All eyes will be on North Yorkshire next month as it hosts the world’s largest annual sporting event 
MATT CLARK visits one of the most picturesque points along the route

THEY'RE flying the flag in Knaresborough. Nothing unusual in that you might think, but hanging above many pubs and shops is the French tricolour. With good reason, because the Tour de France is coming to town this month and residents are making the most of it.

Indeed you can't move for Grand Départ memorabilia. Turn the corner and you are faced with a sea of yellow flags, while all manner of buildings are adorned with equally yellow bikes.

Even the river boats are in on the act, some painted with tour scenes and names of towns along the route, such as Pau, Bergerac and York. Others commemorate famous riders, including, nearly Yorkshireman, Mark Cavendish.

Until now, and for some strange reason, Knaresborough has been something of a Cinderella destination compared with York and Harrogate. Which is odd when you consider the town boasts one of the finest vistas in England.

From a cliff top, next to the castle, the railway bridge over the Nidd is a photographer's dream and it's still pretty good when seen from the river.

This year, though, everyone wants to see it, since the town won new-found fame as a staging point on day two of the Grand Départ, before the peloton heads for the charmingly named Côte de Blubberhouses.

And, as this influx of visitors is discovering, Knaresborough's higgledy-piggledy old streets make it one of Yorkshire's loveliest Georgian gems.

Even more people will be in town on race day, An extra 50,000, according to some estimates, and there will be plenty for them to see and do before and after the entourage's arrival.

Graham Anderton's award-winning sculpture of three metal bicycles is going on display in the pub garden at the World’s End Inn; a big screen will show the riders' progress out of town and a spectacular hot-air balloon rally is scheduled to fly above Knaresborough over the weekend.

At ground level Market Place promises to be the centre of activities with a Hub Grub street food festival and word is the WI have been busy baking faux-French delicacies from Flap Jacques to Grand Depart Tarts.

However, there is more to Knaresborough than the world's largest annual sporting event. The castle and its gardens boast the best views, but much of the town's charm stems from its oddities.

Take the House in the Rock, built by Thomas Hill with just a pickaxe, chisel and hammer, or its neighbour the Chapel of our Lady of the Crag, hewn by a stone mason who believed the Virgin Mary had saved his son’s life.

In return he built the chapel and dedicated it to her.

More unusual curios abound, from trompe l’oeil paintings in window niches – some of which have taken on a Grand Départ theme – to the annual bed race. But perhaps the oddest place to visit is a petrifying well languishing in a spooky cave on the edge of town.

Folk believed it had supernatural powers and many feared turning to stone if they dipped their hands in its waters.

Then Ursula Southeil was born in the cave during a thunderstorm in 1488 and the place suddenly became a whole lot odder.

Under her married name of Mother Shipton, Ursula was one of the most feared women in the land for an uncanny ability to prophesy the future.

Some of her predictions included the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the great fire of London and the invention of iron ships.

Perhaps the smartest part of town is Waterside, which with its continental cafes, black and white chequered buildings and colourful flower boxes feels more Alsace than Yorkshire.

Which is quite fitting, don't you think, for a Tour de France host. Not to mention a perfect place to watch the peloton whizzing along Bond End.

With all this, and more to see in Knaresborough, you almost feel sorry the riders. Maybe they'll have to come back another day for a less frenetic look around town.

The publicity caravan will pass through Knaresborough from 09.54amon Sunday July 6, Le Tour Cyclists from 11.51.