The Leeds Festival is twinned with the Reading festival in Berkshire over the August Bank Holiday weekend and is held in the grounds of Bramham Park, an historic house. The acts have diversified from rock and metal bands to include alternative, punk and indie music.
Yorkshire – Long Read

Natural beauty and historic cities

Photo by Gary Calton

Yorkshire – Long Read Natural beauty and historic cities

Hello Yorkshire, once at the heart of England's Industrial Revolution and a major exporter of textiles and wool to the vast British Empire. As the empire faded, so too have its heavy industries but the county has reinvented itself to win another worldwide reputation, this time as a destination rich in natural beauty, historic cities and strong-minded people.

James Ellis
James Ellis Travel Writer

“How can you not like going to the office when this is where you have to work,” says Jason Richards, sweeping his hands in a gesture to take in the cinematic view.

From the summit of the Buttertubs Pass, the Yorkshire Dales unfold below us, myriad fields stitched together like a patchwork quilt by the 8,000 or so kilometers of drystone walls that separate smallholdings here. The landscape, said to be the greenest in England, is dotted with tiny traditional villages, old stone barns, wooded copses, trickling streams and swollen rivers and, as the sun begins to set, the crops in the valley sway in the light breeze, creating a golden ripple across the view.

Cycling is big around these parts, and the varied landscape with its narrow roads and challenging hills was a large factor in Yorkshire being awarded the 2014 Grand Départ of the Tour de France. But while those on two wheels have struggled huffing and puffing to share our view from Buttertubs (which takes its name from a number of cooling caverns in the limestone rock that farmers would use as a natural larder on their way to market), I have zipped to the top in no time at all. Not that I am a super cyclist or anything… I am on the back of a Boom trike powered by a 1.6-liter Zetec engine, the same engine that drive many Ford cars.

Up front is Jason Richards who runs Yorkshire Trike Tours with his wife Judith. They both gave up their day jobs in early 2013 to set up the company that combines his love of driving trikes with their shared passion for the Dales. “Jason worked in IT and I was a teacher,” says Judith as she pulls out a hamper laden with local cheeses, pork pies and warming potato-and-leek soup from the trike’s boot. We tuck in with the magnificent Dales views as a backdrop. “He had to travel a lot for work, I was in school all the time. We needed to make a change and we did.”

When I was growing up, you never left Yorkshire

Our trip takes in an 80-km circle of the Dales, a national park that spreads north from the market and spa towns of Settle, Skipton, Ilkley and Harrogate, and which takes its name from a number of river valleys that run through it.

I start at imposing Middleham Castle, the childhood home of King Richard III and take in the pretty towns of Askrigg, Hawes and Reeth, as well as the rushing butterscotch-colored Aysgarth Falls and turreted Middleham Bridge on the River Ure. The fact that we drive for three hours and barely touch the sides of the national park, let alone the county, helps put Yorkshire’s size into perspective.

“I remember going to teacher-training college in London and being astounded that I could walk for five minutes and be in another county,” says Judith. “When I was growing up, you never left Yorkshire. If you were leaving it would have to be for more than a few days, everything you could want was here.”

The golden shimmer of the crops is, perhaps, a fitting color for this vast county that stretches from bleak moors in the north to the former steel-and coalmining communities in the south, and from the fishing villages of the Jurassic Coast to the east, to the delicious Dales that surround me in the west.

Once England’s largest county and one of the country’s leading powerhouses, from long before its people gathered behind the House of York in the 15th century Wars of the Roses, Yorkshire’s history is a proud one. Football was invented here in the world’s first club, Sheffield FC; the county’s cricket team is the most decorated in the world and culture, from artist David Hockney, through playwright and author Alan Bennett, to the modish sounds of pop band Pulp, runs deep.

Blighted by falls in grain and meat prices

The county’s huge size means that she was split into four administrative regions in the 1970s to make her easier to manage (a fact no true Yorkshireman recognizes), while circumstances conspired to create a bleak end to the last century. The many farms here in the north of the county were blighted by falls in grain and meat prices, while coastal villages – traditional seaside holiday destinations – were decimated as more and more people fled the traditionally dreary English weather to holiday on the continent.

The cotton mills that had provided work around the large urban centers of Leeds and Bradford were undercut from abroad and South Yorkshire, where I was born, perhaps had it worse than anywhere. Sheffield steel was world-renowned until the furnaces stopped smelting, while the heart was ripped out of the coal-mining industry, which employed 80 per cent of the people in the village I was brought up in. Margaret Thatcher’s ideological battles with the unions saw an end to both industries and what were once tight-knit communities were pulled apart as a lengthy depression set in.

It has been a long way back, but the whole county – all 12,000 square kilometers of it – has had to go through some form of reinvention. Leeds turned to financial services, styling itself as an alternative to the City of London; many northern farmers diversified into cottage industries playing heavily on the trend for organic food; and the south is a hive of call centers and related services. One of the biggest areas to see change, though, has come in tourism, where millions of pounds have been spent re-shaping the county’s image.

But it is not all glossy sheen and better messaging: the people on the ground, the small inn, restaurant, attraction and tour company have all massively improved their offerings, while people such as Judith and Jason have made career changes and reinvented themselves in the tourism sphere. The awarding of the start of the Tour de France may have been the cherry on the cake, but Yorkshire now regularly tops lists of the world’s best places to visit.

They have a real “I will survive” attitude

The split between the rural, arable north and the industrial south has always meant the county was broadly divided along political lines, with landholders being traditionally conservative and the staunchly socialist working class wearing the tag of “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” as a badge of honor. Despite these natural political enmities, there is a fierce Yorkshire pride and passion that runs through Tykes – as locals are known – that follows a strict hierarchy. Disdain starts with “soft southerners”, followed by those from the Midlands, northern rivals such as Manchester and Liverpool (a legacy of the Roses wars) – and only then people from other parts of the county.

“If there is a common thread between people from all over Yorkshire, it is their bloodymindedness,” says Gill Mellor of the Wold Top Brewery over a frothing pint of their Wold Gold ale. “They are incredibly cussed and never give up. If something doesn’t work, they look at it and find what does work. They have a real ‘I will survive’ attitude.”

Gill moved to Yorkshire from Kent when she met her husband Tom at university, and the couple’s small brewery is based on their farm near the market town of Driffield. It sits on the Yorkshire Wolds, a series of low-lying limestone hills that spread from York itself over to the east coast. “This was originally a sheep farm owned by Tom’s grandfather who bought it at the end of World War II,” she says. “Over the years it became more of an arable farm but in the 1980s there was a massive fall in grain prices that went from £200 a tonne to £70, and we had to look at other ways of making money to keep us afloat.” That is why they turned to brewing.

The Wolds are famed for the purity of their water. Driffield is on the most northerly chalk stream in Britain and the water is filtered through more than meters of chalk rock before breaking the surface in a series of springs, while the region grows some of the finest malt and barley in Europe. “Tom looked at what we did best,” Gill says. “He put water and barley together and beer was the obvious outcome. He had never been a home brewer, it was purely a commercial decision as we had to find a way to survive.”

Now, with dozens of award-winning beers on its books, the brewery has not only helped keep the family farm in the hands of the Mellors, but there are other spin-offs that have benefited local employment such as a bottling plant and an events company. “One of the other things about Yorkshire folk is that they stick together when times are tough,” Gill says. “People in the area see us as their local brewery and want to support us, plus people are very conscious of things like food miles: most of the pubs and hotels in the area will buy local when they can.”

The locals and our guests don’t want fancy food

That much is evident at The Bell, Driffield’s oldest pub and hotel. Opened as a two-up/two- down inn in the 1700s, it has been added to over the years to become a real Ali Baba’s cave of a hostelry. Old stone wells, once used to draw water, have been covered with glass allowing people to peer into seemingly bottomless pits, original deeds for the property are displayed on the walls and there is even the town’s original chalkboard bus schedule on one of the walls.

It has a higgledy-piggledy feel, aided by the uneven old flagstone floors but is, at the same time welcoming, largely thanks to owners George and Rita Rigg who have owned the inn for more than 40 years. “The locals and our guests don’t want fancy food,” says George. “They come here for old-fashioned comfort food: giant Yorkshire puddings with gravy and our pies, made with local beef from the town’s CN & AF Tindall Butchers. It is all washed down with a pint of Wold Top or, for those who prefer it, a bottle of local Blue Keld water.”

Not everyone who lives here is a local with a long history. Despite the dour image some hold of Yorkshire folk, there has always been a strong sense of welcome for those from outside the county, borne out by the large Indian and Pakistani communities in Bradford and Rotherham, alongside Leeds’ sizeable Jewish population.

Neil and Joan McClair, owners of the Low Mill Guesthouse in Bainbridge, are more recent settlers. The couple, he a former builder and she a vet, gave up their jobs and home in north London after just one visit to the Dales four years ago. “We came up for a weekend,” says Neil. “We were visiting the village of Hawes and I spotted the mill was for sale. It had been on the market for years and I fell in love with the building so much that we went back home with the idea of moving here – and we have never looked back.”

The 18th century stone corn mill, once a vital part of village life, has now been transformed into an award-winning guesthouse. Backing onto England’s shortest river, the River Bain, much of the original millworks, including the waterwheel, remain in working order, while its three bedrooms have original touches such as stripped wooden floors and beamed ceilings.

“I’d never been to Yorkshire before, but I immediately felt at home,” Neil adds. “We were a little concerned about how we would get on with the locals – but they have been amazing. They seem so pleased that a historic part of the village was renovated and was bringing business back. And we try and support them where we can by buying local.”

It is not all glittering success stories, though

It is not all glittering success stories, though. Cities such as Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield are not without their inner-city problems and when I visit Swinton, the South Yorkshire mining village in which I was born, I am surprised by just how run down it feels, compared to my both my early memories and the buoyant feeling elsewhere in the county. Fields in which I once played have been taken over by large industrial units, my old school is a printing plant and the main street through the village, once home to more than a dozen pubs now sees most of them boarded up, a legacy of the latest recession.

Even more saddening for me, the 300-year-old Ship Inn, in which I was born, has not been converted into a new tavern but razed to the ground to make way for “contemporary canalside living” as a sign advertises. But the plot on which it stands is now overgrown with weeds thanks to the developers running out of money.

It is not the first time the small town has faced hard times. In the mid-1800s, it was the home of world-famous Rockingham Pottery – a rival of Wedgewood - that saw its surrounds flourish. A huge order from tsarist Russia is said to have sunk the pottery’s finances. With the order ready to ship, the Russian Revolution began and payment was never made. A nice story, but the company actually went bust many years earlier. Either way, its rococo porcelain pieces now fetch a tidy sum on the antiques market.

I take a walk through the town with an old school friend reminiscing about our childhood days, picking out the spots where we used to play football and fish for newts on the canal. “Nothing is the same as what it was or what you remember,” he says. “But you know how it is. We don’t complain, we get on with life – there’s always something better around the corner. We just need to make it happen. We’ve done it before – and we can do it again.”

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