Where Richard II came to a sticky end

The town where a king was killed became a great place for growing liquorice
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you are a lover of liquorice then Pontefract is not just a last resort, it is the only resort. History has been less than kind to Pontefract. Shakespeare cruelly immortalised the town as "Bloody Pomfret" because of the death at Pontefract Castle (in mysterious circumstances) of Richard II. The 11th-century castle, an architectural miracle of its time, was where Richard was imprisoned. It was almost completely razed to the ground at the end of the Civil War, as punishment for Pontefract being the last royalist base to hold out against Cromwell's Parliament, despite being under seige three times. Happily, and perhaps ironically, Pontefract is now a good stopping off point for what the local museum curator describes as "Yorkshire castle hoppers".

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, liquorice bush, particularly hard to cultivate in this country, started to bloom in the castle ruins, due apparently to the suitability of the loam. An enterprising local devised a recipe incorporating treacle and liquorice stem to create the famous Pontefract cake. This is not, as a bakery in the centre of Pontefract explains with weary patience, a cake at all. It is a small, circular confectionery defiantly stamped with the insignia of the rebel coins made at Pontefract Castle during the war.

The liquorice industry boomed and by the beginning of this century there were 26 manufacturers in the town, many with lively imaginations. An exhibition in the local History Museum displays some unexpected liquorice artefacts, including a giant ornamental teapot made entirely from luminous shades of the sticky stuff. In 1874, memories of the Sieges of Pontefract were perhaps still sufficiently fresh for the town to seal down its ballot box in the first ever secret parliamentary election with - yes - liquorice.

Alighting at Tanshelf, one of Pontefract's three railway stations, the odour of liquorice is still unmistakable. Yet commercial cultivation of liquorice in Pontefract ceased in 1966, and the stuff is now imported from France where it is cheaper and easier to grow.

An import from abroad - the European Development Fund to be exact - has recently reopened Tanshelf station, which was closed for 30 years, and has improved the other two stations. But, according to a local taxi driver, all three of them are a little too far from the ruins of the castle, the pleasant pedestrianised town centre (which has retained its medieval street names and is about to be re-paved, courtesy of the National Lottery), and the racecourse, to benefit many except those in his line of work.

Most visitors come to see the castle ruins and leave only a little wiser about the liquorice past. Now, rather than allow the memory of liquorice- growing industry to be forgotten, the tourist authority this year is promoting a Liquorice Trail around the town. This visits the fields where liquorice was once grown, as well as two disused liquorice factories. And the Camra award-winning Tap and Spittle pub in the town centre still occasionally serves liquorice beer. After all, it takes all sorts to make a resort.

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