Armed with a map and a little help from Ordnance Survey, Sebastian Oake goes in search of the heart of Yorkshire.
You may not have heard of the Yorkshire village of Hessay even though it’s been around since the time of the Domesday Book. Then the population was listed as five households. Today Hessay is still only a small country village. If you get out a map and look hard, you’ll find it west of York, on the way to Knaresborough and Harrogate.
It may be within earshot of the A59 but the main street of the village itself has an almost palpable air of calm. The 60 or so houses – some old, some new – are spaced out in a relaxed fashion along it. There is a fine Anglican church, a Methodist chapel, a children’s play area and a well maintained duck pond. There used to be a school, a pub and some shops here once but like so many rural places, Hessay has lost them all.
The issues that take up time at meetings of the local parish council would no doubt chime chords with parish councils across Yorkshire – potholes in the local roads, an extension to the 30mph zone, improvements to the village pond and the need to write to sat-nav companies asking them to stop sending motorists into a village dead end.
And the future of the village phone box has led to an exchange of letters with British Telecom. BT wanted to sell the phone box to the parish council for £1 as a heritage feature. “As a little used kiosk, it may be subject to a future removal proposal,” BT said. The parish council declined to buy it. It’s still there now but for how much longer?
It’s all so familiar. In Hessay you could be at the centre of modern Yorkshire. And indeed you are at the centre, exactly at the centre, because the Ordnance Survey has recently calculated the geographical midpoint of the county and found it to be in a field just a short walk from the main street – Hessay is the centre of all things Yorkshire. The Ordnance Survey started making calculations like this after too many places started claiming to be the centre of Britain. Some refereeing was needed. But how do you find the centre point of a three dimensional land mass sitting on the surface of a sphere and surrounded by sea water? The national mapping agency devised a computer program that uses standard mathematical principles to determine the centre of a flat irregular shape – a polygon.
Melanie Osborne at the Ordnance Survey explains: “A polygon is made up of a series of points that have a location described by an easting and a northing. These are then joined together by lines or vertices. The calculation takes the middle one of these in both the easting and northing directions to generate the centre point. Does that help?”
It doesn’t, but happily there is a more everyday explanation. If you were to cut out a map of Britain, Yorkshire or anywhere, stick it on a piece of card and try to balance it all on a pin, the mathematical centre point would be where the map balanced. The problem in defining the centre of God’s own country is, as Melanie points out that “Yorkshire” does not actually exist anymore.
The old Ridings have been hacked about and the arrival of unitary authorities has enabled places to opt out of being in Yorkshire at a county level. As well as anywhere within the current North, West, South and East Yorkshire, we’re including those places that are run as unitary council areas but are still included in Yorkshire for ceremonial purposes and therefore represented by one of the Lord Lieutenants of Yorkshire – in other words, those places still within Yorkshire as far as the Queen is concerned, and you can’t argue with her.
All of which brings us to Hessay and June Sanderson who owns the field that is at the centre of Yorkshire. It’s bounded by hedges, distinctly boggy during the winter months perhaps, but grazed by beef cattle over the summer. Three previous generations of June’s family have farmed this field, though none realised its significance.
Walking towards the hallowed spot with her black Labrador Niamh, June tells me that Hessay means “land where the hazel grows” and that today it is a quiet, friendly village. She admits it had “never crossed my mind” that this was no ordinary field and the soil beneath her feet no ordinary earth, but stops short of pledging to errect a landmark. As is the Yorkshire way, June will approach her role as custodian of the county’s heart without fuss.
“Hessay has a unique attraction,” says Mark Barrett, chair of Hessay Parish Council. “It is quiet and you can escape from the rat race here, but the village is very well connected – you can get anywhere very quickly.
“When we bought our home seven years ago, we were looking for somewhere to settle, bring up our children and retire. It just seems right here.”
While the village may no longer have its own school, the advert pinned to the notice board for the Hessay Tots mums’ and pre-school children group in the play area suggests there is still plenty of young blood in Hessay.
According to Mark, there are about 50 under-16s out of a population of 200. Like many places, the village is a mix of people who have lived here a long time and relative newcomers.
“People work all over,” explains Mark, “but farmers form the nucleus of the village. First and foremost, it is still an agricultural village. It’s a pleasant surprise to find Hessay is the centre point of Yorkshire, but I doubt it will change our lives.”
Actually, if you have to have a centre of Yorkshire, Hessay seems to be a good place to have it. If the land didn’t dip and there weren’t trees in the way, you would be in sight of York Minster. The village is close to where the River Nidd joins the Ouse, that great river system that unifies our county. The nearby Rufforth Airfield – now the York Gliding Centre – flew Halifax bombers that helped to win the Second World War. And just nearby is one of the most important battlefield sites on English soil.
The Battle of Marston Moor took place on a summer’s evening in 1644 and is thought to be the largest battle fought in England. It was a turning point in the Civil War. In a few hours, an allied army of the Earl of Leven’s Scottish forces, Lord Fairfax’s Yorkshire forces and the East Anglian Cavalry routed the Royalists, sealing the fate of York and the north of England. In particular, it destroyed the aura surrounding Prince Rupert’s until-then invincible cavalry and at the same time dramatically elevated the reputation of one of the Parliamentary field commanders, Oliver Cromwell.
Today, there is a substantial stone monument between where the two opposing sides drew up their forces before the battle. From the monument you can look up towards Cromwell’s Clump, a group of trees on the hill to the south, behind which Cromwell had his base.
It doesn’t take much to imagine the battle in full sway and I find it chilling and humbling in equal measure and it seems somehow fitting that this piece of historic soil sits at the heart of the county
Back in the comfort of the car, thoughts shift back to the present day. I make a mental note to suggest to June Sanderson that a monument of similar proportions might not look out of place in her field in Hessay.
And I make another note to urge Mark Barratt and the Hessay Parish Council to hold onto their phone box. It might not itself mark the exact centre of Yorkshire but if Dunsop Bridge in the Forest of Bowland is now defined by its celebrity phone box, it would be folly for Hessay to let its own slip away at the moment.
Debate over middle Britain
According to Ordnance Survey, the centre of Britain is in the Forest of Bowland at a spot called Whitendale Hanging Stones.
British Telecom has installed a plaque at the phone box in the village saying: “You are calling from the BT payphone that marks the centre of Great Britain.” It was their 100,000th payphone and was opened specially by Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
However, not everyone is convinced by Lancashire’s claim to fame. There are some people who argue instead that the centre of Britain is the point farthest from the sea (near Coton-in-the-Elms in Derbyshire), while others say it is the point mid-way along the mainland’s longest line of longitude (Haltwhistle in Northumberland).