Discover the Yorkshire Wolds

Looking for peace, beauty and the perfect English village? Then head to the Yorkshire Wolds - a land seemingly forgotten by the modern age

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Yorkshire. If the stereotypes are to be believed, it’s a land of proud, tough landscapes that have imbued their folk with the same bold, stubborn, no-nonsense approach to life embodied by characters such as cricketer Geoffrey Boycott. And for the visitor planning a trip to Yorkshire, it’s a simple choice between the wild, rugged hills and valleys of the Dales or the wild rugged hills and valleys of the Moors isn’t it? But there’s nothing like a visit to this enormous county to dispel a few stereotypes.

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Yorkshire has a third hilly landscape that isn’t well known. After the drama of the two national parks in the west and north of the county, the landscape gives a final shrug just before it dives into the North Sea in the East Riding. This shrug is the Yorkshire Wolds, a softer crescent of hills, secret deep valleys and astonishingly pretty villages – each with a gem of a church, an inviting pub and a duck pond mantled by willow trees.

The Yorkshire Wolds are limestone and chalk escarpments, and are the northernmost spur of the chalk landscapes that dominate Wessex and the southern counties. Here they are chequered with wheat fields, pig farms and sheep-grazed grasslands. These hills seem to leap up from the Vale of York around the town of Market Weighton, but approach them from other directions and you suddenly find yourself up high without knowing how you got there.

When I visited the Wolds in July, the first thing that struck me was the richness of the wildlife. I drove over broad backed hills with the window down to see if I could pick up birdsong – my basic litmus test as to the worth of an area. Lo and behold I could make out plenty of yellowhammers, linnets and corn buntings (below) – a triumvirate of finch-like species whose numbers reveal the health of the countryside.

 
Corn bunting

The landscape is largely agricultural but the unusually wide road verges bloomed with mallow, meadow cranesbill and cow parsley, with flushes of yellow – bird’s foot trefoil – and the lovely red of poppies. And as I drove through the Wolds one evening, I kept stopping to watch hares feeding in the gloaming. It was a good sign. Though the landscape is agricultural, farmland wildlife – in full retreat elsewhere – appeared to be flourishing.

The second sensation was pleasurable solitude. Never have I driven in England in high summer and seen so few cars, and settlements are widely scattered so I could travel for miles without seeing a soul. This made the arrival in one of the Wolds’ villages an even greater delight. I didn’t see a single ugly village in the Wolds: Middleton on the Wolds, Sledmere, Wetwang, Burton Fleming, Thwing, Wold Newton, Kilham, Bishop Wilton and Holme on the Wolds could more than hold their own against the famous gems of the Cotswolds or Dales, although the building material here is a warm brick, sometimes whitewashed, rather than stone. And few Cotswold villages have such resplendent duck ponds.

Which brings me to the third pleasurable sensation: friendliness. In shops and pubs, women smiled and called me “luv”. Passers-by said “hello” or “morning” as a matter of course. Everyone seemed chipper and keen to share their good moods.

Nowhere was friendlier than Pocklington. It doesn’t appear to be near anywhere, yet it is the perfect self-contained market town, full of attractive buildings, independent shops and a bustling sense of its own worth. If you come here, you must visit Atkinson’s Delicatessen to buy picnic treats.

Exploring on two wheels

I immediately wished I’d chosen to explore by bicycle and experience some of the steady descents, shallow climbs, sudden epic views and pretty villages (and their pubs) from outside the suffocating shell of my car. Though public transport is limited here, the local tourist board has recognised the attraction to two-wheeled explorers and put in a few long-distance cycle routes. Walkers are blessed too with the Wolds Way. How I’d love to spend a week in early summer walking this route.

With a bicycle, you can make a linear progression through a region – there’s no point cycling back to the start everyday. With a car, you’re seduced into having a base for explorations. The suggested HQ for Woldish adventures is Driffield, Capital of the Wolds. But though Driffield is a handsome enough town on an old canal that penetrates inland from the Humber, it’s not a patch on Beverley, which lies off the southern edge of the chalk hills.

Beverley is not just a base for exploring further afield, it’s a day’s adventure in its own right. Several people I met describe Beverley as a mini-York and it’s got something of York’s ancient winding alleys, handsome Georgian high street and fabulous churches. I’d stick my neck out and say Beverley Minster outshines York’s more famous equivalent by some distance.

Market day – Saturday – was a high-octane affair with stalls selling cheeses, meats, veg, bread and all manner of ironmongery. Add to this the post-Beverley race-going crowd, and Saturday evening in Beverley felt like an over-dressed open-air nightclub.

I was lucky enough to have local historian Paul Schofield for company on a tour of the town and everywhere there were girls in frocks and boys in suits. Drinking and laughter were the order of the evening. Paul told me how the town, though far from the sea, built its wealth on travel. Firstly, it was pilgrims coming to the shrine of St John, an eighth-century bishop. Then it was wealth that flowed up and down the region’s rivers.

“People forget that it was a port even before Hull was a port,” Paul told me. He also revealed that it takes its name from the beaver – the water-loving mammals that have been extinct in the UK since the Middle Ages. During a delightful evening’s walk, Paul showed me the Viking, medieval, Tudor and Georgian faces of Beverley, ending up in an ancient pilgrim’s pub, The Monk’s Walk. And I felt I’d still only scratched the surface of this lovely town.

Stately splendour

Dotted across the Wolds are some lovely country houses, testimony to the wealth that agriculture – particularly wool – has brought to the region. My favourite was Burton Agnes, an Elizabethan pile that has barely changed since it was built. Owner Susan Cunliffe-Lister reveals the reason: “Luckily, in the Georgian era, the family overspent themselves, so by the time the Victorians came along, they didn’t have any money to add huge wings.”

Instead, it’s a lovely building of friendly orange-red brick with a vast gallery on its upper floor from where you can look across the Wolds to the Drax Power Station. Also unmissable here is the old Norman manor house (below), the colour themed garden and the unbelievably intricate, carved wooden panels in the main house’s entry hall full of lively and irreverent Elizabethan characters.
 
 
The Manor House’s Norman lower chamber, in Burton Agnes

You can find another curious country house near Pocklington. This is Burnby Hall, home to the national collection of waterlillies and some huge koi carp that you can feed by hand. Unfortunately, the lovely lilies float in a concrete lake, so for me the highlight of the visit was the Stewart Museum in the gardens. This is a collection of artefacts brought back by late 19th- and early 20th-century tourist-explorer cum big game hunter Major Percy Marlborough Stewart. It’s an insight into another rather seductive world of adventure, exploration, hardship and fine living, as he and his wife toured the continents for a bit of imperial fun.

Coastal charms

The chalk Wolds come to an abrupt halt at the coast east of Burton Agnes. To the north of East Riding, near Bridlington, are daunting cliffs that rival anything on the south coast. The most southerly is Flamborough Head – an arrow-shaped promontory settled by Vikings more than 1,200 years ago. The people of Flamborough still claim Scandinavian ancestry and the whole promontory is isolated from the mainland by an extraordinary two mile-long defensive ditch known as Dane’s Dyke, although this was probably dug in prehistoric times, long before the Danes (Vikings).

However, the oldest residents of Flamborough and the cliffs further north are the seabirds. In spring and summer, these are the inaccessible nesting sites for 200,000 birds: from dapper guillemots and their thuggish relatives the razorbills, crammed on to the tiniest ledges; to clown-like puffins, who prefer cosier burrows and holes to raise young; to the bleating kittiwakes; to the broad-winged gannets, whose numbers are increasing every year.

The RSPB organises birding days involving a boat trip right to the foot of the cliffs where the fishy smell of guano, and the milling multitude of different species – all calling and crowing – provide one of the truly unmissable British wildlife spectacles. The trip includes an afternoon visit to the top of Bempton Cliffs reserve (below), where you get to see all the action from above.

Bempton Cliffs

For a different but equally impressive wildlife fix, head to the south coast of East Riding, where the landscape thins and twists in the form of Spurn Head, a narrow tongue of shingle and grass banks that is under constant threat from the sea. When the weather is bearable, it’s a wonderful place for walking and birdwatching.

But though the coast is spectacular, I was keen to get back to the peace of the Wolds and its timeless villages. My life is extremely busy so it was lovely to wind down in these friendly surroundings, where the inhabitants still work close to the land and have a powerful bond with their region.

Where to sleep

The Barn House, 18 East End Walkington HU17 8RY
Quirkily themed rooms with decadent four-poster beds and extraordinary wall paintings. Plus there’s an acre and a half of garden to retreat to.
01482 880542

Kilham Hall Country House, Driffield Road, Kilham YO25 4SP
Set in pretty gardens near a lovely village, this is a restful, beautifully furnished hotel with the warmest of welcomes. There’s even a swimming pool for early morning dips.
01262 420466

Carlton Apartments, 6 The Crescent, Bridlington YO15 2NX
Smart, contemporary self-catering apartments – perfect for exploring the East Riding coast.
01262 672807

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