Pontefract is a town located in the East of West Yorkshire. It is part of a hard-hit industrial region and it is quite gloomy in parts. It has however a rich history and it was much more important in the past than it is today. Some of the buildings in the old town are worth a visit, including the big ruined castle.
Pontefract is famous in England for its Pontefract Cakes, which are liquorice sweets in the shape of coins. They are usually stamped with an image of Pontefract Castle, the main local landmark. In the past, locals cultivated liquorice right outside of the town, but nowadays the ‘cakes’ are produced on an industrial scale in a factory. The original producer, Dunhills, was purchased by Haribo who now owns the Pontefract confectionery plant. Haribo also has a small shop in Pontefract.
Pontefract is served by no less than three railway stations – Tanshelf, Monkhill and Baghill, the latter being one of the less busy stations in England with just two trains per day. Tanshelf is the closest to the town centre while Monkhill is near the castle.
Pontefract has a rather nice town centre, despite it being quite bleak. It is centred around two squares – Market Place and Cornmarket. The streets around still bear interesting names that evoke their ancient functions – Beastfair, Sheomarket, Ropergate, Horsefair. The town was largely destroyed in the Civil War and most of the old buildings date from the Georgian Era.
The main landmarks show the past importance of Pontefract. There is the picturesque Town Hall (1785), the Buttercross (1734) under which the market was held, and the main church, St Giles, which was rebuilt in the 18th century. On Cornmarket, there is also the 1825 Magistrates Court. The Victorian Market Hall was built in 1860.
Pontefract Castle is located a bit outside the town centre, at the end of a series of streets that formed the main artery in medieval times – Market Place, Horsefair, Micklegate. Built in the reign of William the Conqueror, the castle was one of the biggest in Yorkshire and in England as a whole. Richard II died there while being imprisoned, and Charles of Orleans and James I, King of Scots were also detained there.
Pontefract Castle remained an important royal stronghold even after the Middle Ages, and it was even the last royalist stronghold to be taken by Parliamentary troops in 1649, during the Civil War. It was soon razed to the ground as many other English fortresses.
There is not much left of the castle, apart from the base of several walls and parts of the mighty keep. It is quite easy however to imagine the size of the castle before its destruction. A walk along the walls allows to see the remains of the chapel, kitchens, several towers and the lodgings.
Below the castle, at the back, there is All Saints Church, which is Pontefract’s former parish church. It was abandoned in favour of St Giles in the town centre in 1790. It was badly hit during the Pontefract siege in 1649 and it is still partly ruined. According to some theories, Robin Hood died in a hospital which was adjacent to the church.
Entry to the castle is free but the site closes quite early (at 4:30pm). There is a visitor centre with a small exhibition about the history of the castle. See the website for more details.
Pontefract has its own small museum. It is housed in the former library on Market Square. The building is a charming arts & crafts edifice. There are displays about local history from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Era, and a part about the Pontefract Cakes. Free entry, closed Sunday, see website.