The Yorkshire Wolds: Is it the UK’s most under appreciated green gem?

The classic Yorkshire Wolds valley of Thixendale. PIC: Colin Speakman
The classic Yorkshire Wolds valley of Thixendale. PIC: Colin Speakman
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Often said to be the UK’s most under-appreciated area, the Yorkshire Wolds has also largely been ignored by publishers. Now as a major new book redresses the balance, Roger Ratcliffe meets the authors.

It is generally accepted that the crescent of chalk hills which ripple north from the Humber to terminate dramatically at the white cliffs of Flamborough and Bempton form England’s last undiscovered landscape.

Not in the sense of a Lost World like the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel of that name. The residents of Wolds villages like Thixendale and Huggate value their seclusion from life’s hurly-burly, but they have not been isolated from modern life like the fictitious ancient civilisation created by Conan Doyle. Rather, the landscape has somehow evaded the radar of most walkers, cyclists and – most mercifully – operators of rubbernecking coach parties. Even within Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Wolds is hardly a household name.

“Without doubt the area is the UK’s best-kept secret,” says Fleur Speakman, who with husband Colin is the author of the first major book to be written about the area. “Not only are those hills and valleys extraordinarily beautiful, there is also an immense amount of incredible history.”

Colin admits he has come late to the Wolds as an author, despite having written over 50 walking and topography books on Yorkshire plus other volumes of biography and poetry. He first discovered them back in the late 1960s when Millington Dale became a flashpoint for ramblers demanding access to one of Yorkshire’s most scenic valleys. It was among the biggest such protest since the 1932 historic mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District and led, eventually, to the creation of the now highly popular national trail, the 79-mile Yorkshire Wolds Way.

“I’ve still got an old pair of wire-cutters I used to cut through a fence over a public right of way on that demonstration,” he smiles.

The Wolds have been described as “a piece of Southern England in the North”, but Colin reclaims them as very definitely belonging to Yorkshire. Chalk downland in the south is nowhere near as spectacular, he maintains, and in the book’s introduction he quotes Alfred J. Brown’s seminal volume on the Yorkshire landscape Broad Acres: “Truly, it is in the Wolds that one derives perhaps the best impression of a land of broad acres: for from any of the gentle ridges, one looks over immense vistas of undulating arable land, acres and acres of corn and of green pastures. This, one feels, is certainly Yorkshire at its richest and best.”

But Colin believes the quotation doesn’t really do justice to the Wolds’ most distinctive landscape feature, the myriad steep-sided valleys which twist and turn through the chalk hills and are unique in Yorkshire.

The book puts that right through lavish illustrations from the camera of Colin and his son Dorian, giving the Yorkshire Wolds the coffee-table book treatment reminiscent of the best-selling work by Harrogate-based photographer Derry Brabbs. Other photographers contributed illustrations, including a beautiful scene in Frendale near Huggate that perfectly captures the essence of the Wolds’ dry valleys. Most of these valleys are hidden away and known only to walkers and farmers, he says, and they reflect the main story of the Yorkshire Wolds.

“It’s all about water. This is a landscape of curious, dry valleys whose streams, if they appear at all, are only to be seen after heavy rain, as rainwater seeps through the rocks underground.” This has led to one of the more curious features of the Wolds – a plethora of man-made clay-lined ponds which trap water in a landscape where there is no water supply.

It was the availability of water which created the main centres of populations in the Wolds, and these are used as anchors for book’s 10 chapters, each one serving as a place from which to explore the neighbouring landscape and villages. The Speakmans’ journey begins on the Humber, where Yorkshire’s fourth largest city is given its Sunday name of Kingston-upon-Hull, and moves north from Brough to Market Weighton, Pocklington, Stamford Bridge, Malton and Filey. They complete their circular tour of the Wolds via Bridlington, Driffield and Beverley.

The towns and villages provide many of the fascinating stories they uncovered. From Welton, on the southern slopes of the Wolds, comes the tale of John Palmer, who lodged at the Green Dragon Inn in 1738 and while there was unmasked as the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin. The following year he was executed at York. Also on the Wolds’ fringe is Brough, where in 1916 Robert Blackburn built a factory to test the newly developed concept for aircraft that could take off on water, the world’s first seaplanes.

Market Weighton’s outsized contribution to Wolds history is symbolised by the huge life-sized effigy of William Bradley, otherwise known as the Yorkshire Giant. In the early 19th century he became the tallest Englishman ever recorded, standing seven feet nine inches tall, and was a familiar sight at fairgrounds and events around the country. To this day no one has beaten Bradley’s record.

Fleur’s research of the village of Warter, beautifully situated in a fold among the chalk hills, led her to devote four pages to it in the book.

“When we started this project we had no idea there were so many amazing stories to tell,” she says. She was particularly moved by the scale of tragedy which befell the family of Sir Charles Wilson, the Hull shipping magnates who owned the Warter estate. Most touching of all was the story of his second son Guy being overcome with grief when his young wife died in childbirth in 1906 and the infant was stillborn. His response was to build a classical mausoleum with two stained glass windows showing his dead wife and baby ascending to heaven. The windows or “lunettes” are now beautifully displayed in the Wolds Heritage Centre, formerly Warter’s St. James’ Church.

“There were so many incredible characters who lived in the Wolds,” says Fleur. “We could have written long chapters on people like Winifred Holtby, the author and early feminist who sadly died at the age of 37, though not before writing her classic novel of Yorkshire in the 1930s, South Riding.”

Had Colin began his career as a teacher in Hull rather than Leeds, would he have been happy to devote his life to writing about the Wolds in the way that he has become identified with the Yorkshire Dales?

“Absolutely,” he says at once. “Of course, living across here (the Speakmans have spent most of their married life in Wharfedale) the Dales very much became a passion. But there are now literally thousands of books on the Dales, and when we did a small walking guide to the Yorkshire Wolds a few years back we felt there was a desperate need for a book that would bring all the area’s landscape features and history together.”

The Yorkshire Wolds: A Journey of Discovery, by Fleur & Colin Speakman (Gritstone Publishing, £15). Available from bookshops or gritstone.coop