Like most younger kids, my sons are tickled pink when they hear or see their names on TV, in books, or in other contexts. But for my middle son Ripley, opportunities to do so are obviously scarcer than for most children. Having a reasonably uncommon name myself, I empathise – how many times, as a child, did I spin gift-shop carousels of door plaques looking in vain for one that I could call my own, rueing that my name wasn’t Jane or Jennifer?
Ripley was arbitrarily named – after a novel that my writer husband once reviewed, about an Irish tramp – and we have no family connections with any of the three towns called Ripley in the UK, in Surrey, Derbyshire and Yorkshire. But he has always been excited to see his name on a map or signpost, and when we saw a sign to Ripley Castle when travelling in Yorkshire, we promised to one day take him there.
His time came this Christmas, when we noticed that Ripley was en route to our holiday cottage in Northumberland. We’d decided to break our journey into several stages (partly because of the terrible weather), and doing some research found that not only does the village have a family-friendly inn, but also that Ripley Castle runs dedicated tours for kids aged 5–13.
Otherwise, we knew little about this village on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales between Harrogate and Ripon, so arriving there after a snowy drive we were surprised and charmed to find something so picturesque and out-of-time it could be a film set, with a small square overlooked by the retro Ripley Stores, selling old-fashioned sweets, home-made ice-creams, and other treats, a church, the inn, a tiny farmyard museum (closed in winter), and a handful of quaint streets lined by stone houses.
Having often been disappointed by half-hearted kids’ activities in museums and at other sights, I wasn’t sure what to expect of our pre-booked children’s tour at Ripley Castle, or how successful the guide might be in holding my boys’ interest at an age when ‘Ben 10’ and the great god Nintendo hold increasing sway over their attention. But I was wrong to be concerned – our guide made an absolutely superb job of bring the castle to life for my 8 and 6 year old, and for another boy of about 9 and his younger sister, regaling them with tales of near-fatal royal boar-hunts, castle ghosts, and Oliver Cromwell being held here at gunpoint, and showing them secret doors and staircases, a priest’s hole hiding place, and lots of truly swashbuckling arms and armour. I can honestly say my boys were rapt for the full hour.
Afterwards, we went to find their younger brother Zac, who was napping in our room with his dad. The Boar’s Head is owned by Lord and Lady Ingleby, who still live in part of the Castle, and you couldn’t hope to find a cosier or more welcoming country inn. Families are normally put in the annex across the road from the main building, where we had two adjoining rooms. Comfortable rather than luxurious, they come with lovely touches such as wooden boats for the bath, retro radios, cookies and chocolate mice, and, in the parent’s room, a complimentary decanter of sherry. After some decadent lounging around, we dined in the hotel, which has a fairly formal restaurant but also a more casual pub-like bistro that’s perfect for families, with a kids’ menu and an emphasis on local produce, some from the Castle estate itself.
Before heading north in the morning, we returned to the castle to meet Santa in his grotto – what luck that he happened to pay a visit that day! – then went to spot some of his reindeer who were taking a break in the castle’s parkland. This, too, has been set up with kids in mind, with a play trail, a treasure hunt and a woodland play area (plus, at certain times of year, a treetop ropes course).
Ripley, of course, was thrilled to be in Ripley, loudly proclaiming himself to be ‘the king of the castle’. But for a village with little to really see or do, it was a great hit with all our family, and we found ourselves vowing to come back at a warmer time of year, when we can spend more time enjoying the grounds and also explore the surrounding area – nearby attractions include Fountains Abbey and Studeley Royal Water Garden and Newby Hall.
For more family holidays on a name theme, see Dea Birkett’s feature Savannah: A Family Holiday in the American South.