Clearly defined area of complex landform rising
above the low lying land of the Vales of York and
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.
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
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
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.
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.
and Cultural Influences
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Landscape, CCP 474, Countryside Commission, Cheltenham.
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Kent, P. 1980. British Regional Geology: Eastern
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Conservation Strategy, North Yorkshire County Council.
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Pevsner, N (1985), The Buildings of England: Yorkshire
- The North Riding, Penguin Books.
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