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In the footsteps of King Richard III

In the footsteps of King Richard III

While we know the central and western parts of the Yorkshire Dales, the eastern edges alongside the Vale of York are, to say the least, a bit hazy to us.  After doing a bit of research, we found that Richard spent his childhood and trained in knightly skills at Middleham Castle in the lower reaches of Wensleydale.  

These skills helped him take part in the battle of Tewkesbury (1471) aged just nineteen.  It was at Middleham that he met and married Anne, younger daughter of the Earl of Warwick, head of the influential Neville family.  Through that marriage young Richard eventually became owner of a whole range of castles, especially those guarding the eastern approaches to the Yorkshire Dales.  

It therefore seems likely that Richard had a special affection for Middleham, because he appears to have spent much time there, both in childhood and then as a family man, where his son Edward was born.  It was this that coloured our decision to make a tour of the countryside Richard would have known so well.

Our accommodation in Middleham was an attractive one-time cosy cottage in the shadow of the castle walls.  Today, Middleham is home to around 500 young racehorses training for future glories on the flat.  Each morning we watched them elegantly trotting away from the village, out towards the training gallops on the nearby Downs; perhaps we were admiring a future Derby winner.

Middleham Castle

Middleham and its friendly locals, most of them involved with racehorse breeding, were always ready to chat over a socially distanced pint of Black Sheep in one of the three pubs; our favourite incidentally was the Richard III. The castle is just off the extensive old market square and is cared for by English Heritage.  With the easing of lock-down the castle was open to prior bookings.  As there is little or no Wi-Fi in Middleham, that took time, but we eventually managed to book a convenient visit.  The castle has suffered as a ready-made source of building material over the centuries, but it still remains in remarkably good shape for its age.  Three parts of the outer curtain wall are complete and the central keep could still echo with the sound of feasting lords and ladies enjoying life.

There is a modern statue to King Richard inside the castle walls, but his most intriguing memorial is the worn lump of rock on a plinth at the top end of the market place.  Although it takes more than a bit of imagination, this is all that remains of the carving of a wild boar, King Richard III’s emblem.

The Blacksmith’s Anvil, Brimham Rocks

Monasteries were at the height of the commercial power and influence during Richard’s lifetime.  With their wealth built on wool and careful farming husbandry, lands around the Vale of York are home to a great number of monastic ruins.  Attractive ruins the result of Henry VIII’s jealousy, are within easy driving distance of Middleham.  We started our tour at Jervaulx Abbey, a short drive along the Ripon road from Middleham.  Small by comparison with other abbeys, Jervaulx has attracted visitors over the centuries; the artist JMW Turner came this way while on a sketching tour in 1816. The main claim to fame though, is down to the early monks making the very first Wensleydale cheese.  This forerunner of the cheese loved by Wallace and his faithful hound Grommit, was made from ewe’s milk, unlike today which traditionally is made from cow’s milk.

Further along the Ripon road, the village of Masham is home to two breweries, both of which can be visited when things are different than today.  Theakston’s is the oldest, dating from 1827, and Black Sheep Brewery is the other.  Black Sheep was founded by Paul Theakston, fifth generation of master brewers in 1992 when the older company was bought out by one of the national brewing organisations.

Travelling via Ripon, we arrived at Fountains Abbey bang on our previously booked time.  The abbey is in the bottom of a wooded valley, secluded from car parks and Visitor Centre, but separated only by half a mile of winding path.  

If there was a competition for the most beautiful abbey ruins, then Fountains would be high on my voting list. No matter how many visitors there might be around once restrictions are removed, Fountains will remain a place of tranquil beauty, a place for quiet contemplation.  It was founded in 1132 by a group of 13 disaffected monks who broke away from the mother church of St Mary’s Abbey in York.  Here at Fountains they found what they were looking for, hidden from the world in a wild and wooded valley where living an austere life, they could follow a simpler and more devout existence.  Members of the Carthusian Order, they were also known as the ‘white monks’ because of the undyed sheep’s wool habits they wore.  Spending much of the day in contemplation and prayer, they also found time to develop skills as shepherds, tanners, master-builders and brewers.  All these skills helped expand the abbey’s finance’s. By 1200 Fountains was one of the largest and most powerful houses in Britain. Despite damage by Henry VIII’s men who followed his dissolution edict, many of the abbey’s features remain virtually unspoilt, such as the gracefully arched cellars where freshly brewed ale was stored, to the appearance of its almost Victorian Gothic bell tower. 

A culverted stream which once provided water for the abbey’s needs, winds down the wooded valley for a little way before being slowed by a series of ponds and water gardens.  This is part of Studley Royal, an attractive addition to Fountains Abbey created by John Aislabie and his son William in the eighteenth century.  John was an over ambitious politician who fell from favour.  As a result he retreated here and along with William, the pair managed to buy Fountains Abbey and set about designing the water gardens where their elegantly attired guests could stroll at leisure while enjoying views of the abbey ruins.

There is no record of King Richard III following the route of our tour of the abbeys and features around the eastern limits of the Yorkshire Dales, but he probably had reason to call on the abbots from time to time.  If that was so, then if he was continuing over the moors towards say Bolton Abbey, then he would have been aware of Brimham Rocks.  A side road going south from the Pateley Bridge road leads across the moors, to what is possibly the National Trust’s strangest property.  Beyond the small car park, weirdly shaped massive rocks are dotted around a heather moor.  Made from weather sculpted sandstone, it is easy to tie them with names given years ago, such as the blacksmith’s anvil, mushroom, or dancing bear.  We couldn’t help renaming eagle rock, because from a certain angle it looks just like a political cartoonist’s depiction of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher MP.

A steep road drops sharply into Nidderdale, the Dale’s least known valley, and Pateley Bridge with its oldest sweet shop in Britain.  Turning right off the Skipton road, the way we followed is alongside Gouthwaite Reservoir headed by the tiny village of Lofthouse.  This is where many of the sturdily built stone houses appear to date from when the valley was first flooded.  Beyond it a steep, half deserted winding road climbs upwards to cross ten and a half miles of High Ash Head moorland back to Masham – not a road to contemplate in a blizzard!


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