Yorkshire is the largest of England’s historic counties. At its heart is the ancient city of York, with its Gothic cathedral and medieval city walls. To the west is the bustling city of Leeds, while a few miles away are the unspoiled hills that form what the tourist office calls Brontë Country—Haworth, where the Brontë family lived valleys and villages of the Yorkshire Dales. North of York is North York Moors National Park. Isolated stone villages, moorland walks, and Rievaulx Abbey are within easy reach. Along the east coast of Yorkshire, beaches and fascinating history await you in the resort town of Scarborough, the former whaling port of Whitby, and Robin Hood’s Bay.
POINTS OF INTEREST
To the Romans, the city of York was Eboracum, to the Saxons it was Eoforwic, and to the Vikings Jorvik. Danish street names are a reminder that from 867, York was a major Viking settlement. Jorvik Viking Center, the Viking museum, is built underground on an archaeological site excavated at Coppergate. The latest technology brings the sights and smells of 10th-century York dramatically to life. Between 1100 and 1500, York was England’s second city. York Minster, the largest Gothic church in northern Europe, was begun in 1220. It has a remarkable collection of medieval stained glass. The vast Great East Window (1405–8) depicts the Creation. In 1984, a disastrous fire in the south transept destroyed the roof and shattered its magnificent rose window. This has since been restored. Much of York’s wealth in the late Middle Ages came from the cloth trade. The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, the headquarters of a powerful guild of traders, is a beautifully preserved timber-framed building that dates from the mid-14th century. In the 19th century, York’s position on the route to Scotland made it a major rail center. Train enthusiasts should head for the National Railway Museum, the largest of its kind in the world, where the rolling stock on show includes Queen Victoria’s royal carriage.
Stately homes may be two a penny in England, but you’ll have to try pretty damn hard to find one as breathtaking as Castle Howard, a work of theatrical grandeur and audacity set in the rolling Howardian Hills. This is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, instantly recognizable from its starring role in the 1980s TV series Brideshead Revisited and in the 2008 film of the same name. If you can, try to visit on a weekday when it’s easier to find the space to appreciate this hedonistic marriage of art, architecture, landscaping, and natural beauty.
The quintessential Victorian spa town, prim and pretty Harrogate has long been associated with a certain kind of old-fashioned Englishness – the kind that seems the preserve of retired army majors and formidable dowagers who take the Daily Telegraph and always vote Tory. They come to Harrogate to enjoy the flower shows and gardens that fill the town with magnificent displays of color, especially in spring and autumn. It is fitting that the town’s most famous visitor was Agatha Christie, who fled here incognito in 1926 to escape her broken marriage.
At the Royal Pump Room Museum, you can learn all about Harrogate’s history as a spa town in the ornate Royal Pump Room, built in 1842 over the most famous of the town’s sulfurous springs. It gives an insight into how the phenomenon of visiting spas to ‘take the waters’ shaped the town and records the illustrious visitors it attracted. At the end, you get the chance to sample the spa water, if you dare. The most attractive part of town is the Montpellier Quarter, overlooking Prospect Gardens between Crescent Rd and Montpellier Hill. It’s an area of pedestrianized streets lined with restored 19th-century buildings that are now home to art galleries, antique shops, fashion boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. Plunge into Harrogate’s past at the town’s fabulously tiled Turkish Baths. This mock-Moorish facility is gloriously Victorian and offers a range of watery delights: hot rooms, steam rooms, plunge pools, and so on. The town’s main event, the Spring Flower Show, is held in late April every year. The show is a colorful three-day extravaganza of blooms and blossoms, flower competitions, gardening demonstrations, market stalls, crafts, and gardening shops.
Scarborough retains all the trappings of the classic seaside resort but is in the process of reinventing itself as a center for the creative arts and digital industries. The Victorian spa has been redeveloped as a conference and entertainment center, a former museum has been converted into studio space for artists, a vast new water park opened in 2016, and there’s free, open-access wi-fi along the promenade beside the harbor – an area being promoted as the town’s bar, cafe and restaurant quarter.
The massive medieval keep of Scarborough Castle occupies a commanding position atop its headland. Legend has it that Richard I loved the views from here so much that his ghost just keeps coming back. Walk to the edge of the cliffs, where you can see the 2000-year-old remains of a Roman signal station; clearly, the Romans appreciated this viewpoint too. The Rotunda Museum is dedicated to the coastal geology of northeast Yorkshire, which has yielded many of Britain’s most important dinosaur fossils. The strata in the local cliffs were also important in deciphering England’s geological history. Founded by William Smith, ‘the father of English geology’, who lived in Scarborough in the 1820s, the museum has original Victorian exhibits as well as a hands-on gallery for kids. Set back from North Bay, Peasholm Park‘s pleasure gardens are famous for their summer sessions of Naval Warfare when large model ships reenact famous naval battles on the boating lake.
NORTH YORK MOORS NATIONAL PARK
Inland from the North Yorkshire coast, the wild and windswept North York Moors rise in desolate splendor. Three-quarters of all the world’s heather moorland is found in Britain, and this is the largest expanse in England. Ridge-top roads climb up from lush green valleys to the bleak open moors, where weather-beaten stone crosses mark the lines of ancient roadways. In summer, heather blooms in billowing drifts of purple haze. This is classic walking country. The moors are crisscrossed with footpaths old and new and dotted with pretty, flower-bedecked villages. The national park is also home to one of England’s most picturesque steam railways.
Helmsley is a classic North Yorkshire market town, a handsome huddle of old stone houses, historic coaching inns, and – inevitably – a cobbled market square, all basking under the watchful gaze of a sturdy Norman castle. The impressive ruins of 12th-century Helmsley Castle are defended by a striking series of deep ditches and banks, to which later rulers added the thick stone walls and defensive towers. Only one tooth-shaped tower survives today, following the dismantling of the fortress by Sir Thomas Fairfax after the Civil War. The castle’s tumultuous history is well explained in the visitor center. Helmsley Walled Garden would be just another plant and-produce center were it not for its dramatic setting next to Helmsley Castle and its fabulous selection of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, not to mention the herbs, which include 40 varieties of mint. South of Helmsley lies the superb ornamental landscape of Duncombe Park Estate, laid out in 1718 for Thomas Duncombe (whose son would later build Rievaulx Terrace) with the stately Georgian mansion of Duncombe Park House at its heart. In the secluded valley of the River Rye about 3 miles west of Helmsley, amid fields and woods loud with birdsong, stand the magnificent ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. The extensive remains give a wonderful sense of the size and complexity of the community that once lived here, and their story is fleshed out in a series of fascinating exhibits in a new museum and visitor center. This idyllic spot was chosen by Cistercian monks in 1132 as a base for their missionary activity in northern Britain.
Pickering is a lively market town with an imposing Norman castle that advertises itself as the ‘gateway to the North York Moors’. That gateway is the terminus of the wonderful North Yorkshire Moors Railway, a picturesque survivor from the great days of steam. Two scenic drives head north across the moors: the A169 to Whitby leads past the Hole of Horcum beauty spot and the hiking trails of Goathland, and the Blakey Ridge road (beginning 6 miles west of town) passes through the pretty village of Hutton-le-Hole and the famous Lion Inn on the way to Danby. Pickering Castle is a lot like the castles we drew as kids: thick stone outer walls circle the keep, and the whole lot is perched atop a high motte (mound) with great views of the surrounding countryside. Founded by William the Conqueror, it was added to and altered by later kings.
Whitby is a town of two parts, split down the middle by the River Esk. It’s also a town with two personalities – on the one hand, a busy commercial and fishing port (once home to 18th-century explorer Captain James Cook) with a bustling quayside fish market; on the other, a traditional seaside resort, complete with sandy beach, amusement arcades, and promenading holidaymakers. Keeping a watchful eye over the town is an atmospheric ruined abbey atop the East Cliff, the inspiration and setting for part of Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror story Dracula. Whitby is also famous for the jet (fossilized wood) that has been mined from its sea cliffs for centuries. This smooth black substance was popularised in the 19th century when Queen Victoria took to wearing mourning jewelry made from Whitby jet. In recent years these morbid associations have seen the rise of a series of hugely popular Goth festivals.
There are ruined abbeys and there are picturesque ruined abbeys. And then there’s Whitby Abbey, dominating the skyline above the East Cliff like a great Gothic tombstone silhouetted against the sky. Looking as though it was built as an atmospheric film set rather than a monastic establishment, it is hardly surprising that this medieval hulk inspired the Victorian novelist Bram Stoker (who holidayed in Whitby) to make it the setting for Count Dracula’s dramatic landfall. The Captain Cook Museum occupies the house of the shipowner with whom Cook began his seafaring career. Highlights include the attic where Cook lodged as a young apprentice, Cook’s own maps and letters, etchings from the South Seas, and a wonderful model of the Endeavour, with the crew and stores all laid out for inspection. Whitby Sands, stretching west from the harbor mouth, offers donkey rides, ice-cream vendors, and bucket-and-spade escapades, though the sand is mostly covered at high tide. The beach can be reached on a path from Whitby Pavilion, or from West Cliff via the cliff lift, an elevator that has been in service since 1931. Set in a park to the west of the town center is the wonderfully eclectic Whitby Museum, with displays of fossil plesiosaurs and dinosaur footprints, Captain Cook memorabilia, ships in bottles, jet jewelry, and the gruesome ‘Hand of Glory’, a preserved human hand reputedly cut from the corpse of an executed criminal.
ROBIN HOOD’S BAY
Picturesque Robin Hood’s Bay has nothing to do with the hero of Sherwood Forest – the origin of its name is a mystery, and the locals call it Bay Town or just Bay. But there’s no denying that this fishing village is one of the prettiest spots on the Yorkshire coast. Leave your car at the parking area in the upper village, where 19th-century ships’ captains built comfortable Victorian villas, and walk downhill to Old Bay, the oldest part of the village (don’t even think about driving down). This maze of narrow lanes and passages is dotted with tearooms, pubs, craft shops, and artists’ studios (there’s even a tiny cinema) and at low tide, you can go down onto the beach and fossick around in the rock pools.
YORKSHIRE DALES NATIONAL PARK
The Yorkshire Dales, meaning ‘valleys’, and protected as a national park since the 1950s – is the central jewel in the necklace of three national parks strung across the throat of northern England, with the dramatic fells of the Lake District to the west and the brooding heaths of the North York Moors to the east. From well-known names such as Wensleydale and Ribblesdale to the obscure and evocative Langstrothdale and Arkengarthdale, the park’s glacial valleys are characterized by a distinctive landscape of high heather moorland, stepped skylines, and flat-topped hills. Down in the green valleys, patchworked with drystone dykes and little barns, are picture-postcard villages where sheep and cattle still graze on village greens. And in the limestone country of the southern Dales, you’ll find England’s best examples of karst scenery (created by rainwater dissolving the underlying limestone bedrock).
This busy market town on the southern edge of the Dales takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon sheep town. There are no prizes for guessing how it made its money. Market days bring crowds from all over and giving the town something of a festive atmosphere. Skipton’s pride and joy is the broad and bustling High St, one of the most attractive shopping streets in Yorkshire. There’s a general market on High St four days a week, and on the first Sunday of the month, the nearby canal basin hosts a farmers market. A gate to the side of the church at the north end of High St leads to Skipton Castle, one of the best-preserved medieval castles in England, a fascinating contrast to the ruins you’ll see elsewhere. No trip to Skipton is complete without a cruise along the Leeds–Liverpool Canal, which runs through the middle of town. Pennine Cruisers runs half-hour trips to Skipton Castle and back.
The perfect base for day trips around the south Dales, Grassington’s handsome Georgian center teems with walkers and visitors throughout the summer months, soaking up an atmosphere that – despite the odd touch of faux rusticity – is as attractive and traditional as you’ll find in these parts. The highlight of the year is June’s Grassington Festival, a two-week celebration of the arts.
Stretching west from Grassington to Ingleton is the largest area of limestone country in England, a distinctive landscape pockmarked with potholes, dry valleys, limestone pavements, and gorges. Two of the most spectacular features – Malham Cove and Gordale Scar – lie near the pretty village of Malham.
RIBBLESDALE & THE THREE PEAKS
Scenic Ribblesdale cuts through the southwestern corner of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, where the skyline is dominated by a trio of distinctive hills known as the Three Peaks: Whernside, Ingleborough, and Pen-y-ghent. Easily accessible via the Settle–Carlisle railway line, this is one of England’s most popular areas for outdoor activities, attracting thousands of hikers, cyclists and cavers each weekend. At the head of the valley, 5 miles north of Horton, is the spectacular 30m-high Ribblehead Viaduct, built in 1874 and, at 400m, the longest on the Settle–Carlisle Line. You can hike there along the Pennine Way and travel back by train from Ribblehead station.
Hawes is the beating heart of Wensleydale, a thriving and picturesque market town with several antiques, arts, and craft shops that has the added attraction of its own waterfall in the village center. On busy summer weekends, however, Hawes’ narrow arteries can get seriously clogged with traffic. Leave the car in the parking area beside the national park center at the village’s eastern entrance.
The handsome market town of Richmond is one of England’s best-kept secrets, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Swale and guarded by the ruins of a massive castle. A maze of cobbled streets radiates from the broad, sloping market square (market day is Saturday), lined with elegant Georgian buildings and photogenic stone cottages, with glimpses of the surrounding hills and dales peeking through the gaps. The impressive heap that is Richmond Castle, founded in 1070, was one of the first castles in England since Roman times to be built of stone. It’s had many uses through the years, including a stint as a prison for conscientious objectors during WWI (there’s a small and sobering exhibition about their part in the castle’s history). The Richmondshire Museum is a delight, with local history exhibits including an early Yorkshire cave-dweller and displays about lead mining, which forever altered the Swaledale landscape a century ago. Military buffs will enjoy the three floors of the Green Howard Museum, which pays tribute to the famous Yorkshire regiment. The Georgian Theatre Royal, built in 1788, is the most complete Georgian playhouse in Britain. Tours include a look at the country’s oldest surviving stage scenery, painted between 1818 and 1836.
One of the fastest-growing cities in England, Leeds is the glitzy embodiment of rediscovered northern self-confidence. A decade and a half of redevelopment has seen the city center transform from near-derelict mill town into a vision of 21st-century urban chic, with skyscraping office blocks, glass-and-steel waterfront apartment complexes, and renovated Victorian shopping arcades. The Royal Armouries is Leeds’ most interesting museum and was originally built in 1996 to house armor and weapons from the Tower of London, but subsequently expanded to cover 3000 years’ worth of combat and self-defense. The exhibits are as varied as they are fascinating, covering subjects as varied as jousting, fencing, and Indian elephant armor. One of the world’s largest textile mills has been transformed into the Leeds Industrial Museum telling the story of Leeds’ industrial past, both glorious and ignominious. The museum is 2 miles west of the city center; take bus 15 from the train station.
Their suburbs may have merged into one sprawling urban conurbation, but Bradford remains far removed from its much more glamorous neighbor, Leeds. Thanks to its role as a major player in the wool trade, Bradford attracted large numbers of immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan during the 20th century. Bradford’s top attraction is the National Media Museum, an impressive glass-fronted building that chronicles the story of photography, film, TV, radio, and the web from 19th-century cameras and early animation to digital technology and the psychology of advertising. There’s lots of hands-on stuff too – you can film yourself in a bedroom scene, pretend to be a TV news anchor, or play videos from the 1970s and 80s. There’s also an IMAX theater. The museum looks out over City Park, Bradford’s award-winning central square, which is home to the Mirror Pool.
Tucked tightly into a fold of a steep-sided valley, Yorkshire’s funkiest little village is a former mill town that refused to go gently with the dying of industry’s light. Instead, it raged a bit and then morphed into an attractive little tourist trap with a distinctly bohemian atmosphere. The town is home to university academics, artists, diehard hippies, and a substantial gay community. All of this explains the abundance of craft shops, organic cafes, and secondhand bookstores. The town center was badly hit by flooding at Christmas 2015, but most businesses were quickly back on their feet. There are many cultural events on the calendar, culminating in late June/early July with the annual Hebden Bridge Arts Festival.
It seems that only Shakespeare himself is held in higher esteem than the beloved Brontë sisters – Emily, Anne, and Charlotte – judging by the eight million visitors a year who trudge up the hill from the train station to pay their respects at the handsome parsonage where the literary classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were penned. Not surprisingly, the whole village is given over to Brontë-linked tourism, but even without the literary associations, Haworth is still worth a visit, though you’ll be hardpressed not to be overwhelmed by the cottage industry that has grown up around the Brontës and their wonderful creations.
Steel is everywhere in Sheffield. Today, however, it’s not the steel of the foundries, mills, and forges that made the city’s fortune, nor the canteens of cutlery that made ‘Sheffield Steel’ a household name, but the steel of scaffolding and cranes, of modern sculptures and super trams, and of new steel-framed buildings rising against the skyline. The steel industry that made the city famous is long since gone, but after many years of decline Sheffield is on the up again – like many of northern England’s cities, it has grabbed the opportunities presented by urban renewal with both hands and is working hard to reinvent itself. Sheffield’s prodigious industrial heritage is the subject of the Kelham Island Museum, set on a human-made island in the city’s oldest industrial district. Exhibits cover all aspects of the industry, from steel-making to knife-sharpening – don’t miss Little Mesters Lane, where the city’s last remaining cutler (knife-maker) continues his trade. The most impressive display is the thundering 12,000-horsepower River Don steam engine (the size of a house) that gets powered up twice a day – don’t miss it. Pride of place in Sheffield’s city center goes to the Winter Gardens with a soaring glass roof supported by graceful arches of laminated timber. The 21st-century architecture contrasts sharply with the nearby Victorian town hall and the Peace Gardens – complete with fountains, sculptures, and lawns full of lunching office workers whenever there’s a bit of sun. The Graves Gallery has a neat and accessible display of British and European art from the 16th century to the present day; the big names represented include Turner, Sisley, Cézanne, Gaugin, Miró, Klee, Picasso, and Damien Hirst.
Properly known as Kingston-upon-Hull (the ancient harbor on the River Hull was granted a royal charter in 1299 and became King’s Town), Hull has long been the principal port of England’s east coast, with an economy that grew up around wool and wine trading, whaling, and fishing. The town has set about redeveloping its waterfront and Old Town; a minor cultural renaissance has taken place in the Fruitmarket district around Humber St, where derelict buildings have been reclaimed as artists’ studios and performance spaces. Hull’s biggest tourist attraction is The Deep, Britain’s most spectacular aquarium, housed in a colossal angular building that appears to lunge above the muddy waters of the Humber like a giant shark’s head. Inside, it’s just as dramatic, with echoing commentaries and computer-generated interactive displays that guide you through the formation of the oceans and the evolution of sea life. Following extensive renovations, the Ferens Art Gallery reopened in 2017 as part of Hull’s City of Culture celebrations, with an exhibition of Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull (a photographic installation where more than 3000 naked volunteers, covered in blue body paint, filled the city streets). The permanent art collection ranges from old masters like Frans Hals to modern works by Stanley Spencer, Peter Blake, David Hockney, and Gillian Wearing. Marooned in the mud of the River Hull around the back of the Streetlife Museum, the Arotio Corsair is a veteran of the 1970s so-called ‘Cod Wars’ when the UK and Iceland clashed over fishing rights. Built in 1927, the Spurn Lightship once served as a navigation mark for ships entering the notorious Humber estuary. Now safely retired in the marina, it houses an engaging exhibition about its own history and offers an interesting contrast between the former living quarters of captain and crew. Hull’s Old Town, whose grand public buildings retain a sense of the prosperity the town once knew, occupies the thumb of land between the River Hull to the east and Princes Quay to the west. The most impressive legacy is the Guildhall, a huge neoclassical building that dates from 1916.
Handsome, unspoiled Beverley is one of the most attractive towns in Yorkshire, largely on account of its magnificent minster – a rival to any cathedral in England – and the tangle of streets that lie beneath it, each brimming with exquisite Georgian and Victorian buildings. All the sights are a short walk from either the train or bus station. There’s a large market on Saturdays in the square called Saturday Market, and a smaller one on Wednesdays in the square called…Wednesday Market.