Liz Gill takes a Walk on the Wold side.
At first it isn’t easy to see why the Yorkshire Wolds would inspire any artist. This isn’t dramatic scenery like the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands. On the contrary this is low key landscape: farmed, domesticated, tamed.
Spend a day here though and its charms become increasingly evident, even more so if you can go beforehand to David Hockney’s dazzling exhibition at the Royal Academy and take those images with you either literally – in the catalogue or the postcards – or simply in your mind’s eye.
Hockney first became aware of this part of East Yorkshire when he drove across it for six months, sometimes every day, from a family base in Bridlington to visit his terminally ill friend Jonathan Silver in York in 1996. Nine years later he moved back to England and started to produce the series of extraordinary landscapes – in watercolours, oils, on ipads and in video – that make up the current sell-out show.
These capture what he loves about the place: the light, the big skies, the steep angles of the hills, the winding dry valleys and the high straight roads with their wide verges and low hedges which give long distance vistas across gently rolling hills.
All this comes in a fairly tight geographical space which, combined with a visit to its nearest seaside resort of Bridlington, makes it ideal for a short break. If you have longer this is good walking territory and there are plenty of trails ranging from the 79 mile Wolds Way to more modest circuits that can be done in a couple of hours. Since our time was limited though we drove, starting at Sledmere and ending at Rudston and taking in a number of villages en route.
We fortified ourselves for the journey at The Triton Inn which serves delicious hearty fare before stepping across to Sledmere House, the country home of the Sykes family for over 250 years. The building was gutted by fire in 1911 and although villagers helped rescue most of the contents but all that was left of the building after an 18 hour blaze were the four outer walls. So successfully restored was it, however, over the following five years that it still seems a beautiful Georgian gem with fine rooms including the fabulous blue-tiled Turkish room created for Sir Mark Sykes, the 6th baronet and eminent Orientalist.
It was Sir Mark who founded the Wagoners Special Reserve turning a thousand local farmers, blacksmiths and saddlers into a unit which was among the first to go to France in World War I to drive horse drawn supply wagons. There is a museum to their moving story and a monument to their achievements on the road through the village, a scene captured by Hockney in a 1997 picture.
I take a photograph as I do with various other identifiable bases for his work such as Three Trees near Thixendale and Bigger Trees near Warter. (Hockney’s talents don’t run to imaginative titles) It helps if you’re pushed for time or energy that the artist always needed to drive somewhere with all his equipment so his subjects are always near a road or at least a farm track.
Warter itself is home to the Yorkshire Wolds Heritage Centre based in St James’s Church where there is a beautiful Arts and Crafts stained glass window, poignantly dedicated to Lady Isabel Wilson who died in childbirth at the age of 26. You can also pick up leaflets here about the area including those on the Sykes Churches Trail: between 1866 Sir Tatton Sykes, the 5th baronet, financed the building, rebuilding or restoration of 17 churches.
One of the curiosities of the area is that huge estates – and the villages within them – are still privately owned by the old families, the people who enclosed the land between 1750 and 1830 and created an agricultural landscape which remains virtually unchanged to this day.
One benefit of such terrain and an unexpected thrill for me was the number of hares I spotted. I don’t recall ever seeing one in the wild before but here there must have been dozens, visible in these big open fields in a way they would not in other settings.
By the time we get to Rudston it’s getting dark, too dark to seek out the grave of South Riding author Winifed Holtby but not too dark to stare up at the huge megalith, dragged there about 4000 years ago for a long lost purpose but still at 25 ft the largest in the country. Just before that we’ve driven through Huggate where the young Hockney worked on a farm one summer and where he says he drank his first pint.
Hockney lives now in Bridlington as do several other artists, drawn by the light and the air. It’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say the town is laying claim to being the St. Ives of the North according to Corinne Young, an artist herself and manager of Gallery 49 which shows the work of Hockney’s sister Margaret and his brother Paul.
The gallery is in the Old Town about a mile inland from the sea. It grew up around the 900 year-old Priory, once a large and wealthy monastery and place of pilgrimage and still a thriving parish church. Its gatehouse The Bayle has been a prison, a garrison, a school and a town hall and is now a museum. You can take in both these on the Old Town Trail along with lovely antique shops, tea rooms, galleries and streets with some of the most complete Georgian frontages in England
Bridlington is in fact a town of two halves: the old part and the resort which expanded from the harbour and reached its heyday in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Today it still offers beautiful sandy beaches, a fine promenade and traditional family fun. I stayed in a room at Rags hotel down by the harbour and woke to the sound of gulls and the sight of the still active fishing fleet.
If I’d had longer I’d have made for the 400 ft high Bempton Cliffs the RSPB reserve four miles north with its great seabird colonies of nesting puffins, gannets and kittiwakes. Instead I settled for a bus ride to Flamborough village and a mile walk down to the Flamborough Head, spectacular in its own right with its lighthouse and rugged seascape. A plaque tells you it’s 362 miles to John O’Groats, 363 to Land’s End.
I got a cab back to town and after strolling, surveying and shopping, crowned my visit with fish and chips. There are 19 chippies in the town so it would have been churlish not to. I opted for the award-winning Fish and Chips 149 where you get banter along with the batter. It’s takeaway only so I ate strolling along the harbour walls and breathing in the North Sea ozone.
The meal lived up to all expectations but even a small portion of chips in Yorkshire would feed a navvy so there was too much for me. Not wanting to waste any I tossed the last few to a watching gull. Within seconds I was surrounded by dozens all clamouring and screeching. Rounding a corner I spotted a sign: ‘seagulls are aggressive, do not feed them’. The rest of the locals though were friendly and helpful.
A Bigger Picture David Hockney runs at the Royal Academy in London until April 9 www.royalacademy.org.uk
Article and images copyright Liz Gill