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Yorkshire: God’s own county

Tour de France fever is set to hit Yorkshire in July, when it becomes the bike race’s starting point. That aside, this proud Northern region has a foolproof formula to grip your psyche, with its windblown moorland, buzzing restaurant scene and relics of historic wonder

Yorkshire: God’s own county
Top Withens, Haworth Moor, West Yorkshire. Image: Scott Wishart.

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Feet, ankles and then shins sink into the moor’s squelchy mud soup; each step an arduous chore. Hailstones blown by the angry wind sting like spitting fat from desolation’s own chip pan. Gloves and thick woollen coat are soaked to the point of counter-productivity.

At least that’s what it’s supposed to be like.

Haworth Moor, in the middle of a sustained heatwave, aggressively contradicts the half of Wuthering Heights I managed to trudge through before giving up. It’s blissful rather than brooding — cheery pink foxgloves line the bone-dry paths and any sense of menace is bleached out by the sun.

Four miles in, however, a ruined farmhouse manages to conjure up the requisite Heathcliffian mood. A plaque on the wall of Top Withens basically says it has nothing to do with the Brontë novel, but over the years public opinion has decided it’s the spot that best evokes the spirit. The roof has gone and the floor slabs have mossed over and undergone sheep desecration.

It looks out over a landscape where gorge banks face off against each other like knuckled fists and the remnants of crumbled dry stone walls stand feebly like funerary cairns. It’s a place of lonely, pensive self-exile, not carefree escape. Aye, that’s more like it.

Finding Wuthering Heights too much like hard work is not the only betrayal of my Yorkshire heritage. My dad’s a professional Yorkshireman of Geoffrey Boycott standards, I married a Yorkshirewoman and I’ve spent nine years living in the county. But my relationship with the place has always been one of respectful liking rather than helpless, giddy love.

Juddering over the cobbles past the market stalls in Grassington is part of a conscious effort to change that. The village likes to bill itself as the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s possible for whimperingly unfit Bradley Wiggins impersonators to hire e-bikes here. They’re like normal bikes, but with a battery-powered motor that can be used as a booster. “Only use it when you need it,” I’m told. “Overuse it and the battery will run out — they’re not designed for freewheeling uphill.”

Such advice has the provocatory effect of a ‘wet paint’ sign, and within minutes of leaving the village, I’m freewheeling uphill past proper Lycra-clad cyclists, contemptuous disgust visible on their sweat-streaked faces. This continues until I see just how much of the battery is being drained. The journey down to the River Wharfe at Burnsall is completed using a more conservative mindset and old-fashioned stoic hard work on the pedals.

As spots for a wheeze break go, there can be few so typically, bucolically British. A photogenic stone bridge arches its way over the river, sheep amble in dewy green fields and dry stone walls divide the gentle hills lolloping over the horizon. It almost compels you to break into a rousing rendition of Jerusalem.

Such unthreatening scenes of anti-peril continue on the ride down towards the 12th-century ruins of Bolton Abbey. Much of the land on the way is part of the Duke of Devonshire’s estate — long-tamed and dutifully maintained.

The Dales are for those who enjoy the call of the mild rather than the call of the wild. But underpinning the blissful, easy pleasantness is an earthy attachment to the land that sets Yorkshire apart from much of Britain. Farming has long been big business here, and it’s increasingly rare to see a restaurant menu that doesn’t trumpet local produce with the county’s characteristic rumbling pride. Chances are you’ll know which farm the beef was raised on, which estate the partridge was shot on and which port the fishing boat calls home.

There are five Michelin-starred restaurants within the county — including The Yorke Arms in Ramsgill-in-Nidderdale, The Box Tree in Ilkley and The Black Swan at Oldstead — and a recurring theme is warm, traditional homeliness. This very much applies at The Wensleydale Heifer, in West Witton, which offers a masterclass in how to do the whole restaurant-with-rooms thing. Doused in pitch-perfect silliness, the details in the themed rooms — from soft toy cows in the Heifer Room to drawers full of Twixes and Kit Kats in the Chocolate Room — are allied to genuinely memorable, stomach-busting food.

It’s by no means alone in eschewing the safety of blandness — Yorkshire’s countryside hotels seem to revel in playing up quirks. Near Thirsk, Crab Manor Hotel kitschily models its rooms on famous hotels around the world and has a hidden beer tap with a help-yourself policy (if you can find it). Swinton Park, near Masham, meanwhile, is a faux castle, and encourages guests to try out country pursuits like cross-country horse-riding and falconry.

Coastlines and Cook

Heading east, the quirks, pleasantries and swarms of tearooms in the Dales give way to something more fierce and raw. The skies sag low over the North York Moors — an intimidating heavy grey with a weighty lining. There’s a sense of impending savagery along the A169 from Pickering that, for some reason, makes my heart go all skittishly excitable.

Pasture slowly gives way to windblown moorland that changes colour with the time of year. Off-season, the purple heather-lined bowls go black, backed up by uncompromising ridges. The trees are stripped, broken and consumed by sorrowful surrender. This is country for people who like books where the hero gets killed off two-thirds of the way through.

The climb eventually stops, and I pull over in a lay-by before the descent into Whitby. It’s a panorama of malevolent splendour. Mist and spits of rain roll in off the North Sea, while the abbey on the headland glowers ever more prominently. When Bram Stoker was deciding where Dracula should arrive in England, there’s a good reason why he chose Whitby for the sinister shipwreck. It’s a seaside town that’s perennially popular with fish-and-chips-clutching day-trippers, but it’s not a place of pastel-shaded changing booths, sandcastles and cheeky twilight snogs on the pier.

Whitby Abbey lends a heavy dose of gothic atmospherics to the town beneath it, but much of the no-nonsense sternness comes from being wedded to the sea. Virtually every pub, cafe and jewellery shop has a Royal National Lifeboat Institution collection tub. The pleasure boats chugging down the River Esk, braving the spitting squall as they head out to sea, are moored opposite the lifeboat station. And the seagulls that aren’t territorially defending their perch atop parking meters are screeching their noisy symphony in pursuit of fishing boats.

One local boy — who was to become one of the most extraordinary men Britain has ever produced — managed to head out somewhat further than the North Sea, however. James Cook served his apprenticeship on merchant ships owned by John Walker, and Walker’s house is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum.

It’s one of those small museums you get utterly immersed in — frequently taken aback by things you didn’t previously know. Cook mapped an astonishing proportion of the world, but it’s the surprising titbits that stick, making a story just as fanciful as Bram Stoker’s. Cook was on the first mission to provide a description of a polar bear; his poor wife outlived both him and their six sons; both sides in the American Revolutionary War were under strict orders not to touch Cook’s ships, as what he was doing for mankind was far more important than the conflict.

Robin Hood's Bay, North York Moors National Park. Image: Scott Wishart.

Robin Hood’s Bay, North York Moors National Park. Image: Scott Wishart.

The journey down the Yorkshire coast isn’t quite so world-changing, but there’s plenty of drama in the lumbering cliffs and headlands. Scarborough — a place for donning a hat and blazer as you strut down the promenade — was Britain’s first seaside resort, but it’s the villages that have the real charm. Robin Hood’s Bay — all boats, chimney pots, scone-serving cafes and a winding, cobbled descent down to the rambunctious sea — is more in keeping with the landscape’s edge-of-the-earth feel.

Go back to AD71 and that frontier vibe would have applied to what was then the Roman fort at Eboracum. It was the empire’s most northerly outpost, and used as a base for keeping the rowdy tribes of northern Britannia under relative control. The story of how Eboracum become Eoforwic, then Jorvik, then finally York is told in the undercroft of the city’s most impressive building — York Minster. It’s one of the finest cathedrals in the world, with the current incarnation — a soaring, gothic masterpiece — liable to shake even the most bored cathedral-traipser into appreciative wonderment.

The history lesson here tracks the changes from hastily-constructed wooden church made for the baptism of the Northumbrian king through to the recent, much-needed reinforcements of the central tower. But it also gives an idea of how York became the de facto capital of Northern England for such a long time. It was a key seat of power for the Normans, Vikings and warring Roses families alike.

York does a beautiful job of not only preserving that history, but presenting it in a way that makes you want to learn more. A 2.1-mile circuit of the impeccably handsome city walls takes in small museums inside the old gate towers and a series of judiciously-placed plaques. These tell tales of everything from William the Conqueror’s systematic slaughter in Northern England to the angry archbishop who campaigned to stop the walls being knocked down.

Elsewhere, the interactive museum, Dig, offers kid-friendly presentations of the city’s archaeological finds inside a former church, and the Jorvik Viking Centre manages to sneak in some serious research and myth-busting through reconstructed Viking-era York.

But sometimes confectionery trumps conquest and, mercifully, York’s enthusiasm for playing up its heritage extends to its Smarties and Chocolate Orange-driven position as the UK’s chocolate-producing hub. Maps linking choc-related sights — including the former Terry family home, new attraction York’s Chocolate Story and the shops of small chocolatiers — are available at the tourist information office.

Over a billion Kit Kats a year are made at the city’s Nestlé factory, but it’s the small players that are doing the most interesting things. At York Cocoa House — which is part cafe, part shop and part workshop area, where visitors can learn how to make their own truffles and chocolate bars — owner Sophie Jewett brings out a glass of chocolate wine. “The recipe’s from 1710 — it’s a decadent take on hot chocolate,” she says.

Over afternoon chocolate — a take on afternoon tea, where everything, including the savoury items, has chocolate in it — Sophie explains what’s happening in the city. “There was always ecclesiastical tourism here — people came to visit the Minster. That made York something of a high-society haunt, and a logical place to sell chocolates — which were seen as a luxury in those days.

“But the likes of Rowntree’s and Terry’s didn’t start out as mass producers,” Sophie continues. “They were making artisan chocolates in the same way that we, and the city’s other new chocolate-makers, are trying to do now.”

An old industry

Confectionery-making isn’t the only industry that’s left its mark on Yorkshire’s character. West Yorkshire is dotted with former cotton mills, many of which have been converted into something else. The former Titanic Mill in Huddersfield is now a spa; and the one-time Salts Mill in Saltaire a massive arts centre, with a focus on local Bradford boy David Hockney.

Coal mining has left an indelible stamp too. Grassed-over, pit-scarred countryside is as much a part of the landscape as the Dales and Moors. The former Caphouse Colliery, near Wakefield, has nature-focused walking trails around the site, but the colliery buildings have been turned into the National Coal Mining Museum for England. The underground tours give a grim insight into the dangers faced by the men, women and children who toiled down the mine. “Before they started bringing safety rules in, a man was lucky if he saw 40,” says Steve, a former miner who now leads visitors through the tunnels. Lung disease, fire, blindness through continually working in near darkness and deformity due to machinery accidents were standard occupational hazards.

But it’s the exhibition section above these tunnels that gives a proper feel for life in the mining villages. When everyone either worked in the pit or was related to someone who did, a powerful unifying bond emerged. People drank together in the village pub, played sport together on their day off, and rallied round to help and raise money when someone couldn’t earn through injury or being laid off. It delves into the brass bands and the difficulties of keeping houses clean when filthy clothes are trudged through at the end of the shift, but the politics is conspicuously absent. There’s a burning sense of underlying hurt and fury, though — of communities broken down and destroyed when the mines were closed in the 1980s.

Heading south, coal country becomes steel country. On the Rotherham side of the M1’s junction 34, the gigantic former Templeborough steelworks is a symbol of both decline and rebirth. The main building — which is over a third of a mile long — is now the Magna Science Adventure Centre. It’s a place for kids to press buttons and learn about how the world works, but in a setting that’s a sensory overload. The sheer scale and heavy industrial feel belongs in a gritty sci-fi movie.

More importantly, much of the machinery is still here. The frequent The Big Melt presentation brings it to life with visceral pyrotechnics and the booming, guttural sounds of the furnaces roaring into action. It’s stomach-punchingly overawing, yet would have been normality for the thousands who once worked there.

The steel industry’s spiritual home, however, is Kelham Island, in Sheffield. Here the River Don fed the water wheels that powered the early steel mills. The Kelham Island Museum digs into the industry’s history, but the heart-warming signs of life are in the small, open-to-the-public workshops at the back. Here, the ‘little mesters’ continue to hand-make the cutlery that’s long been the city’s calling card.

It’s not knives and forks that Kelham Island is best known for these days, however — it’s beer glasses. The area has become something of a pilgrimage site for ale lovers, with a ridiculous concentration of pubs specialising in cask beer. The one where it all started was The Fat Cat, however. In 1990, landlord Dave Wickett started brewing his own beers in the small shed in the corner of the beer garden. Over time, this became the Kelham Island Brewery and moved to larger premises down the road.

That shed is where Britain’s current real ale and craft beer renaissance arguably started. Virtually every small brewery in the country can trace its family tree back to Wickett’s exacting standards and somewhat abrasive personality. Young brewers learned their skills, developed an enthusiasm for brewing at a time when it was deeply unfashionable, and departed — not always on good terms — to start their own ventures.

In the beer garden’s swing chair, with the portly moggy that acts as the pub’s mascot nosying around my feet, my mission seems to come to a natural end. The mistake was always in trying to fall in love with a singular, easy vision of Yorkshire. There isn’t one. But the complex strands manage to weave together to create something altogether more powerful and compelling. I’m hooked. I’m happy. And I’m home.

ESSENTIALS


Getting there
The main cities — Leeds, York and Sheffield — are key rail hubs, while many other places of interest are connected by branch lines. Use National Rail Enquiries to plot a route or buy tickets. British Airways has regular flights to Leeds-Bradford airport from Heathrow. Eastern Airways flies there from Aberdeen and Southampton; Flybe from Glasgow and Belfast City airport. nationalrail.co.uk   ba.com   easternairways.com   flybe.com

 

Getting around
If not driving, trains and buses cover almost all destinations of interest, although many rural services are infrequent. Use the journey planner at yorkshiretravel.net to find the best options. Northern Rail’s Rail Rover ticket costs from £102 for seven days’ free rail travel in the North East. northernrail.org

 

When to go
May-September offers the best weather and access to key attractions.

 

Places mentioned
Bronte Parsonage Museum. bronte.org.uk
E-bike hire. e-bikehire.com
Bolton Abbey. boltonabbey.com
The Yorke Arms. yorke-arms.co.uk
The Box Tree. theboxtree.co.uk
The Black Swan at Oldstead. blackswanoldstead.co.uk
The Wensleydale Heifer. wensleydaleheifer.co.uk
Crab Manor Hotel. crabandlobster.co.uk
Swinton Park. swintonpark.com
Whitby Abbey. english-heritage.org.uk
Captain Cook Memorial Museum. cookmuseumwhitby.co.uk
York Minster. yorkminster.org
Dig. digyork.com
Jorvik Viking Centre. jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk
York’s Chocolate Story. yorkschocolatestory.com
York Cocoa House. yorkcocoahouse.co.uk
Titanic Spa. titanicspa.com
Salts Mill. saltsmill.org.uk
National Coal Mining Museum for England. ncm.org.uk
Magna Science Adventure Centre. visitmagna.co.uk
Kelham Island Museum. simt.co.uk
The Fat Cat. thefatcat.co.uk 

 

More info
The Rough Guide to Yorkshire. RRP: £12.99.
The AA produces walking guides to the Yorkshire Dales, West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire. RRP: £5.59. 

 

How to do it
Shearings Holidays offers a five-day Scarborough and Yorkshire coach holiday from £199, with four nights’ accommodation in Scarborough, day trips to York and Whitby, breakfasts and three evening meals. Pick-ups are available from around Britain. shearings.com

Through Expedia, a seven-night stay at York’s five-star Cedar Court Grand Hotel & Spa, plus British Airways flights from Heathrow to Leeds and car hire, costs from £560 per person. expedia.co.uk

 

Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)