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It’s easy to be glib about Yorkshire – to outsiders it’s the archetypal “up North” with all the clichés that implies, from flat caps to grim factories. For their part, many Yorkshire locals are happy to play up to these prejudices, while nursing a secret conviction that there really is no better place in the world to live. In some respects, it’s a world apart, its most distinctive characteristics – from the broad dialect to the breathtaking landscapes – deriving from a long history of settlement, invention and independence. As for Yorkshire’s other boasts (the beer’s better, the air’s cleaner, the people are friendlier) – anyone who spends any time here will find it hard to argue with those.
The number-one destination is undoubtedly York, for centuries England’s second city, until the Industrial Revolution created new centres of power and influence. York’s mixture of medieval, Georgian and Victorian architecture is repeated in towns such as Beverley, Ripon and Richmond, while the Yorkshire coast, too, retains something of its erstwhile grandeur – Bridlington and Scarborough boomed in the nineteenth century and again in the postwar period, though it’s in smaller resorts like Whitby and Robin Hood’s Baythat the best of the coast is to be found today.
The engine of growth during the Industrial Revolution was not in the north of the county, but in the south and west, where Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and their satellites were once the world’s mightiest producers of textiles and steel. Ruthless economic logic devastated the area in the twentieth century, but a new vigour has infused South and West Yorkshire during the last decade. The city-centre transformations of Leeds and Sheffield in particular have been remarkable, while Bradford is a fine diversion on the way to Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters.
The Yorkshire Dales, to the northwest, possesses a glorious collection of places to visit, with a patchwork of stone-built villages, limestone hills, serene valleys and majestic heights. The county’s other National Park, theNorth York Moors, is divided into bleak upland moors and a tremendous rugged coastline between Robin Hood’s Bay and Staithes.
With its tangle of old streets, cobbled lanes and elegant Georgian and Victorian terraces BEVERLEY, nine miles north of Hull, is the very picture of a traditional market town. More than 350 of its buildings are listed, and though you could see its first-rank offerings in a morning, it makes an appealing place to stay.
BRADFORD has always been a working town, booming in tandem with the Industrial Revolution, when just a few decades saw it transform from a rural seat of woollen manufacture to a polluted metropolis. In its Victorian heyday it was the world’s biggest producer of worsted cloth, its skyline etched black with mill chimneys, and its hills clogged with some of the foulest back-to-back houses of any northern city. A look at the Venetian-Gothic Wool Exchange building on Market Street, or a walk through Little Germany, northeast of the city centre (named for the German wool merchants who populated the area in the second half of the 1800s) provides ample evidence of the wealth of nineteenth-century Bradford.
Contemporary Bradford, perhaps the most multicultural centre in the UK outside London, is valiantly rinsing away its associations with urban decrepitude, and while it can hardly yet be compared with neighbouring Leeds as a visitor attraction, it has two must-see attractions in the National Media Museum and the industrial heritage site of Saltaire. The major annual event is the Bradford Mela, a one-day celebration of the arts, culture and food of the Indian subcontinent, held in June or July.
The East Yorkshire coast curves south in a gentle arc from the mighty cliffs of Flamborough Head to Spurn Head, a hook-shaped promontory formed by relentless erosion and shifting currents. There are few parts of the British coast as dangerous – indeed, the Humber lifeboat station at Spurn Point is the only one in Britain permanently staffed by a professional crew. Between the two points lie a handful of tranquil villages and miles of windswept dunes and mud flats. The two main resorts, Bridlington and Filey, couldn’t be more different, but each has their own appeal.
The southernmost resort on the Yorkshire coast, BRIDLINGTON has maintained its harbour for almost a thousand years. The seafront promenade looks down upon the town’s best asset – its sweeping sandy beach. It’s an out-and-out family resort, which means plenty of candyfloss, fish and chips, rides, boat trips and amusement arcades. The historic core of town is a mile inland, where in the largely Georgian Bridlington Old Town the Bayle Museum presents local history in a building that once served as the gateway to a fourteenth-century priory. Every November, Bridlington hosts a highly regarded World Music Festival, Musicport, which pulls in some very big names.
Around fourteen miles of precipitous 400ft-high cliffs gird Flamborough Head, just to the northeast of Bridlington. The best of the seascapes are visitable on the peninsula’s north side, accessible by road from Flamborough village.
HARROGATE – the very picture of genteel Yorkshire respectability – owes its landscaped appearance and early prosperity to the discovery of Tewit Well in 1571. This was the first of more than eighty ferrous and sulphurous springs that, by the nineteenth century, were to turn the town into one of the country’s leading spas. Tours of the town should begin with the Royal Baths, facing Crescent Road, first opened in 1897 and now restored to their late Victorian finery. You can experience the beautiful Moorish-style interior during a session at the Turkish Baths and Health Spa. Just along Crescent Road from the Royal Baths stands the Royal Pump Room, built in 1842 over the sulphur well that feeds the baths. The town’s earliest surviving spa building, the old Promenade Room of 1806, is just 100 yards from the Pump Room on Swan Road – now housing the Mercer Art Gallery.
To the southwest (entrance opposite the Royal Pump Room), the 120-acre Valley Gardens are a delight, while many visitors also make for the botanical gardens at Harlow Carr, the northern showpiece of the Royal Horticultural Society. These lie 1.5 miles out, on the town’s western edge – the nicest approach is to walk through the Valley Gardens and pine woods, though bus #106 will get you there as well.
Of English literary shrines, probably only Stratford sees more visitors than the quarter of a million who swarm annually into the village of HAWORTH, eight miles north of Bradford, to tramp the cobbles once trodden by the Brontë sisters. In summer the village’s steep Main Street is lost under huge crowds, herded by multilingual signs around the various stations on the Brontë trail. The most popular local walk runs to Brontë Falls and Bridge, reached via West Lane (a continuation of Main Street) and a track from the village, signposted “Bronte Falls”, and to Top Withens, a mile beyond, a ruin fancifully (and erroneously) thought to be the model for the manor, Wuthering Heights (allow 3hr for the round trip). The moorland setting beautifully evokes the flavour of the book, and to enjoy it further you could walk on another two and a half miles to Ponden Hall, claimed by some to be Thrushcross Grange is Wuthering Heights.
HULL – officially Kingston upon Hull – dates back to 1299, when it was laid out as a seaport by Edward I. It quickly became England’s leading harbour, and was still a vital garrison when the gates were closed against Charles I in 1642, the first serious act of rebellion of what was to become the English Civil War. Fishing and seafaring have always been important here, and today’s city maintains a firm grip on its heritage with a number of superb visitor attractions.
Yorkshire’s commercial capital, and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, LEEDS has undergone a radical transformation in recent years. There’s still a true northern grit to its character, and in many of its dilapidated suburbs, but the grime has been removed from the impressive Victorian buildings and the city is revelling in its new persona as a booming financial, commercial and cultural centre. The renowned shops, restaurants, bars and clubs provide one focus of a visit to contemporary Leeds – it’s certainly Yorkshire’s top destination for a day or two of conspicuous consumption and indulgence. Museums include the impressive Royal Armouries, which hold the national arms and armour collection, while the City Art Gallery has one of the best collections of British twentieth-century art outside London. Beyond the city, a number of major attractions are accessible by bus or train, from the stately home Harewood House and the gritty National Coal Mining Museum to the stunning new Hepworth Gallery and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Temple Newsam, four miles east of the centre hosts numerous concerts and events, from plays to rock gigs and opera, and at Kirkstall Abbey every summer there’s a Shakespeare Festival with open-air productions of the Bard’s works. Roundhay Park is the other large outdoor venue for concerts, while Bramham Park, ten miles east of the city, hosts the annual Leeds Carling Festival at the end of August with rock/indie music on five stages. August bank holiday weekend heralds the West Indian Carnival in the Chapeltown area of Leeds.
While the gentry enjoyed the comforts of life in grand houses like Harewood, just a few miles away generations of Yorkshiremen sweated out a living underground. Mining is now little more than a memory in most parts of Yorkshire, but visitors can get all too vivid an idea of pit life through the ages at the excellent
National Coal Mining Museum
. Based in a former pit, Caphouse Colliery, the highlight is an underground mine tour (90min, warm clothes required; arrive early in school hols) with a former miner as your guide.
Virtually the whole of the North York Moors, from the Hambleton and Cleveland hills in the west to the cliff-edged coastline to the east, is protected by one of the country’s finest National Parks. The heather-covered, flat-topped hills are cut by deep, steep-sided valleys, and views here stretch for miles, interrupted only by giant cultivated forests. This is great walking country; footpaths include the superb Cleveland Way, one of England’s premier long-distance National Trails, which embraces both wild moorland and the cliff scenery of the North Yorkshire coast. Barrows and ancient forts provide memorials of early settlers, mingling on the high moorland with the battered stone crosses of the first Christian inhabitants and the ruins of great monastic houses such as Rievaulx Abbey.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway connects Pickering with the Esk Valley (Middlesbrough–Whitby) line at Grosmont, eighteen miles to the north. The line was completed by George Stephenson in 1835, just ten years after the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Scheduled services operate year-round, and a day-return ticket costs £16. Part of the line’s attraction are the steam trains, though be warned that diesels are pulled into service when the fire risk in the forests is high. Steam services have also been extended from the end of the NYMR line at Grosmont to the nearby seaside resort of Whitby – departures are usually during school and bank holidays, with a return fare from Pickering of £21.
The attractive market town of RIPON, eleven miles north of Harrogate, is centred upon its small cathedral, which can trace its ancestry back to its foundation by St Wilfrid in 672; the original crypt below the central tower can still be reached down a stone passage. The town’s other focus is its Market Place, linked by narrow Kirkgate to the cathedral (market day is Thursday, with a farmers’ market on the third Sunday of the month). Meanwhile, three restored buildings – prison, courthouse and workhouse – show a different side of the local heritage, under the banner of the Yorkshire Law and Order Museums. Just four miles away lies Fountains Abbey, the one Yorkshire monastic ruin you must see.
It’s tantalizing to imagine how the English landscape might have appeared had Henry VIII not dissolved the monasteries:
gives a good idea of what might have been. The abbey was founded in 1133 by thirteen dissident Benedictine monks and formally adopted by the Cistercian order two years later. Within a hundred years, Fountains had become the wealthiest Cistercian foundation in England, supporting a magnificent
, almost 180ft high, looms over the whole ensemble, while equally grandiose in scale is the undercroft of the
Lay Brothers’ Dormitory
off the cloister, a stunningly vaulted space over 300ft long that was used to store the monastery’s annual harvest of fleeces. Its sheer size gives some idea of the abbey’s entrepreneurial scope; some thirteen tons of wool a year were turned over, most of it sold to Venetian and Florentine merchants who toured the monasteries.
A riverside walk, marked from the visitor centre car park, takes you through Fountains Abbey to a series of ponds and ornamental gardens, harbingers of Studley Royal (same times as the abbey), which can also be entered via the village of Studley Roger, where there’s a separate car park. This lush medley of lawns, lake, woodland and Deer Park was laid out in 1720 to form a setting for the abbey, and there are some scintillating views from the gardens, though it’s the cascades and water gardens that command most attention.
Yorkshire’s second city, SHEFFIELD remains linked with its steel industry, in particular the production of high-quality cutlery. As early as the fourteenth century the carefully fashioned, hard-wearing knives of hardworking Sheffield enjoyed national repute, while technological advances later turned the city into one of the country’s foremost centres of heavy and specialist engineering. Unsurprisingly, it was bombed heavily during World War II, and by the 1980s the steel industry’s subsequent downturn had tipped parts of Sheffield into dispiriting decline. The subsequent revival has been rapid, however, with the centre utterly transformed by flagship architectural projects. Steel, of course, still underpins much of what Sheffield is about: museum collections tend to focus on the region’s industrial heritage, complemented by the startling science-and-adventure exhibits at Magna, built in a disused steel works at Rotherham, the former coal and iron town a few miles northeast of the city.
Sheffield’s city centre is very compact and easily explored on foot. Southeast of the Winter Garden/Peace Gardens hub, clubs and galleries exist alongside arts and media businesses in the Cultural Industries Quarter. North of the stations, near the River Don, Castlegate has a traditional indoor market (closed Sun) while spruced-up warehouses and cobbled towpaths line the neighbouring canal basin, Victoria Quays. South of here, down Fargate and across Peace Gardens, the pedestrianized Moor Quarter draws in shoppers, though it’s the Devonshire Quarter, east of the gardens and centred on Division Street, that is the trendiest shopping area. A little further out, to the northeast of the city centre and easily accessible by bus or tram, lies the huge Meadowhall Shopping Complex, built on the site of one of Sheffield’s most famous steelworks.
YORK is the North’s most compelling city, a place whose history, said George VI, “is the history of England”. This is perhaps overstating things a little, but it reflects the significance of a metropolis that stood at the heart of the country’s religious and political life for centuries, and until the Industrial Revolution was second only to London in population and importance. These days a more provincial air hangs over the city, except in summer when it comes to feel like a heritage site for the benefit of tourists. That said, no trip to this part of the country is complete without a visit to York, and the city is also well placed for any number of day-trips, the most essential being to Castle Howard, the gem amongst English stately homes.
The Minster is the obvious place to start, and you won’t want to miss a walk around the walls. The medieval city is at its most evocative around the streets known as Stonegate and the Shambles, while the earlier Viking city is entertainingly presented at Jorvik, perhaps the city’s favourite family attraction. Standout historic buildings include the Minster’s Treasurer’s House, Georgian Fairfax House, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, and the stark remnants of York’s Castle. The two major museum collections are the incomparable Castle Museum and the National Railway Museum (where the appeal goes way beyond railway memorabilia), while the evocative ruins and gardens of St Mary’s Abbey house the family-friendly Yorkshire Museum. Just fifteen miles away from town, and accessible by bus, Castle Howard is one of the nation’s finest stately homes.
An early Roman fortress of 71 AD in time became a city – Eboracum, capital of the empire’s northern European territories and the base for Hadrian’s northern campaigns. Later, the city became the fulcrum of Christianity in northern England: on Easter Day in 627, Bishop Paulinus, on a mission to establish the Roman Church, baptized King Edwin of Northumbria in a small timber chapel. Six years later the church became the first minster and Paulinus the first archbishop of York. In 867 the city fell to the Danes, who renamed it Jorvik, and later made it the capital of eastern England (Danelaw). Later Viking raids culminated in the decisive Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066) six miles east of the city, where English King Harold defeated Norse King Harald – a pyrrhic victory in the event, for his weakened army was defeated by the Normans just a few days later at the Battle of Hastings, with well-known consequences for all concerned.
The Normans devastated much of York’s hinterland in their infamous “Harrying of the North”. Stone walls were thrown up during the thirteenth century, when the city became a favoured Plantagenet retreat and commercial capital of the north, its importance reflected in the new title of Duke of York, bestowed ever since on the monarch’s second son. Although Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries took its toll on a city crammed with religious houses, York remained wedded to the Cathoic cause, and the most famous of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was born here. During the Civil War Charles I established his court in the city, which was strongly pro-Royalist, inviting a Parliamentarian siege. Royalist troops, however, were routed by Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, another seminal battle in England’s history, which took place six miles west of York.
The city’s eighteenth-century history was marked by its emergence as a social centre for Yorkshire’s landed elite. Whilst the Industrial Revolution largely passed it by, the arrival of the railways brought renewed prosperity, thanks to the enterprise of pioneering “Railway King” George Hudson, lord mayor during the 1830s and 1840s. The railway is gradually losing its role as a major employer, as is the traditional but declining confectionery industry, and incomes are now generated by new service and bioscience industries – not forgetting, of course, the four million annual tourists.
Where Jorvik shows what was unearthed at Coppergate, the associated attraction that is
illustrates the science involved. Housed five minutes’ walk away from the museum, in the medieval church of St Saviour, on St Savioursgate, a simulated dig allows you to take part in a range of excavations in the company of archeologists, using authentic tools and methods. Tours to visit
, York’s latest major archeological excavation, start from here.
The city’s blockbuster historic exhibit is
, located by the Coppergate shopping centre. Propelling visitors in “time capsules” on a ride through the tenth-century city of York, the museum presents not only the sights but also the sounds and even the smells of a riverside Viking city. Excavations of Coppergate in 1976 uncovered a real Viking settlement, now largely buried beneath the shopping centre outside. But at Jorvik you can see how the unearthed artefacts were used, and watch live-action domestic scenes on actual Viking-age streets, with constipated villagers, axe-fighting and other singular attractions.
The Yorkshire Dales – “dales” from the Viking word dalr (valley) – form a varied upland area of limestone hills and pastoral valleys at the heart of the Pennines. Protected as a National Park, (or, in the case of Nidderdale, as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), there are more than twenty main dales covering 680 square miles, crammed with opportunities for outdoor activities. Most approaches are from the south, via the superbly engineered Settle to Carlisle Railway, or along the main A65 road from towns such as Skipton, Settle and Ingleton. Southern dales like Wharfedale are the most visited, while neighbouring Malhamdale is also immensely popular due to the fascinating scenery squeezed into its narrow confines around Malham village. Ribblesdale is more sombre, its villages popular with hikers intent on tackling the famous Three Peaks – the mountains of Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside. To the northwest lies the more remote Dentdale, one of the least known but most beautiful of the valleys, and further north still Wensleydale and Swaledale, the latter of which rivals Dentdale as the most rewarding overall target. Both flow east, with Swaledale’s lower stretches encompassing the appealing historic town of Richmond.
If you’re a beer fan, the handsome Wensleydale market town of Masham (pronounced Mass’m) is an essential point of pilgrimage. At Theakston brewery (tours daily 11am–3pm; reservations advised; w theakstons.co.uk), sited here since 1827, you can learn the arcane intricacies of the brewer’s art and become familiar with the legendary Old Peculier ale. The Black Sheep Brewery, set up in the early 1990s by one of the Theakston family brewing team, also offers tours (daily 11am–4pm, but call for availability; w blacksheepbrewery.com). Both are just a few minutes’ signposted walk out of the centre.
A few miles west of Wharfedale lies Malhamdale, one of the National Park’s most heavily visited regions, thanks to its three outstanding natural features of Malham Cove, Malham Tarn and Gordale Scar. All three attractions are within easy hiking distance of Malham village.
MALHAM village is home to barely a couple of hundred people who inhabit the huddled stone houses on either side of a bubbling river. Appearing in spectacular fashion a mile to the north, the white-walled limestone amphitheatre of Malham Cove rises 300ft above its surroundings. After a breath-sapping haul to the top, you are rewarded with fine views and the famous limestone pavement, an expanse of clints (slabs) and grykes (clefts) created by water seeping through weaker lines in the limestone rock. A simple walk (or summer shuttle bus ride) over the moors abruptly brings Malham Tarn into sight, its waterfowl protected by a nature reserve on the west bank. Meanwhile, at Gordale Scar (also easily approached direct from Malham village), the cliffs are if anything more spectacular than at Malham Cove. The classic circuit takes in cove, tarn and scar in a clockwise walk from Malham (8 miles; 3hr 30min), but you can also do it on horseback – the Yorkshire Dales Trekking Centre at Holme Farm in the village centre is the place to enquire about saddling up.
The 72-mile Settle to Carlisle line is a feat of Victorian engineering that has few equals in Britain. In particular, between Horton and Ribblehead, “England’s most scenic railway” climbs 200ft in five miles, before crossing the famous 24-arched Ribblehead viaduct and disappearing into the 2629 yards of the Blea Tunnel. Meanwhile, the station at Dent Head is the highest, and bleakest, mainline station in England. The journey from Settle to Carlisle takes 1hr 40min, so it’s easy to do the full return trip in one day. If your time is short, ride the most dramatic section between Settle and Garsdale. There are connections to Settle from Skipton and Leeds.
RICHMOND is the Dales’ single most tempting destination, thanks mainly to its magnificent castle, whose extensive walls and colossal keep cling to a precipice above the River Swale. Indeed, the entire town is an absolute gem, centred on a huge cobbled market square backed by Georgian buildings, hidden alleys and gardens. Market day is Saturday, augmented by a farmers’ market on the third Saturday of the month.
Top image: Aerial view of Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, England © Andrei Petrus/Shutterstock