MANY Bradfordians will know Pickering only as a town through which they pass on the way to Whitby or other east coast resorts.

Others will know it as the terminus for the popular North York Moors Railway.

But few know it for its castle. Tucked away on sloping ground behind the town centre, the 13th century fortress cannot be seen from main approach roads.

Yet the ruin - a fine example of a motte and bailey castle - it is just a five minute walk from Market Place, where visitors enjoy its shops and cafes.

We arrived to find a man attempting to prise his walking pole from a groove on the wooden bridge across the deep ditch surrounding much of the castle.

“I don’t want to get stuck here - I want to get across quickly before any British invaders arrive,” he quipped as he freed himself.

Behind him, rose the castle’s high, outer wall. Punctuated by stone towers, this wraps around the site, giving an idea as to how the fortress must have looked to would-be attackers - not an easy place to overthrow.

Once inside, a grassy circuit divides the outer wall from further towers and a keep on top of the motte - a striking mound standing 20 metres high, with a base 60 metres in diameter.

Pickering Castle was originally an earth and timber fortress built by the Normans as part of the suppression of Northern England. William the Conqueror's wooden castle on its earthen motte was rebuilt in stone, beginning around 1180, during the reign of Henry II.

Visitors can climb to the top of the keep - the hub of the castle’s defences - where far-reaching views take in the surrounding countryside. Sadly for us, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the vista was shrouded in drizzle.

We sheltered in the chapel - the only surviving roofed building - which houses information boards about the castle and its role as a hunting lodge. Many of the kings between 1100 and 1400 visited Pickering, often to enjoy the opportunity to hunt in the surrounding royal forest. It saw little military action and for most of its active life the castle’s role was to provide grand accommodation for its royal visitors.

Managed by English Heritage, the castle’s remains offer a glimpse into its role as a base for royal visits, as a fortress and as a local centre of power. King John stayed there in 1201 and King Richard ll was imprisoned in the castle shortly before his death in 1400. It was held by Royalists in the Civil War and, in the 17th century, it was used to imprison people, particularly dissenters.

The castle then fell out of use and many of its materials were plundered to build local homes and repair Scarborough Castle.

Thankfully, sufficient remains to stir the imagination. There’s lots of space for children to run around and outdoor games such as quoits are provided.

Pickering, on the edge of the North York Moors, has much to offer visitors. Close to the castle, we discovered the lovely 18th century Friends’ Meeting House with its peaceful garden overlooking the old Quaker burial ground - created because Quakers could not be buried in sacred ground.

While in the hillside garden we heard the whistle of a steam train and watched it puff into Pickering station. It’s a lovely place to sit for a while – even in light drizzle.

You can go inside too. We loved the hat pegs in the porch - chunky and spaced out to accommodate the Quakers’ over-large hats.

Quaker founder George Fox preached in and around Pickering in 1651. An extract from his journal hangs on the wall.

Outside we found a gravestone belonging to a Jane Priestman, the wife of well-known local Quaker Joshua Priestman, who, the inscription read, died in Bradford in June 1888.

No visit to Pickering should be without a look inside the church of St Peter & St Paul. The beautifully-preserved and restored 15th century wall paintings are among the best in Europe.

In the Middle Ages the inside of churches were covered with wall paintings. During the Reformation these were whitewashed and forgotten. It wasn’t until Victorian restorations of churches that they were rediscovered. Pevsner described Pickering’s as “one of the most complete series of wall paintings…and they give one a vivid idea of what ecclesiastical interiors were really like.”

The paintings tell a series of biblical stories - the first shows St George on horseback killing the dragon. Next to him is St Christopher carrying the Christ child across a river with serpents around his feet, and there's a scene showing the beheading of John the Baptist, with a kneeling, headless John and Salome presenting his head on a plate to Herod.

After so much history, Pickering’s tea shops offer a welcome bit of relaxation. Its shops include a quirky indoor market.

A helpful, informative guide, Pickering Town Trail - which includes the attractions we visited - is available free from various shops and other outlets.

*Pickering lies on the A169, accessible from the A64 from Leeds. Visit