“Is there enough in Pontefract to do if you’re there for a day?” I ask Kathy, a born and bred Pontefract pensioner.
“No,” she replies emphatically.
I point out we’re surrounded by some really interesting buildings and she softens a bit. She asks if I’ve been to the castle.
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I haven’t yet but it’s top of my things to do list. I knew nothing about the medieval market town apart from its production of liquorice (which I hate) and Haribo.
Then two years ago, while researching for a series of Yorkshire history articles, the name of one particular town kept appearing. In the Middle Ages, Pontefract, I learned, was the West Riding’s most important town.
It was a seat of power in Northern England, administered by the de Lacys, a Norman family and followers of William the Conqueror. The de Lacys built and occupied Pontefract Castle, one of England’s biggest castles, bringing the Saxon residents into line. I figured as Pontefract had such an interesting history, it would be at least moderately interesting to visit.
But tourists don’t visit Pontefract much. Pontefract has some of the most deprived neighborhoods in England. Its reputation as a depressed post-industrial town excludes it from most visitors’ itineraries, except for a brief stop at the castle, maybe.
Sticking two fingers up at your standard tourist destinations of York, Harrogate and the Dales, I drive into Pontefract town center on a sunny Wednesday in June. The journey from the M62 is short and fairly pleasant with the picturesque racecourse to my right. Not a bad start, I think.
I park for free opposite the Haribo factory which dominates the town center by sight and smell; the vanilla scent of sweets in production permeates the near-still summer air. I walk into the main shopping area, my first stop Pontefract Museum.
The museum in an art nouveau, former Carnegie library is pretty small but it’s an ideal introduction to the town. It’s free to boot. Naturally, there are sections devoted to the English Civil War – Pontefract Castle was a Royalist stronghold – and sweets. Pontefract is famous for its liquorice and other confectionary and one of its main employers today is still a confectioner, Dunhills-Haribo.
I cross the rather drab Salter Row and head into Market Place, which is entirely different. It’s striking with a buttercross from 1734 and St Giles’ Church, an imposing Georgian church with a tall tower and medieval remains. Market Place continues southeast as the kind of broad, pre-industrial market street you’d expect to find in an affluent North Yorkshire town rather than anywhere in West Yorkshire.
West Yorkshire’s cities and principal towns developed in the late-18th and 19th centuries around textiles and coal. Pontefract developed earlier as a medieval market town and has retained some of its pre-industrial buildings.
The Georgian buildings on either side of Market Place are in pretty good nick, including Pontefract’s splendid Old Town Hall, which was built in 1785, at the end. The buildings are more likely to be occupied by a vape or mobile phone shop rather than a Booths or Fat Face, but they are at least occupied. Besides, not everyone can afford to shop at either of the above.
It’s lunchtime and I pass the Town Hall and nip into Knights fish and chip shop, on Horse Fair. Even the street names in Pontefract are intriguingly old.
A small fish and chips, curry sauce and a can of pop come in just shy of £8. The price is higher than average but so is the quality. The chips are crisp on the outside and just the right side of firm on the inside. Though it’s only a ‘small’ fish, you get plenty and it’s of the standard other fisheries should strive for.
My cod is chunky and moist and the batter, fried in beef dripping, is some of the most beautifully crisp I’ve tasted. The curry sauce is just the right consistency – not too viscous, not too runny – fruity, tangy and spicy. Bravo.
Appetite sated, I head along Horse Fair, which despite its cool name isn’t the prettiest. Adjoining Micklegate, which leads to the castle, is somewhat more attractive.
Have you visited Pontefract? Share your thoughts in the comments below
The castle, for anyone with the slightest interest in the Middle Ages, is well worth the walk. Entry is free too. There isn’t much of it left but if you’re not impressed by the scale and location of it – you can see across swathes of West and North Yorkshire from one of the towers – you need to go to Specsavers.
I head back into the town center as I figure there must be a couple more pre-industrial market of streets interest. There are: Gillygate and Beastfair, at the top of which is Cornmarket, an old triangular-shaped plaza.
Off Beastfair is a hidden treasure, albeit a neglected one. The Counting House, a former merchant’s counting house and in modern times, a pub, dates back to around 1400. Unfortunately, I hear it’s been empty for a decade and it’s in a sorry state.
In a happier condition is the Magistrates Market, a late Georgian courthouse, which is today an antiques and curio market. There’s a fabulous lounge area upstairs, marred only by the kind of ceiling you’d find in a 1980s office.
That’s not the end of Pontefract’s unique historic offering. There’s the Hermitage, a pair of ancient rooms beneath Pontefract Hospital but access, sadly, is tricky to obtain.
No trip to ‘Ponte Carlo’ would be complete without a visit to the Haribo outlet about 150 meters from the Magistrates Market. I’m not keen on sweets in general but needless to say, there are huge tubs of Haribo sweets and Haribo merch for those who are.
Aside from confectionery, when you think of Pontefract you probably think of two things: history and deprivation. It has both of those things but, aesthetically anyway, it is a West Yorkshire town like no other with more than you’d expect to see and do. It certainly has potential.
I’m not telling you to spend every day of your well-deserved two weeks off work in Pontefract. But it’s certainly worth a visit, especially in peak season when every other tourist spends their two weeks in Scarborough, Whitby or York…queuing.