist destination, with lots of colorful names and stories attached to the stones. One spot is called Lover’s Leap where, according to an 1863 guidebook, a couple named Edwin and Julia decided to end their lives.

“They were madly in love with each other but Julia’s father wasn’t having any of it. Especially when Edwin asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He forbade them to see each other any more. But of course, they couldn’t stand to live without each other. They decided to leap off Brimham Rocks and spend eternity together that way. Julia’s father got wind of the plan and dashed up there to dissuade them – but they jumped before he could reach them. However, by some miracle, instead of plummeting to their dooms, they floated gently to the ground. “Some said that a fairy who lived among the rocks had witnessed their misery and knew they could be happy if only they were allowed to marry.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Druids – or maybe even the magic in the rocks themselves. More boring people put it down to Julia’s skirts being so voluminous. But whatever, her Father at last consented to their marriage and naturally they lived happily ever after.”

The mention of the Druids is significant. The Victorians were fascinated by all things Celtic and many scholars thought archaeological sites like Stonehenge had been built by these Celtic priests. Natural formations were attributed to the Druids too. One table-like formation is called “The Druid’s Writing Desk” although many people say it looks more like E.T. There are dozens more, like the Idol, the Bulls of Babylon, and the turtle. There are also spots where Mother Shipton, the famous Yorkshire soothsayer, made her prophecies and practiced her magic.

While Brimham Rocks didn’t make it onto our list of the 17 strangest natural wonders, it’s well worth a visit not just for its natural beauty but also for all the strange and funny folklore that’s glommed onto it over the years. How much of it is “real” folklore and how much has been made up by the guides? Who knows? Our guide did admit that in Victorian times visitors paid only what they felt like, so the guides were under some real pressure to entertain.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: York: capital of England’s north!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.


Hiking the Yorkshire Moors

England is a wonderful place to hike. When the weather is fine the countryside is as beautiful as you’ll find anywhere, and it seems that every step is steeped in history. There’s variety too, from idyllic hikes along the Thames to challenging treks along the length of Hadrian’s Wall.

One of the more unique places for hiking in England is the Yorkshire Moors. Moorland is found in uplands that have acidic soils. There aren’t many trees and most of the vegetation is grass or heather. When a river cuts through it, like in the photo above, you’ll find trees and a richer variety of plant life. The moors in Yorkshire are some of the biggest in England and in the summertime are purple with blooming heather. Sheep graze on the slopes and a wide variety of birds can be seen. Parts of it reminded me of the Scottish Highlands but with gentler terrain and no lochs.

The Brontë sisters were inspired by this brooding yet subtly beautiful landscape and many of their stories are set on the moors. Local historian and hiking guide Steven Wood led me and my group out onto the moors to visit some of the Brontë’s favorite spots. In fine English tradition it started pouring as soon as we left the hotel. Waterproof gear is essential on any English hike. Even if it’s beautifully sunny, bring it anyway just in case. You won’t be sorry because the weather can change quickly. While it can go from bad to worse, it can also go from terrible to lovely. That’s what you get for being on an island between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

Within half an hour the weather had cleared and we were walking through open fields. Yorkshire has been cultivated since Neolithic times and while there’s no shortage of civilization, it’s quite easy to walk away from it and into land that looks as it did centuries ago.

%Gallery-104950%Our first stop was Top Withens, an isolated stone farmhouse that may have been the inspiration for the location of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Located on a highpoint surrounded by low, undulating hills covered in heather, it’s a spot that could certainly inspire a novel. You can see for miles in all directions, the dull browns and greens of the land matching the slate gray of the arching sky. While this abandoned farm has been a pilgrimage site for Brontë fans for a century, today we had it for ourselves. With no other people about, no animals, and the jet contrails hidden by lowering clouds, it felt like we were the only people in all of Yorkshire.

We then headed to a waterfall that the Brontë sisters liked to visit. At least it’s said to be the waterfall. Like a lot of “George Washington slept here” kind of spots, the waterfall’s reputation is based on a slim bit of fact (they mention frequent visits to a waterfall) and a lot of local lore and wishful thinking. The main thing is that it’s beautiful. A little stream, stained brown by the moor’s soil, rushes through a narrow valley thick with greenery. Another stream cascades over a nearby hill, making a sparkling little waterfall before joining it to flow on towards Haworth, where the Brontës lived. A natural stone seat has “C. Bronte” carved on it, along with the mysterious initials “DWW”. A nearby bridge has a plaque talking about how this was probably where the Brontë’s like to spend their spare time.

It’s all a bit iffy, but who cares? If it wasn’t for its reputation, I wouldn’t have whiled away an enjoyable half hour watching the water flow between the heather. People from all over the world come to see this stream, and if they want to believe this was the place the Brontës visited, that’s fine. It may even be true. The crowds of Japanese Brontë fans who come here seem to think so. The Brontës are huge in Japan, and so many Japanese travelers show up that the signs marking the routes are in Japanese as well as English!

There are many different hikes in the Yorkshire Moors. Some are easy day hikes like the one we did. Others are long-distance paths that take days and pass by the rugged coastline. The Walking and Hiking website has a good listing of routes to get you started. The Welcome to Yorkshire website has free downloadable maps of several popular routes. The Walking Englishman has an amusing description of the walk we did (including a photo of a sheep stealing his lunch) and a map of the route.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Brimham Rocks: weird natural formations in Yorkshire

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

The good old days were horrible

Ah, Merry Olde England! A time and place with happy people, clean streets, and scenes that looked just like they do on BBC historical dramas.


Premodern England was a grim place of death, filth, and general misery. Actually that can describe pretty much everywhere in the nineteenth century, but the town where the Brontë sisters lived was especially nasty. Some authors write novels to escape reality, and the Brontë sisters had a lot to escape from. Two of their sisters died in childhood thanks to the neglectful conditions at their boarding school. Then the Grim Reaper took the remaining sisters and their brother one by one.

This may have been due to the horrible health conditions in their town of Haworth, Yorkshire. At a time when all towns were unsanitary, Haworth took the prize. Haworth stands on the side of a steep hill with much of its water supply coming from natural springs near the top. Also near the top of the hill is the town graveyard. So crowded was this graveyard that the coffins were often buried ten deep. Water flowing through the graveyard contaminated the public pumps and ensured a steady supply of more dead bodies, which would rot, seep their juices into the water supply, and start the cycle anew. The Black Bull pub contributed to this by using this spring water to brew its own beer. One wonders what it tasted like.

%Gallery-104759%This wasn’t the only spring in Haworth, but the locals managed to ruin the others by placing open cesspools next to the pumps. Although the connection between cleanliness and health was only imperfectly understood, Patrick Brontë, local clergyman and father of the Brontë sisters, realized a place where 41 percent of the population died before age six had some serious issues. In 1850 he brought in Dr. Benjamin Babbage (son of Charles Babbage, who built the first computer) to make an inspection. Babbage was horrified at what he saw and his damning report of the local squalor made reformers take notice. If it wasn’t for Babbage, Haworth probably wouldn’t get so many tourists. People tend not to like smelling open cesspits and drinking decayed bodies while on vacation.

If natural causes didn’t bump you off, the Haworth poisoner might do it for you. John Sagar ran the local workhouse, the place where the poor were forced by law to live. There they were underfed, overworked, and slept in rat-infested little rooms as a punishment for the cardinal sin of poverty. Sagar was a “short, dark, vulgar-looking man” who only had one arm, which he used to beat his wife Barbara mercilessly. Everyone was too afraid of him to come to her aid. When she finally died it wasn’t by beating, but by arsenic poisoning. Sagar was the obvious suspect. Questions were also raised about the deaths of their nine children. Yet Sagar got off due to lack of evidence, and he lived to the ripe old age of 78, a small miracle considering the conditions of the town. Strangely, his is one of the only graves in the cemetery that shows signs of weathering. Some locals say nature is serving justice where the courts did not.

Links to the eerie past still linger. On some old buildings, strange stone faces stare out onto the street. They look like ancient Celtic stone heads, but researcher John Billingsley says they were a continuing folk magic custom that experienced a rebirth of popularity in the area in the 17th and 19th centuries. They were used to ward off evil, and as late as 1971 a head was placed over the front door of the Old Sun Inn to stop a haunting. It’s said to have worked! If you had witch trouble you could also carve a “W” into your door frame, or put pins into a bullock’s heart and bury it beneath the floorboards. Special witch bottles could be used to trap witches. I’ve seen pinned hearts and witch bottles at the West Highland Museum in Ft. William, Scotland, and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, so the practice was widespread

With all the death and tourists, it’s not surprising that Haworth is full of ghost stories. Not only did I stay in a haunted hotel room, but every single bar I drank at or restaurant I ate in had a resident ghost. Phantom drinkers, gray ladies, even haunted carriages all prowl Haworth at night. There are deeper mysteries than ghosts, however. Witchcraft and folk magic abounded. Fear of witches was so great that local “cunning man” Old Jack Kay, a contemporary of the Brontës, would lift curses for a price. He also told fortunes and could show you your future spouse in a mirror or bowl of water. He and other “cunning men” brewed cures for the sick. Some were herbal medicine that might have been effective, while others had dubious ingredients. The urine of a red cow supposedly cured cancer. I suppose it would be unscientific to dismiss red cow’s urine as a cure for cancer with testing it, but good luck getting volunteers for the clinical trial.

So the next time you’re in some charming historic locale, think back on how things used to be, and be thankful that they’re not like that anymore!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: Hiking the Yorkshire moors!

A special thanks to local historians Steven Wood and Philip Lister for all the great stories that contributed to this article, and all the great ones I couldn’t fit in.

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire, who would have a lot less to brag about if Dr. Babbage hadn’t fixed a few things.