It is the landscape that abounds with natural wonders and wild moorland. Roaming the county that raised the Brontë sisters, Nancy Alsop picks 10 of its treasures…
1. Castle Howard
The John Vanbrugh design for Castle Howard (not, in fact, technically a castle, but built on the site of a former fortress) was conceived in 1699, commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Carlisle. It would take a further 100 years and the lifespan of three earls to complete. Lived in ever since by the Howard family, barring a brief interlude as a girls’ school in World War II, it has been open to the public since 1952. But it was post 1981 that its popularity surged, after it was used as the eponymous Brideshead, seat of the Marchmain family, in the Granada Television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Do ensure a visit to the 18th-century chapel – made much of by Waugh – which was, curiously, intended as a dining room originally. And finally, do, upon leaving, utter the words: “I had been there before; I knew all about it” in your best Jeremy Irons gravelly tones.
York famously claims to have more attractions per square mile than any other UK city. It’s no idle boast. Just for starters, there is the remarkable York Minster, the city’s awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral; the Jorvik Viking Centre – a multimedia, multi-sensory display which recreates the city’s Viking settlement in the city; and the Shambles, one of the prettiest streets in the country, lined with 15th-century buildings. Don’t miss the City Walls, along the line of the Roman originals; or the National Railway Museum, where you can spy silk-lined carriages of the royal trains used by Queen Victoria. And there’s plenty more… nowhere exudes medieval charm like York.
3. Haworth Parsonage
The Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – were three of the most astonishing 19th-century contributors to the English literary canon. Charlotte and Emily, in particular, penned extraordinary Gothic tales of high drama and visceral passions through the pages of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. It’s hard to reconcile these subversives, whose stories highlighted the social injustice and religious hypocrisy of the time to outraged reviews, with the women who, from 1820, lived quietly at Haworth Parsonage, in the then-industrial village on the edge of the Pennine moors in West Yorkshire, and went on to die young. Guests can visit the parsonage where they wrote their novels, published under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and later explore the quaint village itself, as well as the surrounding dramatic moors, upon which it takes no imaginative leap to conjure a wild Heathcliff roaming.
4. Cleveland Way Trail
The serious walker will relish the Cleveland Way, which begins in Helmsley on the western edge of the North York Moors, and finally delivers its followers at Filey on the east coast, 110 miles later. The less intrepid can simply elect to experience its highlights, of which there are many. After all, three out of four of the top-voted best views in the county are to be found along the trail: Sutton Bank across the Vale of Mowbray; the view of Whitby Harbour from the 199 steps; and the sight of Robin Hood’s Bay from Ravenscar.
5. Wentworth Castle
Laying claim to the only Grade I-listed landscape in South Yorkshire, the story of Wentworth Castle is as fascinating as its Baroque architecture. It all started when, in 1695, the 2nd Earl of Strafford died without a son. The heir expectant, Thomas Wentworth, was disappointed when the family’s landed estate, Wentworth Woodhouse, went to a cousin, Thomas Watson. Undeterred, Wentworth soldiered on in the diplomatic service of King William III and Queen Anne and when, in 1708, he bought up nearby Stainborough Hall and transformed it into a mock castle in the Baroque style, Anne duly created a new title for him: the first Earl of Strafford of the second creation. Do note the Capability Brown gardens and the addition of a Palladian wing.
6. Whitby Abbey
Whitby, on the north-east coast of Yorkshire, is home to one of the most dramatic sights in the county: that of the ruins of Whitby Abbey, founded in AD 657, and at the time one of the most significant monasteries in the Anglo-Saxon world. Built by King Oswy of Northumbria, it was ruled by Abbess Hilda, an impressive woman who presided over men and women alike and whose wisdom was often sought by royalty. Standing above the seaside town, the energetic can climb the 199 steps from the town to the ruin, where it’s easy to see how Bram Stoker gained inspiration for Dracula, his Gothic tale, from both the site and the wider Whitby.
7. Yorkshire Dales National Park
Rivers, moorlands, waterfalls, bridleways, limestone pavements, ancient villages and dry-stone walls… the Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north-western corner of the county offers hikers, strollers, cyclists and climbers some 680 square miles of ravishing scenery and wildlife (think rare breeds of sheep and butterflies). Do endeavour to catch a glimpse of the limestone cliffs at Malham Cove and the fascinating formations at Brimham Rocks. Meanwhile, for a more leisurely exploration, hop on a steam train across the Dales (featured in screen adaptations of both Harry Potter and The Railway Children).
Grand Victorian façades, cobbled streets, renovated arcades and riverside walks… Leeds’s mainly pedestrianised city centre makes it a joy to wander. For a hit of culture, don’t miss the Leeds City Art Gallery (its collection includes work by JMW Turner, John Constable and Barbara Hepworth). Meanwhile shoppers will be rewarded by the Corn Exchange, a shopping-centre housed in a 1864 Grade I-listed building and the historic Victoria Quarter luxury shopping arcade. Known as “the Knightsbridge of the North”, Leeds has gone from down-at-heel mill town to a picture of 21st-century prosperity, complete with skyscrapers, waterfront luxury developments – and a Harvey Nichols.
9. Staithes and Ravenscar
With higgledy-piggledy streets and quaint cottages galore, Staithes is an ideal base for exploring the coastal paths and cliffs along the Cleveland Way – while getting a hit of picturesque, quintessential Yorkshire. Meanwhile, in the continuing pursuit of old-world charm, drive down the coastline to Ravenscar, a would-be upmarket tourist resort that never quite was. Despite 19th century plans for it to be so, it was ultimately left unfinished. These days, it is under the care of the National Trust, which has a visitors’ centre for more information.
This civilised Victorian spa town attracts tourists keen for some repose amidst genteel surrounds. There is an annual flower show; the Harlow Carr Botanical Gardens are amongst the most beautiful in the country; and there is a Royal Pump Room, built in 1842 (now a museum), where visitors can learn about the town’s healing waters and sulphurous springs. It has literary links too; Agatha Christie escaped her broken marriage here in 1926, and Charles Dickens called it “the queerest place, with the strangest people in it, leading the oddest lives of dancing, newspaper reading and dining”. Make sure you go to Betty’s Café Tea Room and try a famous “Fat Rascal” scone.