Malcolm Barker: Man who first put Ridings on the map

Phil Wilde, senior library assistant, looking at the a map of Yorkshire in the Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales, Christopher Saxton, 1579.Phil Wilde, senior library assistant, looking at the a map of Yorkshire in the Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales, Christopher Saxton, 1579.
Phil Wilde, senior library assistant, looking at the a map of Yorkshire in the Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales, Christopher Saxton, 1579.
Today is Yorkshire Day, due to be celebrated with flat cap-flinging, a hog roast, much singing of Ilkley Moor Bah’t Hat, brass bands at full blast, tides of doggerel, and sundry proclamations. These are no arcane ceremonies, like the Planting of the Penny Hedge in Whitby’s upper harbour on Ascension Eve, for which no entirely convincing explanation has been forthcoming.

Yorkshire Day was conjured up after the 1974 boundaries reorganisation, when realisation dawned that Edward Heath’s Tories had done away with the Ridings as entities of local government after more than 1,000 years. The Yorkshire Ridings Society settled on August 1, explaining that it was the anniversary of the Battle of Minden, fought in 1759 in what is now Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. Yorkshire soldiers were involved, and they are supposed to have picked white roses in tribute to fallen comrades.

Thus the day commemorates a forgotten battle in a distant country. One possible alternative date was All Fools’ Day, for it was on April 1 that the reforms pushed through by Ted Heath and his local government minister, Peter Walker, took effect.

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However, the choice was August 1, and it is now nicely established in the calendar, which is a good thing, for we need to keep the memory of the Ridings alive in the minds of new generations. It also offers the opportunity to salute the early cartographer who first delineated them, a remarkable Yorkshireman called Christopher Saxton, who, during the 16th century, produced at the behest of the government the first county maps of England and Wales.

He was brought up in the hamlet of Dunnington, near Tingley, which is now on the outskirts of Leeds. Plainly he had an affection for his home ground, for Dunnington figured on his maps, its name given similar prominence to that afforded to bigger places, such as Wakefield and Pontefract. There is a theory that he was sent to school at Wakefield, and that he came under the influence of John Rudd, Vicar of Dewsbury and Thornhill, who was interested in cartography and may have passed on what he knew to the lad.

However acquired, Christopher Saxton deployed his skill as a map-maker to such good effect that when the first Queen Elizabeth decided, on the advice of her Ministers, to promote an official survey of England and Wales, he was chosen to do the work. He was placed under the patronage of a wealthy courtier, Thomas Seckford, of Woodbridge, Suffolk, and began his task in 1574. By 1579, after only five surveying seasons, Saxton was able to pass a complete set of proofs to the statesman William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, who had them bound into an atlas for his own use. How the work was completed in so short a time is unknown. Christopher Saxton wrote no notes about his surveying methods, and no textbooks. How he managed to cover the counties at a rate of one a month intrigues cartographers to this day, although there are indications that he cut some corners, not bothering with detailed coverage of empty landscapes like the Pennine watershed.

He took with him a letter from the Privy Council addressed to Justices of the Peace asking them to ensure he was conducted to “any tower, castle, high place or hill to view the country”, and to send with him “honest men who best knew the country.” He also climbed the hills with beacons at their summits that formed part of an early warning system covering the country from Medieval times, and perhaps even before then. Saxton’s work was published as Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales. The first atlas of any country, it consisted of 35 maps, each containing the arms of Queen Elizabeth I and his patron, Thomas Seckford. Saxton obtained a licence to sell the maps for a period of 10 years, and it is nice to think he did well out of them, for they were a commercial success. Christopher Saxton’s maps continued in use for at least a century after his death in around 1610, aged about 70, and are worthy forerunners of the magnificent Ordnance Survey series. These were launched in 1783, when the Board of Ordnance accepted William Roy’s ambitious plan to provide superior maps of Britain which would be unmatched for accuracy. It is now their lot to reflect the changes to Yorkshire that have occurred since Saxton’s tour of his native county. We were assured that the Ridings would remain during the run-up to reorganisation, and so they did, but, stripped of their significance as entities of local government, they are now fading from memory. A majority of those questioned in a poll did not believe that Middlesbrough was in the North Riding. It still is, but only as part of a “historic county”. Oblivion was the eventual fate of very early divisions, the wapontakes instituted by our Norse ancestors, but they survived sufficiently in public memory to be marked clearly on Robert Morden’s 17th century map of the North Riding. The name of one of them, Langbargh, was revived in 1974 for one of the new district councils set up as part of Cleveland, but people complained that it sounded like a nasty cough, and Langbargh subsided for a second time.

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More resilience is being shown by places like Mickleton in Upper Teesdale, which were transferred to County Durham, now designated a “ceremonial county”, their old North Riding allegiance being recognised by their place in a “historic county”. For many years Mickleton flew the Yorkshire flag, and its inn was an outpost of the county. Adjoining natural wonders like Yorkshire’s highest mountain, Mickle Fell, and High Force are now administered, not from Northallerton, but from Durham. Dent and Sedbergh are in Cumbria, the Trough of Bowland in Lancashire, and the worst fate was reserved for Saddleworth, consigned into Oldham as part of Greater Manchester. Two years ago, Eric Pickles, then the local government secretary in the coalition, declared on St George’s Day, April 24, that the government formally acknowledged England’s 39 traditional counties, including Yorkshire and its Ridings, Cumberland and Westmoreland. It was progress of a sort.

All we can do is cherish the memory of the great county mapped by Christopher Saxton, and regret the lost lands occupying its corners like phantoms at a feast.

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