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You are in: Bradford and West Yorkshire > History > Local History > Ponte's past uncovered!

All Saints Church, Pontefract

All Saints Church, Pontefract

Ponte's past uncovered!

Think West Yorkshire's history is just plain boring? Think again! In just one town - Pontefract - look back and you'll find a murdered King, Saxon armies on the march, Robin Hood and possibly more old skeletons than in any other town in England...

Everywhere you look in Pontefract there's a little bit of history, weird and wonderful tales which all add up to one fact: this town's history is easily as interesting and colourful as places like York - but with the added bonus of not being packed with hordes of tourists! With that in mind, we decided to take a look around to find out more about Ponte's past!

It might come as a surprise but the best place to start looking around for a bit of history in Pontefract is not right in the town centre, after all that's just the 'New Town', even though it's been there for hundreds of years. Instead we make for the castle and follow the old pathway along the side of its once magnificent walls down to South Baileygate where we meet Eric Holder.

Eric Holder and Ponte's Saxon Church

Eric and Ponte's Saxon church

If anyone knows a thing or two about Pontefract's past then it's Eric. One-time milkboy, teacher, local historian, archaeologist and, of course, Pomfretian, Eric tells us that here we are looking at the real heart of the town. A few feet from where we are standing some stones are all that remains of the town's first church and, as the traffic speeds past, it's very difficult to believe this was once the heart of anywhere.

But Eric has no doubts about the importance of where we now find ourselves: "After York, Beverley and Hull, Pontefract was the most important place in Yorkshire for very many years. In fact the earliest carbon date for the burials here is about 698AD which puts this church just after York Minster in origin. That's not bad going, is it?"

However, the remains of the church were not discovered until 1986: "We always knew that this was the centre of the old town simply because of the street pattern. It forms a triangle and the area of grass around the church was originally the town market place. Triangular market places are always a good indication of a very early foundation."

When the church was discovered during an excavation in 1986 it was something of a "jackpot" for the archaeologists: "Once we knew that it was possible to see the road to Castleford up which the Saxon army advanced to fight the Battle of Castleford in 948 and [also] the old road which joins the A1, they are all pointing bang at that church so this is a very important place in the history of Yorkshire and England." It seems that the road we now know as the A1 almost certainly came through Pontefract back in the 10th century!

Prisoners' names lit up by candle at Ponte Castle

Civil War graffiti under the Castle!

One mediaeval building, which is usually only open to the public on the annual Heritage Open Days, is the Hermitage. Now, covered by Pontefract General Infirmary and 50 feet below Southgate, it can only be reached down a steep spiral staircase and access has to be restricted. Tin helmets will be provided!

According to Shakespeare the Hermitage was the home of one Peter of Pomfret. Eric says: "We had a number of hermits in Pontefract. One lived where the pot factory used to be but the most famous hermitage is the one beneath the hospital. Half of it was never lost. It was at the bottom of a garden in the 19th century and then in the 1850s they were laying these new-fangled water and gas mains and a man actually fell into the other bit which had been blocked off when Henry VIII closed it all down."

Back in Peter of Pomfret's day the Hermitage would have appeared as two caves cut out of the side of a cliff overlooking a monastery run by Dominican Friars. But not far from the Saxon church is the site of what was one of the biggest priories in Britain. Today St John's Priory is just a grass field but digs took place here from 1957 into the 1980s. According to Eric the human remains found around the town have given it another claim to fame: "Rather interestingly the majority of the ancient skeletons studied now to give information about the origins of disease actually come from Pontefract"!

Eric hopes anyone visiting Pontefract will visit the Castle: "You shouldn't miss the dungeons (which aren't really dungeons), they are wonderfully evocative. As you go down the steps you pass through the Norman dungeon and then the steps carry on into a magazine and wine cellar which was built in medieval times so it's the reverse way round. The Norman stuff is on top!"

St Giles Church, Pontefract

Umissable: St Giles Church

During the English Civil War Roundhead prisoners wrote their names on the walls of the wine cellar, names which Eric says will still be found among children in the town's schools. Well, the Roundheads soon got their own back – it was Oliver Cromwell who ordered the destruction of the Castle reducing it to the ruins we see today.  But, admittedly for a very short time, back in the days of Richard the Lionheart, the country was ruled from Pontefract. "Kings were always visiting it right up to Charles I and after him it was demolished." But, as Eric explains, it was the visit of one particular King which – partly thanks to Shakespeare – will forever be associated with the town: "Richard II was sent here because the brother of Henry IV who had usurped his throne was the Constable of the castle and you can't get better than family to look after important prisoners, can you?" Richard died, possibly murdered, within the Castle's walls in 1400.

For Eric, though, one of the castle's most interesting associations is with the outlaw Robin Hood. It was here that Robin, a Wakefield lad, was first declared an outlaw. "He did all his outlawing around Wentbridge which is only two and a half miles down the road." According to Eric, apart from a trip to London, Robin never went any further south than Bawtry. The Nottingham connection is simply because the famous outlaw was chased by the Sheriff of that particular city.

Down the hill from the castle is All Saints Church - another bit of Pontefract's history still there for everybody to see. The ruined sections at both ends of the building are another reminder of the Civil War. Garrisoned by Royalist troops, it was bombarded by the Roundheads: "The only way the Royalists could get out was to run across the roof and then down a rope at the corner. One of them, Captain Smith, was killed in the process, hit over the head with a sword. We think we've found his skull but there's some doubt about it. The Royalists ran back into the castle and aimed at the church, smashing up this end, and it was left as a ruin." Today the church's 'double helix' staircase is only one of three in the world.

It was after this that St Giles in the "New Town" took on the role of parish church so we make our way up to today's town centre. Certainly, standing outside St Giles, you do very much get the sense that you've arrived somewhere that is really quite old. Eric agrees: "You just go down the ginnels between the old buildings and you are suddenly back in another world – of ancient times – much like York although not as good, I admit, but it would have been if it hadn't been mucked about by Oliver Cromwell and other people later."

Pontefract Town Hall

The Town Hall, home to Nelson!

Alan Bell, Heritage Development Officer for Pontefract Groups Together is our guide around this part of the town: "Thankfully we still retain a lot of the old buildings in Pontefract and, as we head up the town, the Buttercross and St Giles Church make a wonderful backdrop for the market."

The Buttercross has been in the Market Place since 1734 but Alan says it caused some controversy when it was built: "It replaced a famous cross, a place of pilgrimage to which people used to come from miles around and at first the Buttercross wasn't very popular at all but as you can see it's a wonderful little building."

Turning to St Giles Church, Alan says: "What you can see is built onto a much older church and some features of the original church still remain…Unfortunately the tower tours look unlikely to go ahead because of health and safety reasons but at the top of the tower you get a marvellous view of the whole of Pontefract."

Standing here in the town centre we realise that Pontefract has an aroma all of its own and it's liquorice! Famous for its Pomfret Cakes, the town plays host to a Liquorice Festival every July and it's getting bigger by the year.

St Mary's Church, Badsworth

St Mary's Church, Badsworth

Alan then takes us into the Town Hall, across the Market Place from St Giles, and here too he has a few surprises for us: "Built in 1785 it's a Grade 2 Listed Building and the Assembly Rooms at the back end were added in the 1870s. It's famous for two things – one is the Nelson Monument, a rare statue in what is now called the Nelson Room, and it was actually the first place in the country ever to hold a secret ballot so Pontefract's got that fame as well." It was here that voters first placed their cross on a ballot sheet during a by-election in 1873.

A painting of Nelson's ship, the Victory, has been commissioned by the Friends of Pontefract Town Hall to be displayed alongside the statue. Alan says: "It seems ironic that Pontefract, miles away from any boat, ends up housing a monumental statue such as this."

Alan's also keen to point out it's not just Pontefract town centre which is drenched in history. In fact, he says, the surrounding area also contains many old and interesting places - especially churches. St Mary's Church in the picturesque village of Badsworth was first mentioned in the Domesday Book and most of the building dates from around 1350. Look out for some interesting old tombstones and the 'Devil's Door.' Just a short walk away is Rogerthorpe Manor. Now a hotel, this 17th century building has links with what was happening in the town during the Civil War and to Robin Hood. It may even have a ghost or two!

Back in Pontefract, hidden down an alleyway, is one building - now a pub - that's guaranteed to send any visitor back to the Middle Ages: "As its name suggests it was a merchant's counting house where they used to come and count the money. The original beams are still intact and it was actually discovered and renovated in 1993 and won the Ironbridge Award for its renovation. They've taken it right back as close as they can to its original state."

Alan Bell outside the Counting House

Alan outside the Counting House

Alan believes Pontefract's great heritage might play a big part in giving the town a better future: "It's been so dominated by mining over the last 250 years. It's dominated the economy and people's social habits. I think people have forgotten about history and heritage. What we want to do is build on the past and make Pontefract a place where people want to come." He believes the town has the potential to become another Chester, a place where people will come and stay: "People come to Pontefract Races, get drunk and go back home again on the bus. We want to turn that around over the next five to ten years so when people come to Pontefract they'll stay for the weekend and enjoy the good parts of the town which we hope to expand."

Having shown us so much of Pontefract's past which had disappeared over the centuries and has had to be rediscovered in recent years, Eric Holder also believes the town needs to cherish its heritage: "When I was carting crates of milk up these streets in the 1950s I knew it was historic. You couldn't help it. There was a timber-framed building here where we bought our groceries. Here we had what was clearly one of the top historic towns in the North, never mind just Yorkshire, and nobody was doing a thing about it."

last updated: 12/09/2008 at 11:55
created: 06/09/2007

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