By Carl Thompson
It’s not easy to imagine now, but the serene landscape of windswept hills and quaint villages that makes up the Yorkshire Dales was once a lawless frontier of ruthless warlords and cattle-stealers: hence the need for castlebuilding long after such fortifications had become redundant in the rest of the country.
To this day, there’s no getting away from the stamp of history in these parts. Harefield Hall, the Pateley Bridge hotel where I’m taking a break from ghost-hunting in the region’s castles, has origins in a 15th-century monastery and even passed through the hands of Henry VIII. There’s nothing medieval about its interior now, though: the 16 individually renovated rooms are tastefully appointed, the views of Nidderdale are unsurpassable, and the cuisine cooked up by young chef Richard Keane is well worthy of the Michelin star he’s ready to apply for.
Thus fortified, I take up the spectral trail again, squeezing down narrow tracks between dry-stone walls and passing in seconds through villages with memorably silly names like Blubberhouses and Bedlam. Eventually I’m approaching Richmond, a town apparently dominated by its castle, which promptly vanishes as soon as I hit street level.
Asking directions to a 100-ft keep with 11-ft thick walls in the heart of a small town is somewhat embarrassing, but soon I’m stepping through the imposing barbican andinto a wide-open castle complex.
Having already visited the castles of Skipton and Knaresborough, as well as Barden Tower, I’m getting used to spotting the traces of ancient beams, hinges and portcullis gates; following the line of the curtain wall, I can just about tell the kitchens from the chapel.
Established in 1071 by Alan the Red of Brittany and completed by Henry II, Richmond was a military stronghold. Appropriately, it is said to be the resting place of King Arthur and his knights, who lie sleeping in a cavern below the castle walls, awaiting the day they are called upon to defend the realm. Pondering the ancient ground beneath my feet, I wonder when that day will come.
It was also Alan the Red who erected a wooden motte-and-bailey castle close to Middleham Castle, which was more firmly established on its present site in 1170 by his great-nephew Robert Fitzrandolph. Starting with a massive central keep, the earls of Westmoreland and Warwick progressively constructed three ranges of luxurious chambers and lodgings. No wonder Middleham was the favourite home of Richard III.
Today, the scale of the structure, sadly minus its roof, continues to impress. A small step of imagination is all that’s needed to summon the kitchen servants back to life, slaving away below stairs to feed the lord of Middleham and his guests, seated above in the warmth and comfort of the great chamber.
Again their revenants elude me – I’m just not tuned in to ghosts, it seems – but I do uncover a story of three visiting children who were reportedly charged by a knight on horseback. On a slightly more earthly note, the castle is also the alleged site of a buried hoard of treasure. To find this, you need simply run around the castle three times, and the booty will be found where you stop. The catch? There’s no indication of where you should start.
None the richer, alas, I head back through glowing buttercup meadows in the direction of Hawes in Upper Wensleydale, where I check in at the Old Dairy Farm. This, the former home of the Wensleydale cheese dairy herd, has been converted into five-star accommodation with a sure sense of style by long-time restaurateurs Paul and Pam Cajiao. Once again, I’m spoilt rotten by gastronomic delights courtesy of Pam, and sleep soundly in a coolly contemporary room that completely betrays the rustic exterior.
Softly awoken by lambs the next morning – not an experience I’m likely to repeat back down south – I round off my tour at Bolton Castle. It’s here I meet the boundlessly enthusiastic Dave Manning, education officer and organiser of various themed events at the castle (‘we’re allowed to play in it’, he tells me). More than anywhere else I’ve been, history springs to life here: there are candles on tables, rugs on the floors and I’m even allowed to fire a 40-pound longbow.
According to Dave, there are numerous ghosts lingering around these walls; charmingly, the last staff member to leave even puts a log on the fire to see them through the night! Standing in the room once occupied for six months by Mary Queen of Scots (imprisoned here with a retinue of 51 servants), I do indeed sense something of a chill in the air, but that could just be the fact that it’s freezing Nonetheless, the castles of the Yorkshire Dales have provided me with a heart-warming experience.