Best of Yorkshire - highlights of God's Own County

Yorkshire, or God’s Own County as locals like to call it, has long played the muse for writers, painters and film-location scouts, as well as being an industrial powerhouse that helped shape modern Britain. Dramatic topography, stunning heritage sites, urban regeneration areas and world-renowned walking trails are only some of the things that make this one of Britain’s most appealing destinations today.

Don’t be surprised though if it’s the clink of pint glasses in a country pub and broad-accented, straight-talking locals that make the biggest impressions.

The Yorkshire countryside is a good reason to visit God's Own County © Farm Images / Contributor / Getty Images
The Yorkshire countryside is just one good reason to visit God's Own County © Farm Images / Contributor / Getty Images

The great outdoors

Yorkshire has some of the most evocative landscapes in England. It was out on the wiley, windy moors that Heathcliff and Cathy of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights roamed. It was the dales’ limestone scars that supposedly gave Tolkien (a professor at the University of Leeds in the 1920s) inspiration for the fortress of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings. And it was the waterfalls of Aysgarth and Thornton Force that brought Turner and his paints here in the 19th century.

Aysgarth Falls - Turner couldn't resist painting and they're still a great photo opportunity today © Wayne Hutchinson / Farm Images / Getty Images
Aysgarth Falls - Turner couldn't resist getting out his brushes here and they're still a great photo opportunity today © Wayne Hutchinson / Farm Images / Getty Images

There are three popular ways to immerse yourself in all this countryside: on foot, on two wheels, and from the comfort of a vintage steam train. Historic village coaching inns cater for hikers on the long-distance Pennine Way and Coast to Coast trails, and cyclists inspired by the region’s challenging ascents and annual Tour de Yorkshire, which launched after the Tour de France’s phenomenally popular foray into Yorkshire in 2014. The region’s best day hike is hands-down the 4.5-mile Malham Landscape Trail which takes in Malham Cove, a sheer limestone cliff and nesting spot for peregrine falcons that was used as a setting in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. If you pick just one train journey, make it the classic North Yorkshire Moors Railway that chugs daily between Whitby and Pickering.

History galore

York’s lineage as the Roman city of Eboracum and later Viking settlement of Jorvik makes it one of Europe’s most interesting cities for history-lovers and archaeology buffs, yet it’s York’s surviving medieval remains that usually ensnare visitors. Many don’t make it beyond the minster and city walls, which is a shame given that the surrounding area contains some of the UK’s most impressive attractions. The spa town of Harrogate, for example, still has its original Victorian Turkish Baths and they’re in perfect working order. Take the 30-minute train from York and book in for a steam and scrub amid the surreal mock-Moorish splendour.

Stroll York's medieval walls, visit its magnificent minster, then strike out to explore more of the region © Peter Etchells / Shutterstock
Stroll York's medieval walls, visit its magnificent minster, then strike out to explore more of the region © Peter Etchells / Shutterstock

Elsewhere, castles, country estates and abandoned abbey ruins lurk down every country lane. Castle Howard is one of England’s finest examples of baroque and Palladian design. It was the first domestic building in the country to have a domed roof – put there by Nicholas Hawksmoor, one of the architects who worked on St Paul’s Cathedral in London, after which it was modelled. The giant ruins of Fountains Abbey and whimsical Studley Royal gardens are equally astounding. On the coast, Whitby is famed for its haunting abbey and literary cachet as the landing point for Dracula –bemused officials at St Mary’s Church encounter so many fans on a fruitless hunt for the vampire’s grave that they’ve had to put up a notice explaining that it doesn’t exist.

From industrial to chic

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Yorkshire was the hammering heart of England’s industrial revolution. Coal soot blackened the stone facades of its urban manufacturing districts as mills, forges and belching factories churned through metals, wool, corn, flour and malts. These days those same districts are in the throes of regeneration with independent businesses clamouring to rent space in now-fashionable industrial spaces. In West Yorkshire’s offbeat arty community of Hebden Bridge the town’s old red-brick mill has become a hive of vintage stores and small-scale designers. In Leeds’ Holbeck area there’s Northern Monk, a craft brewery and taproom wedged into a 19th-century flax mill. Visit Hull, from where whaling fleets once sailed, and you’ll find the marina area has been reborn as a restaurant and bar enclave since its year as UK Capital of Culture in 2017.

Making quality craft beer is something of a 'habit' at Northern Monk in Leeds © Lorna Parkes / Lonely Planet
Making quality craft beer is something of a 'habit' at Northern Monk in Leeds © Lorna Parkes / Lonely Planet

Of all Yorkshire’s cities, it is Sheffield – the ‘steel city’, surrounded by rich metal deposits – that has clung to its industrial roots most fondly. The oldest district, Kelham Island, houses an excellent museum on the metalworking heritage. Preserved within a city suburb, the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet is a frozen-in-time example of a workers’ community before the days of steel factories. Between Leeds and Sheffield, it’s also possible to descend 40ft into a grimy mining pit on a subterranean tour with cheery ex-miners at the National Coal Mining Museum. It sits atop a site abandoned in the 1980s when Britain’s dwindling coal industry finally gasped its last breath.

Real pubs, real ale

Grab a pie and a pint in a Yorkshire pub and you’ll learn everything you need to know about local culture, because the village boozer is the epicentre of county life. The array of watering holes is vast and you could make a comprehensive tour of the region simply by plotting an extended pub crawl, visiting rural real-ale pubs then urban craft beer taprooms. The dales and moors are crammed with ancient inns such as Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England where outside the wind howls as eerily as the werewolf on a poster inside the bar (fact: the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London follows two American backpackers over the Yorkshire moors).

Say (Wensleydale) cheese! © Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
Say (Wensleydale) cheese! © Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

There are also dozens of gastropubs championing modern British cuisine using Yorkshire’s prize-winning local produce: try the Black Swan at Oldstead, Star Inn at Harome or Pipe & Glass near Beverley for Michelin-starred fine food. To see the farm-to-fork process in action, visit the Wensleydale Creamery in the dales and learn all about the curds and whey before tasting dozens of samples, including a cheese infused with Black Sheep Brewery’s Riggwelter ale.

The art of Yorkshire

Two of England’s greatest 20th-century sculptors, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, had West Yorkshire roots and drew inspiration from the landscapes of the region. Their legacy has spawned numerous art institutions worthy of any visitor’s time, creating what has been dubbed the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle. Top dog is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which draws internationally acclaimed artists such as Ai Weiwei and Andy Goldsworthy, dotting their sculptures across a vast open-air gallery within the 500-acre Bretton Estate near Wakefield. It feels like pure whimsy, and a stroll through the grounds is utter magic.

The Hepworth Wakefield shows off some fine Yorkshire art in a fine Yorkshire setting © View Pictures / Getty Images
The Hepworth Wakefield shows off some fine Yorkshire art in a fine Yorkshire setting © View Pictures / Getty Images

But the best place to see Moore and Hepworth’s work is the ultra-modern Hepworth Wakefield gallery nearby. The collection is small but it’s the most concentrated hit of either artist’s work you’ll find anywhere in the world. The third prong of the triangle is the recently refurbished Leeds Art Gallery, which has a nationally important collection of British art and sculpture. Beyond the gallery, look out for street art around hubs such as Leeds train station, Kirkgate Market and the old mill district of Holbeck – partly the result of an inspired commissioning spree by the local council to bring more colour to the streets of the city.

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