“Fold upon fold of encircling hills, piled rich and golden” – such was the author Winifred Holtby’s fond memory of the Wolds landscape. She was born in 1898 in Rudston on the northern edge of the Wolds, a village dominated by the prehistoric Rudston Monolith. This colossal block of stone, a daunting symbol of some misty pagan belief, stands challengingly close to Rudston’s Christian parish church. Twenty-five feet (7.6m) high, it is the tallest standing stone in Britain. Winifred Holtby left the village and became a leading figure in London literary circles, editor of the influential magazine Time and Tide, but in her own books it was those “rich and golden hills” that still enthralled her. In her most successful novel, South Riding, the fictional Riding is unmistakably recognisable as the Wolds among whose gently rolling acres she had spent her childhood.
The Wolds are a great crescent of chalk hills that sweep round from the coast near Flamborough Head to the outskirts of Hull. There were settlers here some 10,000 years ago – but never very many. In the early 1700s, Daniel Defoe described the area as “very thin of towns and people” and also noted the “great number of sheep”. Little has changed: the Wolds remain an unspoilt tract of scattered farmsteads and somnolent villages with one of the lowest population densities in the country. Artists remark on the striking quality of the light and air, and on the long views that open up, perhaps across undulating hills to the twin towers of Beverley Minster or to the great towers of the Minster at York. The Wolds never rise above 800 feet, but the open landscape makes them particularly vulnerable to winter snowstorms: children have been marooned in their schools; the dipping and twisting country roads, even in recent years, have been blocked for weeks at a time.
The southeastern corner of Yorkshire tends to be overlooked by many visitors. If only they knew what they were missing. Beverley is one of the most beguiling of Yorkshire towns and its Minster one of the greatest glories of Gothic architecture. Its parish church, built by a medieval guild, rivals the Minster in its grandeur and in its colourful interior. The whole town has the indefinable dignity you might expect from a community that was a capital of the East Riding in former days when Hull, just six miles to the south, was still a rather scruffy little port.
To the east and south of Beverley lies the old Land of Holderness, its character quite different from anywhere else in Yorkshire. A wide plain, it stretches to the coast where for aeons the land has been fighting an incessant, and losing, battle against the onslaught of North Sea billows. The whole length of the Holderness coast is being eroded at an average rate of three inches a year, but in some locations up to three feet or more gets gnawed away. At its southernmost tip, Spurn Point curls around the mouth of the Humber estuary, a cruelly exposed tip of land whose contours get rearranged after every winter storm. The coastal towns and villages have a bleached and scoured look to them, perhaps a little forbidding at first. It doesn’t take long however for visitors to succumb to the appeal of this region of wide vistas, secluded villages and lonely shores.
Selby is the most southerly of the eight districts that make up the vast, sprawling county of North Yorkshire. Here, the level plains of the Vale of York stretch for miles – rich, agricultural land watered by the four great Yorkshire rivers, Ouse, Wharfe, Derwent and Aire, and by the Selby Canal. It is ideal country for walking and cycling, or for exploring the waterways on which a wide variety of rivercraft is available for hire. Just a few miles away, on the other side of the River Aire, traffic on the M62 hurtles between Leeds and Hull, but here you can still find quiet villages, inviting hostelries, and one of the country’s most flamboyant stately homes, Carlton Towers.