The charming East Yorkshire market town of Pocklington has plenty to offer visitors and just happens to be the setting for a couple of my favourite, family-friendly days out.
I’ve taken many a scenic stroll along the towpath of the Pocklington Canal, but I’ve also been lucky enough to enjoy a memorable boat trip on the canal itself.
The Pocklington Canal Amenity Society (PCAS) runs free, 30-minute boat trips aboard ‘New Horizons’ on Sundays and Bank Holidays during the summer months. You don’t need to book, but donations to PCAS, which is a registered charity, are welcome. Head for the pretty village of Melbourne, park on the main street and follow the sign pointing down the dusty track at the side of the Melbourne Arms pub.
New Horizons can only carry 12 people and queues sometimes form, particularly in good weather, but it’s well worth sticking around to wait. When we visited in spring, the incredibly clear water was dotted with yellow lilies and other wild plants.
We saw moorhens and baby mallards, not to mention countless aquamarine damselflies flitting through the reeds lining the canal’s banks. It’s an idyllic location; take a picnic and wander along the towpath to find a shady spot where you can sit and enjoy the view.
The nine-and-a-half mile-long waterway flows between Canal Head near Pocklington and the River Derwent at East Cottingwith. Work to construct it began in 1815 and was completed three years later at a cost of £32,695. It was mostly used to carry coal and agricultural produce but, as with so many of the nation’s canals, the advent of the railways sounded its death knell.
It was sold to the York and North Midland Railway in 1848 and quickly deteriorated due to a lack of maintenance. By the early part of the last century, it was in the ownership of the North Eastern Railway and had gradually fallen into disuse. The keel Ebenezer was the last commercial craft to use it, in 1932.
The railway company bought a lorry for the owner of the keel to avoid its maintenance obligations, a move that appears to have sealed the waterway’s fate. As the lock gates deteriorated, pleasure craft also stopped using the canal, although it was never formally abandoned.
With the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, ownership passed to the British Transport Commission and then, in 1963, to the British Waterways Board, which was later renamed British Waterways.
A proposal to fill the canal in with ‘inoffensive sludge’ from a water treatment plant caused uproar among landowners, local residents, and members of the Inland Waterways Association. With support from the Inland Waterway Protection Society, Parliament was lobbied to save the canal as part of a well-publicised campaign.
Thankfully, the campaigners’ efforts paid off and, in 1969, Pocklington Canal Amenity Society was formed. Since then a major restoration programme has been carried out and more than half of the canal is, once again, open to navigation.
Another favourite attraction is Burnby Hall Gardens, which is home to one of only two national collections of hardy water lilies in the UK. When the longest and warmest days of the year approach, more than 100 different varieties of water lily burst into flower on the upper and lower lakes.
Since 1964, the Stewart Trust, which runs the gardens and takes its name from Major Percy Marlborough Stewart who once owned the Burnby Hall estate, has been responsible for developing the water lily collection. Major Stewart was an adventurer, traveller, scholar, philanthropist, collector and environmentalist. He and his wife, Katharine, bought Burnby Hall estate
in 1904 and devoted their lives to creating gardens of outstanding beauty, as well as somehow finding the time to take eight world tours. When he died, Major Stewart left the gardens and the collection of cultural and religious exhibits that he had picked up on his travels for the benefit of local people.
Another lovely time to visit is in late April or May, when the annual Tulip Festival brings a riot of colour to the gardens. In all, more than 14,000 tulips of 30 different varieties are on display. There’s also a play area, Koi carp in the lake for children to feed and a café serving snacks and ice creams, making Burnby Hall Gardens a must-visit attraction on a trip to Pocklington.
With an impressive line-up of independent boutiques, galleries and stores, Pocklington’s town centre is a pleasant spot for a relaxed afternoon of shopping or a long, leisurely coffee outside a pavement café.
The beautiful homeware shops are a particular favourite of mine. Market Street still hosts a weekly market every Tuesday, where you can buy everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to handcrafted wooden furniture.
Pocklington Arts Centre is slap bang in the middle of town in the former Ritz cinema building. It opened its doors in April 2000 and has hosted a string of high-profile performers during the last two decades; everyone from Sarah Millican to Midge Ure has performed there (former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant had been due to appear at Pocklington’s Platform Festival this summer until the pandemic struck).
Another prominent feature of the town centre is the 30-metre tall tower of All Saints’ Church, which is known locally as the ‘Cathedral of the Wolds’. A Grade I-listed building, it dates back to between 1200 and 1450 and unusual features to look for inside include the 15th century Flemish altarpiece and fascinating carvings under the tower and around the columns.
Increased demand for new homes has led to hundreds of new houses springing up around the town in recent years, but these developments have also provided an unexpected window into Pocklington’s past. A large Iron Age cemetery was unearthed on the David Wilson Homes housing estate on Burnby Lane and an Iron Age warrior’s grave, of huge historical significance, containing his skeleton, bronze shield and chariot, was discovered.
It’s thought that the fertile and well-drained soils, water courses of the Pocklington beck and the proximity of the Yorkshire Wolds led to the area becoming a settlement as early as the Neolithic period. By 1086 the Domesday book recorded an extensive Royal Manor at Pocklington and in medieval times the town prospered as a market town where livestock and wool were traded.
Today, Pocklington is an appealing mix of old and new, a town that offers a high standard of 21st century living but is still firmly in touch with its past.
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