The beautiful county of Yorkshire is the largest county in England; it covers a staggering 2.9 million acres (almost 4,600 square miles) and is home to over 5 million people. It lies in the north-central part of the country and its borders run between the Pennines and the North Sea.
Yorkshire is so huge in scale and diverse in landscape that it has to be broken down into separate parts: North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and East Yorkshire. Within those boundaries lies the most stunning English countryside, from lush, rolling dales to rocky, rugged mountains, from sweeping Jurassic coastlines to wild, windswept moors.
The charming villages and towns of Yorkshire are as characterful as the people who live there, people who are so proud of their heritage that they proclaim Yorkshire to be ‘God’s Own Country’. And along every street of the sophisticated cities are reminders of a rich, ancient history that still influences the culture of the county, and indeed the whole of England, to this day.
The Landscape of Beautiful Yorkshire
As might be expected for the largest county in England, the landscape of Yorkshire is fantastically diverse. Again, the county is split into distinct areas to differentiate one region from another. Yorkshire is home to two national parks, the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the North York Moors National Park, and it also runs into the northern part of the Peak District National Park.
The gently rolling hills and lush valleys of the Yorkshire Dales, criss-crossed with dry stone walls, are the epitome of Yorkshire for many visitors. This is true ‘James Herriot country’, with scatterings of rural market towns and villages, fields full of grazing sheep and sleepy farms on quiet country lanes.
Much of the Yorkshire Dales region is a national park, created in 1954. It covers 841 square miles, it’s home to 24,000 people, and it receives over 8 million visitors every year. The majority of the Yorkshire Dales National Park is in North Yorkshire, although it extends into the neighbouring counties of Cumbria and Lancashire too.
There are more than 20 main dales in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, each with its own distinct landscape and character. The southern dales are situated closer to major urban areas and attract plenty of day visitors, while the northern dales are more rugged and remote. Most of the dales are named after the river that runs through them, eg Wharfedale, Airedale, Swaledale.
Also one of the Yorkshire dales, although just out of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Nidderdale. The upper valley of the River Nidd, Nidderdale was designated an AONB in 1994 in recognition of the national importance of conserving and protecting its stunning landscape.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park and surrounding area is a walker’s paradise. It’s home to the famed Yorkshire Three Peaks, a well-known walking challenge that takes in the heights of Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. These peaks are clustered around the beautiful River Ribble and form part of the Pennine range.
There are many pretty towns throughout the Yorkshire Dales, including Skipton, Richmond, Leyburn and Hawes, with lovely independent shops and fascinating history around every corner. The beautiful Skipton Castle and Bolton Castle are also well worth visiting.
The North York Moors cover an area of 554 square miles, a stunning patchwork of not just moorland but also pine forests, rolling hills and incredible coastline. Much of this area is a national park too, created in 1952.
The landscape of the North York Moors National Park is wonderfully dramatic and wild, with one of the largest expanses of heather moorland in the United Kingdom. In the late summer the heather turns the hills into a spectacular palette of purple, although it’s beautiful in every season as the subtle changes of light and weather play on the rocky outcrops.
This wonderful part of Yorkshire is nationally and internationally important. Over 100,000 acres of the North York Moors has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for the precious habitat it provides for rare plants, wildlife and birds. Here you can see badgers and roe deer, as well as numerous species of moorland birds, including red grouse, curlew and golden plover, whose eerie cries can often be heard echoing over the windswept hills.
The North York Moors National Park extends for 26 miles up the coastline of Yorkshire, and includes the historic fishing villages of Staithes, Runswick Bay and Robin Hood’s Bay.
The rugged Yorkshire coastline runs for 45 miles from the Tees estuary to the Humber estuary. Its dramatic scenery is breath-taking, with high cliffs and rocky shores teeming with wildlife and dotted with wild flowers. Many of the beautiful beaches have been awarded the coveted Seaside and/or Blue Flag awards for their cleanliness and safety.
There are some fabulous towns along the Yorkshire Coast to visit as well, from tiny fishing ports to lively resort destinations. No visit is complete without a trip to Scarborough, with its traditional seaside attractions and pier, all overlooked by a medieval castle. Or spend time wandering in wonderful Whitby, famed for the mining of jet and alum, and associated with the classic novel Dracula which was written here. It’s also home to Whitby Abbey, a stunning 7th Century monastery whose ruins dominate the skyline from a hill overlooking the town.
The Yorkshire Wolds
Characterised by rolling chalk hills, the Yorkshire Wolds are situated partly in North Yorkshire and partly in East Yorkshire. On the coast the uplands end at the high cliffs of Flamborough Head, and south of this lie the pretty fishing towns of Bridlington, Hornsea and Withernsea. On the western edge of the Yorkshire Wolds lies the beautiful Vale of York, while to the north lies the Vale of Pickering.
The long coastline stretches south to Spurn Head near Hull and the Humber Estuary, where Yorkshire meets Lincolnshire. Spurn Point is a national nature reserve beloved by bird watchers.
One of Yorkshire’s great long distance walks, the Yorkshire Wolds Way, runs for 79 miles from Hessle to Filey in this part of Yorkshire, through landscape that inspired the artist David Hockney. Along the way you can find pretty villages and unspoilt market towns, including South Cave, Market Weighton and Pocklington.
A Potted History of Yorkshire
The area now known as Yorkshire has seen human occupation since the Stone Age, with significant evidence found of tools and weapons dating from around 8,000BC. The city of York itself was first settled between 8,000 and 7,000BC, although the city as it now stands was founded in 71 AD by the Romans, when it was known as Eboracum. York was so important that it became the capital of a Roman province made up of what is now most of Northern England, as well as the northern capital of the Church of England, a status it still holds.
In the 9th and 10th Century the city of York and the surrounding area was conquered by Norse warrior kings. The region became known as Jorvik and was controlled as a separate kingdom from the rest of England, until it was eventually annexed in 954.
In 1066 Yorkshire was the scene of two major battles in English history to decide the succession to the throne, the Battle of Fulford and the Battle of Stamford Bridge. These led to the Battle of Hastings later that same year, after which William the Conqueror became the King of England. During the Norman conquest that followed, landowners established numerous towns throughout Yorkshire, including Barnsley, Sheffield, Hull, Doncaster, Leeds and Scarborough, all of which are still prominent today.
The famous Wars of the Roses was a series of civil wars in the 15th Century between the House of York (now Yorkshire) and the House of Lancaster (now neighbouring Lancashire), in which both houses fought for the throne of England. The wars were so called because the emblem of Yorkshire was (and still is) a white rose, with a red rose being the emblem of Lancashire. The wars lasted for 30 years until 1485, when King Henry VII married Elizabeth of York. This ended the historical battles, although there’s still a healthy rivalry to this day between the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire, particularly in sport. The white rose of York and the red rose of Lancashire combined to form the pink Tudor rose emblem of England.
After the Wars of the Roses the fortunes of Yorkshire continued to grow. The wool textile industry for which Yorkshire is still renowned began to develop; what started as literally a cottage industry, with independent weavers in villages creating woollen yarn from the hardy sheep that roamed the hills and dales, became a booming industry in a number of Yorkshire towns and cities.
Entrepreneurs took advantage of the water power from the rivers and built hundreds of mills throughout Yorkshire, focused on York and Beverley but also encompassing the towns of Masham, Northallerton, Ripon, Selby, Whitby and Yarm. Yorkshire is still renowned for its fine woollen textiles which are exported all over the world.
Following the introduction of canals and turnpike roads in the 18th and 19th Century, the beautiful spa towns of Harrogate and Knaresborough flourished, as visitors flocked to sample the supposedly curative properties of the waters there.
The population of Yorkshire boomed with the Industrial Revolution. The textile industries grew alongside the coal and steel industries, in towns and cities such as Sheffield and Rotherham. Sheffield in particular saw a huge expansion of the cutlery trade when stainless steel and crucible steel were developed locally.
Nowadays, millions of visitors travel to Yorkshire from all over the world. They come to marvel at its historic towns and cities, to walk in the peaceful dales and moors, and to admire the stunning coastline.
For literature fans Yorkshire is synonymous with the Bronte sisters, who lived in the pretty town of Haworth. Emily Bronte described the Yorkshire landscape perfectly in her classic novel Wuthering Heights, when she wrote: “…nothing more divine than those glens shut in by hills, and those bluff, bold swells of heath.”
Arguably the jewel in Yorkshire’s crown remains the city of York itself. This is an ancient walled city with a modern, lively feel, full of independent shops, quaint cobbled streets, more than 30 fascinating museums and more places of historical interest than you could possibly explore during just one visit. The stunning York Minster dominates the city, dating from the 7th Century and every bit as impressive today. It also offers some of the best views in the city from the top of its central tower – if you can brave the climb up 275 steps! Similarly, York Castle has stood on its site since 1068. It’s now a well-known visitor destination, now owned by English Heritage.
The vibrant cities of Leeds and Sheffield are also significant draws for visitors to urban Yorkshire. Leeds is the second largest metropolitan district in the UK, and it has a lively arts, sporting and entertainment scene. For all its industrial heritage, Sheffield is England’s greenest city, with 61% of the entire area being green space, and over a third of the city being within the boundary of the Peak District National Park.
It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that beautiful Yorkshire attracts a staggering 100 million visitors each year. Its popularity as an outstanding destination remains high in every season and in every region, whether you come for Spring walks in the fresh green dales, Summer days on the sandy beaches, Autumn hikes among the blooming heather on the moors, or Christmas shopping in the vibrant towns and cities. There’s something for everyone in Yorkshire!