Essential Pontefract

Nestled in the heart of West Yorkshire, this charming market town is a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered.

By Eleanor Taylor, Experience Wakefield

Pontefract is the quintessential Yorkshire market town – an abundance of beautiful architecture, a centre filled with independent retailers (including a lively local market), loads of interesting things to see and do, heritage galore, plus a fabulous annual food and drink festival. This handy guide brings you all the highlights of this historic, hidden gem.

Pontefract Museum

Pontefract Castle

Pontefract Liquorice Festival

Pontefract centre with Buttercross

Step into the town’s rich history at Pontefract Museum: from its Anglo-Saxon beginnings through tumultuous civil wars and its surprising emergence as a capital of both confectionary and democracy (it was the site of Britain’s first secret ballot!). Once acquainted with Pontefract’s story, take a short stroll to the museum’s sister site: Pontefract Castle. This former fortress was once so pivotal to the region that it was named “The Key to the North”. Today, the picturesque ruins provide a fantastic place to explore and play. Walk in the footsteps of kings and commoners, soldiers and sweet-makers as you uncover the site’s history through innovative information boards (kids will love the Civil Wars training activities!). 

Pontefract’s not just for history buffs: nature lovers will be enchanted by the town’s parks, Pontefract Park and Friarwood Valley Gardens. Stroll around Pontefract Park’s tree-lined walks, take a boat out on the lake or look for wildlife in this tranquil Local Nature Reserve. The park also houses a large, enclosed children’s playground – perfect for keeping the little ones entertained! Friarwood Valley Gardens are more formal, but not less stunning. Once the site of the town’s monastery, the gardens were laid out in the mid-20th century, and today attract a variety of family events throughout the year. They’re also home to the world’s largest pinhole camera (the park’s former aviary!) which is open to the public on various special dates. 

And speaking of outdoors, big hats at the ready, because nothing beats a day at the races! A trip to Pontefract Racecourse is perfect for a family day out (or an excuse to inject a little bit of glitz and glamour into your wardrobe!) with a surprising variety of fixtures and theme days throughout the year. 

Pontefract Racecourse

Farmer Copleys ©Tatiana Hepplewhite

But where to buy your big hat? Fear not: Pontefract’s got a whole host of independent retailers. Shopaholics will be in their element as they browse the quirky boutiques tucked away amongst the yards and alleyways, or take in the colourful market stalls surrounding the Buttercross in the historic Georgian centre. 

After all of that, you might be in need of a little pick-me up – if so, you’re in exactly the right place; the town is chock full of cute cafes and tearooms, so why not treat yourself to a coffee. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, how about an old-fashioned afternoon tea? All served up with a hearty portion of Yorkshire hospitality, of course!

And if food is your thing (especially if you’ve got a sweet tooth!), then visit Pontefract during the annual Liquorice Festival. Celebrating the town’s history as a celebrated producer of confectionery (an industry still present today), there’ll be food and drink stalls galore, as well as a range of activities and events for the whole family to enjoy. But never fear if you can’t make it during the Festival – foodies will love visiting Farmer Copleys: chock full of delicious, fresh local produce, you can stock up at the shop, or enjoy the delicious fayre on offer at the Moo Cafe.

Friarwood Valley Gardens