Malcolm Barker: Folly of overlooking the many alluring faces of Yorkshire

View from Spion Cop, Whitby
View from Spion Cop, Whitby
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THE newspaperman Sir Simon Jenkins, now the chairman of the National Trust, has been somewhat scrimpy with Yorkshire in his choice of 50 best English views.

West Yorkshire is unrepresented among his top 50, not even by the alluring bleakness of Top Withens near Haworth, admired world-wide by followers of the Brontë sisters.

East Yorkshire also scores nil despite the advocacy by David Hockney of the smooth undulations of its chalk landscapes, its lanes and its trees.

North Yorkshire gets a niggardly five: Ribblehead Viaduct, Gordale Scar, Rievaulx Abbey, Roseberry Topping, and Whitby Harbour from West Cliff.

This last choice is interesting. To see the Abbey and St Mary’s Parish Church from the West Cliff is easy, involving nothing more than a stroll along the pavement opposite the Royal Hotel.

To see the full length and breadth of the harbour, however, it is necessary to ascend Spion Kop, the ridge of upland sitting atop the Crag and penetrated by a gloomy tunnel much haunted by followers of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

If Sir Simon returned there now he would be in for a shock, and would hastily revise his list.

In an article about his two years researching his new book, he warns of the “sudden vulnerability” of landscapes and townscapes to “careless development”.

That is precisely what has happened on Spion Kop. For some unfathomable reason, possibly connected with health and safety, Scarborough Borough Council has intruded a singularly ugly fence to obstruct the view that qualified for Sir Simon’s list.

It caused outrage and frustration in Whitby, where there is no recall of someone falling off Spion Kop, and seemed to arrive unheralded in the true tradition of a Scarborough Warning – “a blow and then a word”.

The proceedings of Scarborough Borough Council appear to go unreported, and the voices of Whitby’s elected representatives, if raised in protest, are therefore unheard.

They might have recalled that when Spion Kop was presented to the people of Whitby (via their old urban council) by the shipowner Sir John Harrowing in 1930, his purpose in purchasing the land was to put a halt to any idea of development there.

It is ironic that the first subsequent intrusion is the work of the successors to that same authority to which he entrusted its care.

Scarborough has had suzerainty over Whitby for nearly 40 years since local government reforms were implemented in 1974, and, in contrast to its own depressed state, has seen its neighbour thriving, for prosperity blew into Whitby with the arrival of the replica of HM Bark Endeavour in 1997.

While Whitby is daily thronged by people and swamped by cars, Scarborough is struggling along with such unlikely attractions as the revamped open-air theatre.

I recall it from childhood as a place of dread, where we sat shivering as various thespians, got up as Indians and paddling canoes, sang songs from Hiawatha.

It is hardly surprising, in such circumstances, that Whitby folk tend to be suspicious of Scarborough, and attribute unworthy motives to perceived failings on the part of their big rival.

These include, pending renovations, the closure of the Cliff Lift for the duration of the best summer in years, and the failure to renew the link between the East Pier and its extension.

Apart from such vexed matters, Sir Simon’s list contains several points of interest. His advocacy of Rievaulx Abbey cites a viewpoint located on the Terrace, a National Trust property well up a hillside, which is certainly grand.

However, it is no better surely than the sudden appearance of Fountains Abbey during the pond-side walk from the lower gates, a preferred route because it avoids the awful visitor centre.

An argument may also be sustained in support of Kirkstall Abbey, whose old bones rest comfortably within the city of Leeds, or for tranquil Jervaulx.

Ribblehead Viaduct is a wonderful achievement set in glorious countryside, but is it really a better representative of the Industrial Revolution than Sir Titus Salt’s imposing mill at Saltaire?

Sir Simon’s closest brush with industrial Yorkshire comes with his top 50 choice of Roseberry Topping.

Presumably he is recommending the eminence as a viewing point, for he appends the words “towards Teesside”, which means looking across to workaday Middlesbrough, with its fuming chemical works and foundries.

It is possible to quibble with Sir Simon on this point, for if he had recommended turning in another direction and looking westward he would have offered his readers the sight of a huge tract of countryside reaching into the blue distance, where the hills of Wensleydale, outer ramparts of the backbone of England, rise from the plain.

The Topping itself is a reminder of the impact of industry on landscape, for it owes its unusual shape to ironstone mining. The extraction there was a source of controversy in the 19th century at work endangering Cleveland’s only claim to something resembling a mountain.

Their fears were realised, but not until 1912, when an implosion caused the Topping to adopt its tottering stance, and reduced its height to 1,029ft, less than that of nearby Urra Moor.

There is a golden opportunity for controversy in choosing favourite views, and Sir Simon has struck out boldly.

He will not expect his snubbing of East and West Yorkshire to be greeted with anything other than dismay. Any gathering of mature Yorkshire men and women could very quickly identify the 100 best views of England within the confines of the old Ridings.

Gordon Home, the writer and watercolourist, published a wonderful book called Yorkshire in 1908, but did not reach the century, finding 71 subjects for his illustrations. He could not prevent an imbalance between the Ridings, with what is now West Yorkshire getting four entries (including “Iron Foundries at Brightside, Sheffield”), two going to York, seven to East Yorkshire and all the rest to the North.

And of course a view is what you make of it. A curmudgeonly old Tyke once proclaimed that his favourite view of all was that of a train with steam up on the down platform at King’s Cross station in London. He explained it meant he would soon be home in Yorkshire.

*Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.