From gritty mill towns to wild moorlands and secluded coves, Yorkshire is England’s best-kept secret.
Drystone walls climb the hills as they have always done. Those wonderful limestone walls that symbolise the very soul of Yorkshire – England’s largest county. Endlessly varying patterns of grey against green; ragged squares and oblongs marching to impossible heights till they disappear into the heather-cloaked moorlands on the summits.
The county’s terrain ranges from moorlands and broad vales with tumbling streams to magnificent mountainous uplands. Ancient Roman roads wind through mediaeval hamlets and towns still strongly marked by the Industrial Revolution, while mystical abbeys and castles cast shadows over the hills.
The medieval city of York is a must for any visitor to Yorkshire. As King George VI once said, “The history of York is the history of England”. It’s certainly easy to agree with him as you stroll atop the city’s 13th-century walls and gaze down from treetop height on the story of England.
Through the centuries, this ancient city has witnessed the weaving of history’s colourful tapestry: Anglo Saxon invaders building a settlement on the ruins of the Roman fort, Vikings sailing their longships up the river Ouse in 867 to conquer northern England to make York the capital.
On a visit to York, allow plenty of time to experience and savour the centuries revealed. One memorable way to begin is to walk all or part of the city’s encircling walls; originally built as earth ramparts erected by York’s Viking kings to repel invaders. The present structure has been lovingly restored throughout the years since the 13th-century.
You can access the wall by climbing worn steps at a number of ‘bars’, the Viking word for a fortified gate in the wall. In the turrets of Monk Bar, ferocious stone men stand frozen in the motion of hurling boulders down onto enemy heads. A short walk from Bootham Bar is York Minster, England’s largest gothic cathedral.
Begun in 1220 and completed more than 250 years later, the Minster contains the world’s largest single area of mediaeval stained glass. With it’s soaring columns and spires and it’s magnificent ornamentation, the Minster has been described as England’s greatest ancient monument. If you have a head for heights, don’t miss the climb up the 275 winding steps of the great central tower for a panorama of the city and the surrounding Yorkshire Moors.
READ MORE: Exploring the ancient city of York
Within the city walls is a dense web of narrow twisting streets, with grand names like Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate, Stonegate and the Shambles. These lanes were once walked by legendary men who helped shape the land: Hadrian, Guy Fawkes, William the Conqueror, Oliver Cromwell and Eric Bloodaxe the Viking.
The Shambles is a perfectly preserved mediaeval street, where storybook houses and half-timbered stores lean towards each other on drunken angles. In one particular spot, it is possible for two people to shake hands across the street from one-second-floor window to another.
The cobblestoned Shambles was originally a street of butchers, and the hooks they used for displaying meat outside their shops can still be seen today. In York you become a time traveller, as 2000 years of history rolls by.
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Northeast of York lies the North York Moors National Park. Its heart is the great expanse of heather moorland, the largest in the country. Brown, black and sinister for much of the year, in late August when the heather blooms, it is transformed into a glorious green and purple sea. From the ridge top roads and open moors, there are wonderful views. The dales shelter small stone villages, castles and abbeys such as Rievaulx, Byland and Whitby.
Yorkshire offers not only the beauty of its inland scenery but a superb 100 miles of coastline with high rugged cliffs backing onto windswept countryside. Small hideaway bays and coves are cut deeply into the cliffs, housing snug fishing villages and towns such as Staithes, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby.
The imposing ruins of the 13th-century abbey loom over the old whaling port of Whitby, where narrow cobbled streets and red-bricked houses spill down the slopes of the headland to the natural harbour. Colourful fishing boats come and go, salty characters load off their catch of crab, kippers and haddock, destined for the towns numerous fish and chip shops.
Visitors and locals alike take their fish and chips very seriously in Whitby and the Magpie Cafe alongside the harbour is the place to go to enjoy this iconic seaside dish.
Further inland, the Yorkshire Dales, made famous through the popular television series All Creatures Great and Small has a wild beauty of their own, quite different from that of the moors and coast. Each dale has it’s own character and attractions. Wharfedale is one of the longest, full of enchanting villages and the 14th-century Bolton Abbey.
The village of Grassington makes a good base for exploring the region. In Airedale, there are the great limestone features of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar. Ribblesdale contains the dominating peaks of Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent. This is the heart of Yorkshire Dales limestone country – an array of cliffs, gorges, caves and potholes.
Through this most rugged of landscapes runs the 72-mile long Settle-Carlisle railway line. Finished in 1875, the twin-track climbs purposefully, evenly, from the valleys to the high fells, where foxes bark and the plaintive calls of the curlew fill the moorland air.
There is no other railway line in England which runs through such spectacular scenery, and by rights, it should never have been built, such were the engineering difficulties of constructing a line over the Pennines.
Today, the Settle-Carlisle line is called ‘England’s greatest historic scenic route.’ It’s a tribute to the navvies and engineers, and the 325 bridges, 21 viaducts and 14 tunnels are lasting monuments to their endeavours.
In the bustling colourful market towns with names such as Hawes, Clapham and Settle, market days bring together both visitors and the farmers of the area with their Yorkshire accents as thick as a moorland fog.
You can spend the night in old village pubs sampling hearty home cooking like Yorkshire pudding and drinking traditional ales with whimsical names like ‘Rams Bottom Strong Ale’, ‘Towd’ Tup’ and ‘Theakston’s Old Peculiar’.
South of Yorkshire Dales
To the south of the Dales, Yorkshire’s industrial Pennine towns and villages such as Huddersfield, Holmfirth, Hebden Bridge and Haworth, largely built during the Industrial Revolution, are not without charm of their own. Chimneys and mills crown the skylines, graceful viaducts and now tranquil canals all attest architecturally to the boom that hit the region in the 1700 and 1800s.
In the valley bottoms are the powerhouses of the later age of steam – the road, the railway, the river and the canal. Once, narrowboats loaded with their cargo of coal and wool slid silently along the canals, hauled by gentle-natured horses trudging along the towpaths. Today, these towpaths are excellent walking tracks weaving through both natural and industrial history.
Remnants of the old mills border the canal banks with stonewalls complete with mooring rings and graceful archways of former cargo loading bays. Many of these fine old buildings built of local stone are still in use today; some have been converted into modern warehouse apartments.
The rugged coastline, windswept moors and dales, the gritty mill towns with their picturesque canal waterways, are all every bit as ‘Yorkshire’ as those wonderful drystone walls that span the countryside, symbolising its very heart and soul.
6 other things to see and do
Explore Bronte country: The world of Wuthering Heights is brought to life in the famous village of Haworth once the home of the literary greats, the Bronte sisters. The Bronte Parsonage is one of many attractions in Haworth, in addition to steam train rides on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.
Art in the park: An international centre for modern and contemporary art, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park provides a changing programme of exhibitions, displays and projects throughout 500 acres of 18th-century landscaped grounds and four indoor galleries.
Go for a curry: The world famous Mumtaz Restaurant in Bradford has welcomed the Queen and also David Cameron, who claims it serves the best curries in the UK.
Take a canal boat trip: Hire a narrowboat with Shire Cruisers to explore the Rochdale and Calder and Hebble canals – a great way to experience Yorkshire’s Pennine district.
Check out Salts Mill: Situated within the village of Saltaire (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Salts Mill was founded in 1853 by Sir Titus Salt a leading industrialist in the Yorkshire woollen industry, this former mill is now a shopping/restaurant complex and art gallery that displays many paintings by local artist David Hockney.
Visit a museum: The National Science and Media Museum in Bradford is the most visited museum outside of London and once described by film producer David Puttnam as having the ‘best cinema in Britain’.