logo - The Countryside Agency    
title - Countryside Character Initiative
subtitle - Yorkshire and the Humber

Key Characteristics

• Clearly defined area of complex landform rising above the low lying land of the Vales of York and Pickering.

• Mixture of ridges, plateaux, plateau fringes, hills and valleys creating a highly varied landscape with diverse and sometimes extensive views, especially at the margins.

• Extensive areas of deciduous and mixed woodland, especially on ridges and steep slopes, with many being of ancient origin.

• Significant areas of coniferous woodland plantations mainly on high ground.

• A significant proportion of the area occupied by designed historic parkland landscapes, notably Castle Howard, but also many others.

• Varied pattern of agriculture, with arable cropping predominant, but with intimately mixed pockets of pastoral land.

• Fields of varying sizes and shapes, mainly enclosed by hedges, but with some drystone walls on the elevated plateau.

• Scattered settlements and small villages often built in local Jurassic limestone or sandstone, with red pantiles as roofing material, linked by a dense network of minor roads.

Landscape Character

The Howardian Hills are a more or less clearly defined belt of irregular, rounded ridges of Middle and Upper Jurassic rocks that rise from the adjacent low-lying Vales, of York to the west and Pickering to the east. To the north are the uplands of the North Yorkshire Moors and Cleveland Hills, and to the south east, across the dramatic Kirkham Gorge, rise the foothills and scarp slope of the Yorkshire Wolds.

Although generally well-defined in terms of topography, the landscape is a diverse mix, of sheltered valleys, where there is a patchwork of woodlands, parkland and villages, combined with rolling arable land on ridges and open plateaux, with extensive views out over the lower Vales. Within a short distance, intimate, enclosed, small-scale pastoral landscapes, with contained views, change suddenly to open, rolling and hilly arable landscapes while soft wooded valleys open out to wide plateaux with large scale plantations and sweeping, long distance views. This sense of diversity and contrast is enhanced by the range of land uses, land cover and landscape elements, which together form an intricate mosaic and contribute a richness of colour, texture and forms. It is this rich variety of landscapes, creating elements of surprise. Within an area of unspoilt, rural charm, that comprises its special character.

One of the most distinctive features of the area is the extensive and varied woodland cover. Large individual blocks of woodland or groups of smaller stands, often on high land, are visually prominent, while mixed and deciduous woodland, often on steep valley slopes, combine with hedgerow trees and the many areas of parkland trees to enhance the well-wooded feel of the landscape.

The large extent of designed parkland is also notable and has a widespread influence on the landscape. This is particularly noticeable at Castle Howard, where for miles around there are planned vistas stretching over long distances and glimpses of designed features, including gatehouses, monuments, a Mausoleum, a Pyramid and the Great Lake, as well as the imposing house itself. Estate woodlands, scattered copses and mature hedgerow trees help to give a well wooded feeling to the gently rolling landscape. Other parklands have similar designed landscape features and views, but are less extensive.

The character of other areas varies, thereby helping to create the diversity of landscapes in the Howardian Hills. Some of the fringes around the open plateaux are predominantly pastoral, with few settlements, scattered farmsteads, narrow winding country lanes and small fields bounded by tall hedges, creating strong field patterns. Further south and east however there is a change, where the relatively gentle gradients of the northern dip slope combine with good quality soils to support an area of intensive arable farming between Malton and Hovingham. This has resulted in a landscape that is open and rolling, with large fields and few field boundaries or trees.

In sharp contrast, the dramatic landscape of the deeply incised and winding Kirkham Gorge, through which runs the River Derwent, cuts through the Howardian Hills, in the south east, close to the boundary with the chalk landscape of Yorkshire Wolds. Nearby Kirkham Gorge the steep slopes are densely wooded, with mainly deciduous woodlands of ancient origin, but giving way to conifers on the upper slopes. These woods are linked by small pastures, while to north and south of the gorge, the valley floor is wider and the better alluvial soils are used for arable cultivation. Although the York to Scarborough railway line follows the line of the river through the gorge, the lack of road access through the valley gives it a sense of seclusion and tranquillity, enhanced by the picturesque ruins of Kirkham Priory. Views are contained, and framed by the steep slopes and woodland, but there are dramatic glimpses from the top of the gorge.

In the south-west of the area is Crayke Hill, with its prominent castle on an outlying knoll of Middle and Upper Jurassic rocks. This forms a distinctive landmark, while the hill itself provides panoramic views of the southern slopes of the Hills as well as the Vale of York. To the north-east is Caukleys Bank, a ridge of Upper Jurassic limestone that rises from the Vale of Pickering. This is a prominent landform feature, and gives sweeping views over the Vale and across to the Howardian Hills to the south.

The Howardian Hills are a tranquil landscape, with few settlements. The area is traversed by only one main road, the A64 from York to Malton and Scarborough, part of which is dual carriageway. There is a network of narrow minor roads, which are generally quiet and rural in character, often with flower-rich verges. Travelling these roads provides a variety of landscape experience, ranging from the openness and wide views of the ridge tops, to the intimacy of small valleys with views enclosed by woodland, to the steep inclines of scarps and narrow valleys, to the drama of long straight avenues and controlled vistas of features in the designed parkland landscapes.

Physical Influences

The Howardian Hills are formed from the sandstone and mudstone of the Middle Jurassic period, and the calcareous sandstone and limestone of the Upper Jurassic. They are divided from the Hambleton Hills, to the north, by a complex of east-west faults, which forms the low-lying Coxwold-Gilling Gap.

Numerous east-west faults cross the Howardian Hills and contribute to the irregular ridges and valleys, giving rise to a generally rolling and hummocky landform. These faults also account for sudden changes in soil condition. Although this is a prominent belt of hills, the maximum elevation is only some 170 metres. Prominent scarps of limestone are a notable feature along the outermost ridges, where the land drops down to the Vales of York and Pickering.

Although not covered by glaciers in the last glacial period, the effects of glaciation have nevertheless had a dramatic effect in altering the drainage patterns. The natural drainage of the Vale of Pickering was blocked by the North Sea ice sheet to the east, and by another ice-sheet which occupied the Vale of York, to the west, creating a large dammed lake. This found an outlet to the south west, which cut through the rocks to form the deeply-incised Kirkham Gorge. The course of the River Derwent was thus naturally and permanently diverted to flow south to the Ouse basin. Glacial drift deposits from the retreating Vale of York ice sheet have also left their mark in a more undulating landform to the south and west of the area.

Historical and Cultural Influences

Early signs of habitation in the Howardian Hills indicate that by the end of the Bronze Age, the landscape was already settled, cleared of forest and farmed, although not intensively. Early settlement was concentrated, as it is now, along the fertile north-facing slopes and on Caukleys Bank. Systems of dykes from this period can be seen running along the edges of prominent hills. Roman occupation is evident, most significantly through a pottery comprising over 20 kilns, at Crambeck, which supplied much of northern England with grey tableware.

Place names reveal that both Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians settled in the area. In medieval times Augustinian priories were established at Kirkham and Newburgh, and castles built at Crayke, Henderskelfe and Gilling East. Throughout this period small farmsteads were abandoned, centralised villages with churches were consolidated, and cultivated land extended even onto steep slopes. However, over a third of the villages were then permanently deserted as a result of the Black Death in 1348.

Far greater impact on the landscape of the present day, however, resulted from the enclosures of open fields, and the creation of large estates, in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Parliamentary Enclosures resulted in the straight-sided rectangular fields forming regular patterns, which are characteristic of the Howardian Hills. It was, however, the establishment of country houses by the aristocracy, mainly in the 18th century, with the emphasis upon controlling, designing and remodelling the natural world for picturesque effect, that led to particularly widespread change in the character of the landscape.

Most significant of course is Castle Howard, the grounds of which were developed between 1700 and 1799. Others include Newburgh Priory, Hovingham Hall, and stately houses in Gilling and Nunnington. Features included long formal avenues of trees leading up to the house or main entrance, lakes created by damming small valleys, and walks and rides laid out through woods and across fields. Routes were designed to give glimpses of the house, long distance views over the countryside, and views of features such as bridges, follies and water gardens. These grand designs substantially altered the agricultural landscape that had been there before, including the removal of some villages, and the building of new estate villages, thus creating a planned, rural landscape.

Buildings and Settlement

Although not numerous, the settlements that occur are an important component within the landscape of the Howardian Hills. A pattern of settlement can be detected along the northern escarpment, where hamlets and villages occur in a line along the springline, above the Vale of Pickering. Others are located on raised ridges and vantage points.

Many of the villages have a linear form where the houses, although forming a continuous frontage, tend to be set back forming wide verges which in places function as village greens. In other villages houses are clustered around one central green. Buildings are constructed in both local limestone and sandstone and roofed with red pantiles, stone kneelers and water tablings. Colours range from the rich ochres of iron-stained sandstone to pale cream limestone offset by the red roofs. Much original vernacular architecture still remains, and in general there has been development so that the character of the settlement is not diluted.

The smaller scale of village dwellings contrast with the scale and grandeur of the stately homes. Throughout the area there are surprise glimpses of large houses tucked in amongst trees, like Nunnington Hall on the banks of the river Rye, or dramatic views of those more prominently located, like Gilling Castle, on a spur above the village and church. Castle Howard, designed largely by Vanbrugh, is an outstanding example of the florid Baroque style. Others, such as Hovingham Hall, reveal the grand Palladian style or, like Newburgh Priory, combine both styles with Tudor, Jacobean and Georgian architecture. Dating from earlier times, and built for religious devotion and retreat rather than display of wealth and status, are the medieval ruins of Kirkham Priory, in the secluded Derwent valley.

Land Cover

The area is predominantly under arable cultivation intermixed in some parts with small areas of pasture and improved grassland. These pastures frequently occur on the steeper slopes and on damp valley floors, enabling some mixed farming to still be carried out. It is, however, the extensive and varied woodland that is the most distinctive feature of the Howardian Hills landscape. This amounts to some 15% of the area which is over twice the national average. About half of the woodland is on sites that have been under continuous woodland cover since at least 1600 AD, but most of it has lost its original character through replanting in the 20th century with conifers or mixed timber species. This has resulted in a decline in both species and structural diversity. Alder woods are still a feature of the damper valley bottoms, and semi-natural woods support alder, white willow, ash and oak, with bird cherry, shrubby willows and guelder rose forming the understorey.

The Changing Countryside

• On the whole this is a relatively stable landscape which has escaped some of the major changes which have affected other areas. Among the most notable changes have been a degree of intensification of agriculture. This has traditionally been a mixed farming area with arable crops and varied livestock which has contributed to the diverse character of the landscape. Farm holdings are generally smaller than in the Vales and intensification has therefore been generally less marked here. There has, however, been an increase in the extent of arable land at the expense of grassland and unimproved or semi-improved limestone grassland is a rarity. There has been some decline in the management of hedgerows which may eventually lead to their loss and some semi-natural habitats have also become more fragmented.

• The woodlands which are such a feature of the landscape have been progressively converted to mixed and coniferous plantations since the war but this has now stopped. There are now opportunities not only to protect existing broadleaved woodlands but also to encourage the conversion of some of these which have been replanted with conifers back to a more broadleaved character.

• Many features of the historic parkland landscape are now reaching a stage at which change will become significant if appropriate management action to restore, replenish and repair such features is insufficient.

• The distinctive landscape, historic parkland and features such as Kirkham Gorge attracts large number of visitors to the area creating pressures in limited areas. Increased visitor traffic and more general types of traffic has led to a need for upgrading of both principal routes and minor local roads, which can have an adverse effect on the landscape. The cumulative effects of successive small scale development have had a gradual impact, but, apart from recent problems with telecommunications masts, development pressures are currently not great.

Shaping the future

• The retention of the traditional pattern of farming should be addressed in the context of the distinctive, diverse landscape character of this area. Incentive schemes may assist in retaining the mix of small pastures, arable fields, hedges and woodland.

• The future of historic parkland and other designed landscape features needs to be considered.

• The contribution of woodlands to the landscape is important. Woodland management is particularly important for the future and, even in areas which are currently coniferous plantation, opportunities should be sought, where economically feasible, to move the balance of species back towards broadleaves.

Selected References
Bernard Wood, G (1967), Yorkshire, BT Batsford Ltd, London.

Countryside Commission (1995), The Howardian Hills Landscape, CCP 474, Countryside Commission, Cheltenham.

Harwood Long, W (1969), A Survey of the Agriculture of Yorkshire, County of Agricultural Series, Royal Agricultural Society of England, London

Kent, P. 1980. British Regional Geology: Eastern England from the Tees to the Wash, Second Edition. (HMSO for Institute of Geological Sciences; London).

North Yorkshire County Council (1991), North Yorkshire Conservation Strategy, North Yorkshire County Council.

Pevsner, N (1966), The Buildings of England: Yorkshire - The North Riding, Penguin

Pevsner, N (1985), The Buildings of England: Yorkshire - The North Riding, Penguin Books.

Speakman, C (1986), Portrait of North Yorkshire, Robert Hale, London

Willis, R (1975), Yorkshire’s Historic Buildings, Robert Hale, London

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