Malcolm Barker: Some Yorkshire gumption could safeguard the Wolds

Walkers in the Yorkshire Wolds
Walkers in the Yorkshire Wolds
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THE failure of the Yorkshire Wolds, a crescent of chalk hills extending from Flamborough Head to the Humber, to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is hardly likely to cause consternation. Yorkshire folk are well acquainted with the county’s most pleasing landscapes, and they certainly include the chalky uplands of the East Riding.

What’s curious is Natural England’s reason for failing to respond positively to East Riding Council’s bid for AONB recognition for the Wolds. Turning down the application, this absurd and inflated quango stirred in its mire of bureaucracy to declare that there was no prospect of funding being available for the designation of a new Area in the near future.

This sounds odd. Given an Ordnance Survey map and a sharp pencil, it would not be difficult to draw a line round the Wolds. And there, suitably defined, would be the new AONB, ready for declaration at a cost that should surely be no more than a couple of bob, or maybe half-a-crown.

Getting AONB status may be worthwhile. It offers protection against development that would “damage special qualities”, according to Natural England, including, presumably, the Government’s hideous wind turbines, and Princess Anne’s house-building in villages. The Areas also have a huge advantage over National Parks, where one aim seems to be the attraction of as many visitors as possible, which results in crowds trampling the tops off the loneliest hills.

On the downside, there are opportunities for official meddling, with the drawing up of local authority “development plans” and the creation of “conservation boards” to manage AONBs.

The wonder of the Wolds is that they have evolved in answer to nature, and, much more recently, to the requirements of man. Their very existence is owed to an almost inconceivable event, as may be perceived on the 450ft cliffs north of Flamborough Head. Here, right down to sea level, the cliffs gleam white, having been formed from the shells, teeth and bones of creatures that lived in the waters of a prehistoric ocean.

The chalk layer goes further under the earth below the cliffs, and has been measured at 1,200 ft below the Wolds. This vast carapace set over the earth represents the gradual accretion over millions of years of these remains, some so small they can only be discerned by microscope.

The underlying chalk is reflected by the character of the landscape Uplands are empty apart from the occasional homestead, many of which shrug into shelter belts of trees, standing like turned-up collars against shrewd winds blowing off the North Sea. The hills are interspersed with empty valleys, some too steeply-sided to defy cultivating. Here wild flowers gleam in the sparse grass, and all is silent apart from the buzz of bees and the merry song of skylarks.

Most valleys are dry, for the chalk absorbs water like a huge sponge, but there is the odd wayward stream, the most persistent of which is the Gypsey Race. Rising in the northern Wolds, it flows 22 miles eastwards to pour into Bridlington harbour, mostly on the surface, but sometimes underground.

There is ample evidence of early human occupation. The most striking, awesome even, is Duggleby Howe, a gigantic round barrow 20ft high and 120ft across. Excavation revealed more than fifty cremation burials in a central pit, along with artefacts such as bone pins and flint tools associated with late Neolithic times. When the Romans came they crossed the Humber by ferry at Brough and drove a road north to Norton and Malton, sufficient traces of which remain for the route to be identified. This highway, known as Humber Street, is typically Roman in its resolute progress, holding its line along the crest of the western escarpment which fronts the Vale of York. On Garrowby Hill it reaches 800ft, the high point of the Wolds, and offers a sighting of the distant Pennines.

The men of the Ninth Legion may have passed this way en route for York, where they established a headquarters.

If ghosts there be, the Legionaries may still be on the march, but they would not lack kindred spirits, for the Wolds form an eerie landscape, with deserted tracks, abandoned quarries, and crumbling buildings. There is the old Malton-Driffield railway, a great feat of Victorian construction, which ran through a mile-long tunnel at Burdale, but last carried a train in 1958. Most haunting of all, there are the deserted villages.

Of these the best known is Wharram Percy, and it is estimated there are about 100 others in the East Riding. They flourished in Medieval times, for there was plenty of work on the land. But as an insatiable demand for wool was generated by the mills of the West Riding, sheep provided the most profitable harvest, and there was no work for ploughmen. Wharram Percy parish of 1,500 acres became an enormous sheep run, families moved away, and the last four households were eventually evicted, resulting in the cottages and the church of St Martin falling into disrepair.

Excavations there were led for many years by Professor MW Beresford, and it is now one of the best known deserted villages in the country.

Members of the newsroom staff of the Yorkshire Evening Post frequently found themselves reporting from the Wolds and the adjoining resort of Bridlington in the 1950s. In charge at that time was Alan Woodward, the paper’s last editor to consistently put on circulation, and as a Lincolnshire man he seemed to have developed a special interest in the Yorkshire Wolds.

This intensified in winter when newsworthy blizzards would maroon entire communities on the uplands between the Humber and the Derwent. Once, when Thixendale had been cut off for a week or so, Mr Woodward, in consultation with the news editor, Ken Lemmon, decided that the Yorkshire Evening Post should mount a relief expedition.

Gus Turner was chosen for the job, and took with him two loaves and some tins of pilchards, thus adding a Biblical reference to the venture. He set off from where the snow-ploughs had quit, and trudged across packed snow in drifts as deep as the tops of hedgerows.

At last he arrived, only to find a Mother’s Pride van drawn up outside the village shop. “They opened a road in last night,” explained a villager. Gus said he suddenly understood how Scott must have felt on beholding Amundsen’s flag at the South Pole. What he had not realised was that Thixendale may be small and remote, a good 10 miles from Malton, but six roads lead into it, and if one way is closed it is very probable that another may be open.

That is how it is on the Wolds; there is usually a means to achieve an end. It might be worth the East Riding Council’s while to use some gumption and somehow achieve the safeguards being denied them by Natural England. It would be a wonderful example of Yorkshire self-help, worthy of Samuel Smiles himself, for the East Riding, perhaps by enforcing stricter planning rules, to set up its very own AONB.

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