The beautiful scenery (and the eponymously named cheese!) is often the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about Wensleydale, one of the most well-known areas of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Gorgeous open views, the meandering river Ure, babbling waterfalls and idyllic stone villages all combine make this part of the country so unique. But you may not know that it is also home to two impressive castles with fascinating histories, meaning a day out here has something for everyone! Here we have a closer look at a couple of the castles that can be found in this magnificent Dale.
Tucked away in the picturesque village of Middleham, on the eastern edge of the dale (strictly speaking, it’s just outside the National Park boundary), the imposing ruins and fascinating history of Middleham Castle come as something of a surprise.
The first written records for a castle at Middleham date from 1216 but the remains of an even earlier castle survive to the south of the present castle, on the site known as William’s Hill. It was probably built in about 1086 and the earthworks can easily be reached from a public footpath behind the castle.
The castle we see today was begun sometime in the late 12th century, and the great Norman keep (one of the largest in the country) was probably built in the 1170s. The most fascinating period in the castle’s long history is during the mid-fifteenth century at the time of the Wars of the Roses. The castle was developed under the powerful Neville family, and it became the powerhouse of Northern England (with Middleham subsequently known as the ‘Windsor of the North’).
Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) spent much of his youth at Middleham and, following his marriage to Anne Neville, he effectively ruled the north from Middleham while his brother, Edward IV, was on the throne, before becoming king himself following Edward’s death (and the disappearance of his sons and heirs, the ‘princes in the tower’).
The ruins of Middleham Castle sit on the village edge and are in the ownership of English Heritage. You can look around the ruins, climb one of the towers for great views of the surrounding area, and learn more on the history of the castle. The little museum through the entrance also proudly holds a replica of the so-called ‘Middleham Jewel’ – a beautifully engraved 15th century amulet discovered near the castle in 1985 by a metal-detectorist. The jewel is a wonderful example of a London goldsmith’s work of about 1450–75 and it is thought may have belonged to is Anne Beauchamp, widow of ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’ and mother-in-law of Richard III.
Getting there: There’s no car park at the castle but free on-street parking is available in Middleham. Postcode DL8 4QG. An adult ticket costs £6 (or free for English Heritage overseas pass holders).
600-year-old Bolton Castle sits high above Wensleydale, with gorgeous views down the valley. Still in the private ownership of Lord Bolton (the direct descendant of the castle’s original owner Sir Richard le Scrope), who lives just down the valley in the impressive Bolton Hall, the well preserved castle tells the fascinating history of this fortress and home.
The castle provides beautiful views from both inside and the garden, where displays of medieval activities regularly take place, including archery, falconry and hawk and owl displays (as well as feeding with wild boar!).
Bolton Castle's most famous moment in history came in 1568, when Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned here during Elizabeth I’s reign after her escape from Scotland. The range of chambers in the south-west tower where she is thought to have lived have been arranged to reflect what they would have looked like during her ‘stay’ in the castle.
The end for Bolton Castle came during the Civil War, when John Scrope, the owner of the time, held the castle for the Royalist cause. Parliamentarians besieged the castle for an entire year, and in November 1645 Scrope was forced to surrender (apparently after the garrison had been reduced to eating their own horses to survive starvation!). Parliament intended to destroy the castle to make it unusable in future, but the south-west tower and the west range survived almost completely intact and habitable, leaving the beautiful medieval castle that we can enjoy today.
Below the castle walls is a recreation of a medieval garden. This has been extended to include a maze, rose garden, herb garden, honey bees and a small vineyard. Also in the area, immediately opposite the castle entrance is the beautiful medieval parish church, and the charming village of Castle Bolton, which is full of lovely traditional Dales’ cottages.
Getting there: Open between mid- February to the end of October. There’s a large car park on site – postcode DL8 4ET. Adult tickets costs £9.00.
If you’ve been inspired to explore some of England’s historic castles, please get in touch and we can put together your own personal itinerary to take in some of these fantastic sights.