Colin Drury finds magic on his doorstep, with a perception-changing tour of England’s largest and most beautiful county
Saturday 11 March 2023
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It was the summer of 2015 when my partner and I decided to have a rail and bus tour around Yorkshire.
This may have seemed an unlikely decision on reflection. Save for three years at university and a couple more working out in the Middle East, I’ve lived here in God’s Own County all my life. What could I hope to see in two weeks that I hadn’t found the time to bother with in the preceding 33 years?
My partner, as it happens, asked that very question mid-way through our travels. She phrased it slightly differently, mind. She’d never been entirely sold on a fortnight’s holiday which took us no further than a 90-minute drive from our own front door; nor, indeed, on one where we ranked packing macs above packing suncream. She’d never felt a trip that took in Halifax, Aysgarth and Whitby could quite match one we’d taken previously that had taken in Krakow, Budapest and Vienna. Now, as we found ourselves caught in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales in a storm of God’s Own proportions, she turned to me and, amid rain so loud she had to shout, demanded to know: “Why the bloody hell are we not abroad somewhere?”
I remembered this loving conversation – this entire holiday – when Ferment first asked me to articulate what makes Yorkshire so special.
Not the beer, I was told. That’s covered in the rest of the mag.
So, not the fact that in the towns and cities here – Leeds, York and Huddersfield in particular – you can hardly chuck a flat cap without hitting a wonderful brewery or bar these days. (“I sometimes open my bathroom door and half expect someone to be mashing up in there,” as a friend recently put it.) Not the fact, either, that the Kelham Island area of Sheffield was once called one of the world’s great beer destinations by none less than the New York Times. And not even the fact that, in the little Dales village of Masham, there exists an inter-family beer rivalry with a history almost as dramatic as that of Adolph and Rudi Dassler, the brothers who divided a German town for generations by setting up rival trainer companies, Adidas and Puma (see this month’s On The Map, page 66.)
Nope, none of that. What was wanted for this piece was what else makes Yorkshire spectacular? What is it that informs and influences those who live – and create beer – here?
This vast swathe of northern England is home to three national parks (the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District), 160km of glorious eastern coastline, and some of England’s biggest and best melting pot cities, as well as dozens of its most picturesque market towns. There are more Michelin starred restaurants here (such as the Black Swan at Oldstead) than any other area outside of London, as well as astonishing architecture and history – mediaeval castles, ruined abbeys, and Victorian mills – round every conceivable corner.
Artists, writers and musicians thrive here. The south Pennine Hills are called Brontë country because that’s where the three sisters grew up. David Hockney was raised on the streets of Unesco-listed mill town Saltaire. Writer Ted Hughes barely goes a verse without referencing West Yorkshire. The first Arctic Monkeys album is basically a love-hate letter to growing up in Sheffield.
All of which is perhaps why that summer we decided to explore the place. Because there was so much here we’d never seen.
And, so, it was also why that summer we were caught up in that biblical rainstorm, in the middle of the Dales, an hour or so’s walk from the tiny bric-a-brac town of Hawes (home, incidentally, to the Wensleydale Creamery).
We were out looking for England’s highest waterfall at the time: Hardraw Force. It’s located, fittingly enough, out back of a 13th century pub. Yorkshire, it seems, may be home to the world’s only natural phenomenon which you have to walk through a boozer to get to.
We spent 15 minutes admiring it (the waterfall, not the pub), open-mouthed at the thousands of gallons of water pouring over the sheer 100-foot ravine. And then it was back inside the tavern – the Green Dragon; all low ceilings and brass awnings – to steam off in front of its roaring fire. She still said we should have gone abroad, of course, but the pints of mild and roasted peanuts won her round a little.
To travel across Yorkshire is, in fact, to witness all sorts of wonders and to see an ever-changing canvas: the urban and the rural; the rolling hills and the coastal cliffs; the land and the sea beyond. At times, it was hard to believe that a vista so varied, so historic, so cinematic, could exist on a tiny island packed with 75 million people.
I remember a middle-aged German couple sitting opposite us on the famed Settle-Carlisle train. For an hour or more, they sat in silence, holding hands, looking out of the window. They said nothing and somehow they said it all. There was so much to see and take in.
Where do I recommend? Where do I start?
The big cities, obviously. York for its minster and museums (York Chocolate Story is wonderful); Leeds for its shopping and skyscraping skyline; and Sheffield for its galleries and urban gardens (the Winter Gardens is Europe’s largest urban greenhouse).
But also places like Hebden Bridge (an oasis of arts in the Calder Valley); Staithes (an old smugglers harbour full of colourful houses, narrow nook streets and wonderful views); and Ilkley, a 19th century spa town most famed for its glorious moor.
Together, such places are proof, perhaps, that when Lonely Planet once declared Yorkshire the third greatest region on earth, it was, if anything, understating the point.
Since that 2015 holiday, I have continued to travel often across this county. Just like the beer that is made here, it seems to me there is always something new to discover.
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