The wild, windswept landscapes and industrial-age towns of Yorkshire, in northeastern England, might seem like an unlikely setting for a cultural and culinary groundswell. But in fact, this has always been a place that fosters proudly unexpected points of view. Text by Joshua Levine; photographs by Christopher Kennedy
When the good people of Yorkshire call their region“God’s own country,”as they have for centuries, it conveys several meanings. One carries a hint of smugness: these are among the most county-proud citizens in all of England. Another meaning, only slightly contradictory, is gently ironic. The men and women of this sprawling northern county— England’s largest—are known for their self- deprecating humour, and love to stick a pin in any kind of puffery, especially their own.
To a visitor like myself, however, the most obvious meaning is rooted in plain fact. From its deep-green dales to the windswept moors of Brontë country in the South Pennines and the well-ordered Methodist towns of West Yorkshire, this county goes a long way towards justifying its billing.
Bear in mind, this is not Keats’s “beaker full of the warm south.” It is bracing northern beer, and that’s the way the locals like it. “The landscape has a strong character, and so does the local accent,” the TV writer Sally Wainwright told me over e-mail. “ ‘God’s own country’ is kind of a joke, but it’s also a strong identity.”
It was Wainwright who indirectly beckoned me here through my television. On a fine morning last fall just outside Halifax, not far from where she grew up, I found a bunch of other visitors waiting in line to enter Shibden Hall. This 15th-century estate is the setting for a BBC TV series Wainwright created called Gentleman Jack, and it turns out its popularity has set off a small tourist stampede.
Gentleman Jack is based on a real person named Anne Lister, who inherited Shibden Hall in the early 1800s. She was a lesbian, and, as her nickname suggests, she didn’t try very hard to hide it. Not for Lister the melancholy vapours of the closet; this is Yorkshire, home of the brave and unabashed. Lister proved a shrewd business owner, not to mention a diligent seductress of local gentlewomen. All this she set down in voluminous diaries (rendering the naughty bits in a code of her own devising that wasn’t cracked until over a century later).
Even if you’re not a Gentleman Jack fan, Shibden Hall is well worth visiting. It’s a fine half-timbered manor with rich panelling and coffered ceilings the colour of mink. When she wasn’t pursuing romantic conquests, the real- life Anne Lister was making money, and much of it ended up being spent on the house.
As a motivation to hike through Shibden Hall’s extensive parkland, there’s the prospect of ending up for lunch at the Shibden Mill Inn nearby. Like much else in the county, Yorkshire cuisine is not prissy, but this pub serves comfort food with particular vigour. My pork chop arrived with gammon crumble, salt- baked carrot, pickled carrot, sticky toffee pudding puree, and cider cream. It was a lot harder waddling back from the pub than it was walking there.
It turns out there’s also a Sally Wainwright link to Holdsworth House, the hotel I stayed at in Halifax. The handsome Jacobean manor served as a backdrop for an earlier Wainwright TV drama, Last Tango in Halifax. This is not surprising. The sandstone building, which dates back to the early 1600s, makes for a telegenic setting: the interiors are low-slung and woodsy; the large gardens, set off with stone ornaments and box hedges, are delightful. As I sat outside in the warm twilight, several young couples walked through on wedding-planning missions. Good luck to them—they picked a splendid place to embark on married life.
Halifax sits at the heart of West Yorkshire, which is what locals call the populous southwestern end of the county. This is a textile- milling and coal-mining region, or at least it was in England’s 19th-century industrial heyday. A lone smokestack, jutting up like a spire, is often your first view of a village nestled in a West Yorkshire valley.
Those industries are long gone, but they’ve left reminders of a bustling past all over the region. Piece Hall, in the centre of Halifax, is where merchants came to trade their woollen goods. Its two levels of colonnaded galleries arranged around a vast open square were recently converted into a mall of pubs, cafes, and shops. This striking public space, originally built in 1779, manages to look surprisingly modern. Methodism sank deep roots in Yorkshire, and while its stern doctrine wasn’t a lot of fun, its aesthetics have aged well. The minimalist architect John Pawson, who made his name with the old Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue, grew up a stone’s throw from here. (“Piece Hall is fantastic,” Pawson once told me in an interview, adding that as a child, its straight lines engraved themselves on his brain.)
The industry and landscape of Yorkshire also left their marks on two giants of modern sculpture, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, both of whom were raised here. That in itself is enough to certify the county’s claim to be the UK’s unofficial sculpture capital—one it asserts every summer in a wonderful festival, the Yorkshire Sculpture International. (Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event went mostly online for 2020, though most participating venues had reopened by late summer.)
A short drive east from Halifax is the Hepworth Wakefield. The museum is a jewel, opened in 2011 and housed in a blocky building by David Chipperfield that’s a pretty fine sculpture itself. Inside, you can find the hollowed-out forms Hepworth carved in wood to reveal that a sculpture can have its own organic interior. The idea felt brave and fresh in the 1960s, and it still does.
I missed the Henry Moore Institute in nearby Leeds, preferring to steer clear of Yorkshire’s biggest city, but I can’t imagine a better setting for Moore’s monumental Reclining Woman than the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, just outside Wakefield. Scattered among 500 acres of grassland and woodland on the old Bretton Estate are dozens of immense, sometimes startling objects. The juxtaposition of modern sculpture and grazing sheep is idyllic—if occasionally jarring. I will not soon forget gazing out over the pasture while contemplating the exposed unicorn innards of Damien Hirst’s Myth.
I drove back to Halifax through the village of Hebden Bridge, which has been beckoning bohemians and hipsters from all over England for some time now. It’s clear right away that this is not your typical sober Yorkshire mill town; window and doorframes are painted blue, orange, green, and purple. The main drag could have been transplanted from Brooklyn—the artisanal soap maker, the bike shop, the vegetarian cafe—and I’m told housing in town is getting just as pricey. How hip is Hebden Bridge? When the Calder River flooded in 2012, Patti Smith flew in to play a benefit at the tiny Trades Club, considered one of England’s best music venues.
Just outside of town, a charming gastropub called Stubbing Wharf straddles a sliver of land between the Calder River and the Rochdale Canal. I wanted to stop here for lunch because former poet laureate Ted Hughes, another local son, wrote a dreary poem called Stubbing Wharfe about eating here with his wife, the writer Sylvia Plath, when the couple were living in Hebden Bridge. “This gloomy memorial of a valley” is what he called the region in his poem. “A gorge of ruined mills and abandoned chapels.”
That’s not the view from Stubbing Wharf today. Outside, a steady stream of hikers clomped merrily past my table along the canal towpath. The pub’s monstrous portion of fish-and-chips was excellent. Plath, though one of the most celebrated female poets of all time, merits barely a footnote in Hebden’s past. Instead, Hebden Bridge is known as an LGBTQ-friendly town, and celebrates its reputation as the lesbian capital of the UK.
The area just north of West Yorkshire, where I headed next, looked like a big, empty splotch of green on my Google Map. This is the Yorkshire Dales National Park, a broad expanse of rolling hills and shaded valleys (known locally as dales) broken up by low stone walls and clear, swift streams. Here, beauty exists in perfect balance, neither too tame nor too savage.
Grantley Hall, just outside the town of Ripon, lies right on the edge of Nidderdale, a corner of the Dales considered so sublime that Her Majesty’s government added its approval to God’s by designating it an AONB, or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Grantley Hall’s current owner, Valeria Sykes, relaunched the stately Palladian mansion as a hotel just last year. Sykes, now 76, grew up a coal miner’s daughter in Barnsley, down south in Yorkshire. In 2012, she divorced her exceedingly rich husband and spent a reported $90 million of her settlement doing up Grantley Hall good and proper. “I wanted to put Yorkshire on the luxury map,” Sykes said in one newspaper interview.
I stayed in one of the plush grand suites overlooking the endless front lawn with its traditional ha-ha. (What is a ha-ha, you ask? It is a steep drop-off that prevents sheep from wandering up to the front door, designed to be invisible so as not to mar the view. Of course, if you don’t know it’s there, you fall in. Ha ha.)
The structure itself needs little help to shine. It was owned and added to by a succession of men who were good at making money and wanted people to know it. Thomas Norton kicked things off in about 1710, when he began work on the original building. In 1760, his son Fletcher Norton, an avaricious lawyer known locally as Sir Bullface Doublefee, extended Grantley Hall out sideways, the better to fan his plumage. “It’s all frontage— look at me, look at me!” says Anne Harrison, the hotel’s head of guest relations and its unofficial historian. “All the Norton men were unpleasant.”
Portraits of a few of these feckless rotters line the wall on the way to dinner, along with the portrait of another of the doughty women who seem to keep popping up in Yorkshire. This one was Caroline Norton, wife of Fletcher’s even more odious grandson George. In 1836, Caroline left George, who then denied her any property or access to their three children. Norton fought back, and her ceaseless pleas to Parliament led eventually to the passage of landmark feminist legislation. Many Englishwomen, Valeria Sykes not least among them, owe her a debt.
The food game in Yorkshire is lively and played for high stakes. There are more Michelin stars here—five in all—than in any other county in the UK outside of London. In hiring Shaun Rankin, Grantley Hall clearly means to up Yorkshire’s count. (Rankin already won a star for Bohemia, on the Channel Island of Jersey.) Rankin has said that he aims to fill his market basket within 40 kilometres of the hotel. This is not such a tight straitjacket: Yorkshire’s beef and lamb are renowned, and its produce is bountiful. There are exceptions to Rankin’s rule, of course— Wensleydale, home of one of England’s iconic cheeses, is 56 kilometres away. But vanilla, which grows in Madagascar, doesn’t come anywhere close. Rankin was raised in North Yorkshire, and he knows his way around its woods. So he makes his ‘vanilla’ ice cream from a locally available herb called woodruff, which has a similar flavour.
Driving straight east from Ripon, away from the Dales, you cross Dere Street, which is the modern name for the old Roman road that splits Yorkshire lengthwise. On the far side of this thoroughfare, the character of the land changes strongly and quickly. Glades give way to bare, low hills that roll eastward to the North Sea. Before long, you enter the uplands of North York Moors National Park, which in September are quilted purple with heather. It’s a sadder, lonelier landscape than the Dales, but equally beautiful.
There are many ways to take it in, but the quaintest and most romantic must surely be the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. A charitable trust now operates the old steam and diesel trains that make the 29-kilometre run over the moors from Pickering to Whitby. Hokey as it may be, I find it difficult to resist the chugging and clanking of the old locomotives—mine was the Repton No. 926 from 1934—or the great plumes of smoke that rise up as you pull into country stations like Goathland, which stood in for Hogsmeade Station in the Harry Potter movies. More than one grown man let loose with a “whoo whoo!” as the Repton 926 blew its steam whistle.
The moors meet the sea at Whitby, where the railroad line ends. There I toured the supremely haunting Whitby Abbey, which glowers over the town and the gray waves from high on the cliffs. To see the roofless nave backlit against low clouds provokes an involuntary shudder. The monastery was founded by the Abbess Hild in 657, which makes her perhaps the original eminent Yorkshirewoman, but the Gothic building whose ruins cast their spell today dates from much later. Those ruins left their creepy imprint on Bram Stoker, who saw them on a visit in 1890 and set several scenes from his Dracula in the abbey. So I was not surprised, as I wandered among the bare ruined choirs, to hear a gent in a Victorian bowler say, “Dead! And with two small holes in his neck!” They typically run theatrical renditions of Dracula all summer long— though they’re currently on hiatus because of the pandemic. The one I happened upon last year was pretty good, too.
It would be hard to pick a winner in a Dales vs. Moors cook- off. A short hop from the Feversham Arms in Helmsley, where I was staying, are two of Yorkshire’s best-loved restaurants. The Star Inn, in Harome, is a homey, low-ceilinged cottage (when I came, they were re-thatching the roof). I first stopped by for a snack, and figured that since this is Yorkshire, it would be a crime to leave without sampling its namesake pudding. What arrived were three fluffy monsters, each about the size of a grapefruit, accompanied by root vegetables and bathed in a hearty gravy. Henceforth, this will be the standard against which all Yorkshire puddings will be judged. The next day I tried the inn’s signature dish: a layered confection of black pudding, foie gras, and a caramelised apple. I could have stopped right there but, reader, I did not.
Dinner at the Black Swan in nearby Oldstead is an even more elaborate affair. Chef Tommy Banks serves up one of those operatic tasting menus where the words are as important as the music. And so it was explained to me that Banks achieves the explosive intensity of his beet salad by dehydrating and then rehydrating the beets before sprinkling them with crumbly frozen goat-milk cheese. I felt bad asking the staff to shorten the menu so my companion wouldn’t miss her train, which is like stopping the opera before the fat lady sings. They were very good sports about it.
England is so saturated with stately homes that I sidestepped most of the Yorkshire ones. I made an exception for Castle Howard, and I’m so glad I did. This property, just south of the moors in the Howardian Hills, is the stately pile’s stately pile. When a TV or film production needs a grand country seat as a location, they’re very likely to book Castle Howard. It stood in for Brideshead in the beloved 1981 TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and I arrived there a month ahead of a film crew from Netflix.
Suffice it to say, the grandeur here—of the house, the park, the art collection—is even grander than is the norm for this kind of place. The Howards, or some of them, still live here in a wing far, far away. Lucky them, you say? Yes and no. Through history, 19 Howards lost their heads on the chopping block, which, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, seems more like carelessness than misfortune.
Rain had begun to fall as I made my way back to the Feversham Arms Hotel. The morning weather report had put the chance of a shower at one in three, but the woman at the front desk explained that in Yorkshire, one in three means 90 per cent. “Nice weather for ducks,” she said cheerfully. Ducks and Yorkshiremen, who rarely let a passing downpour get in their way. I noted, even with the rain pelting down, no one got out of the hotel’s outdoor pool.
Seeing Yorkshire in Style
Manchester is the nearest major airport to Yorkshire; change planes in London for the hop north. The area is also easily reached by taking a train to Halifax, Leeds, or York.
I adored Grantley Hall (doubles from INR 35,900), a converted 17th-century mansion with 47 rooms and suites and a restaurant helmed by chef Shaun Rankin. Holdsworth House (doubles from INR 10,520) lies on the edge of busy Halifax, but sitting in the hotel’s Jacobean garden, you’d never know it. Just outside York, I stayed at the Feversham Arms Hotel (doubles from INR 11,625), a stylishly restored former coaching inn in the village of Helmsley.
At the Shibden Mill Inn (entrées INR 1,400– INR 2,870), you can feast on dishes like duck-fat brioche prepared with hen of the woods mushrooms, slow- cooked duck egg, and scallions. The Stubbing Wharf (entrées INR 735–INR 1,470) is a quaint little pub on the Rochdale Canal that cooks up a dynamite fish and chips. Black Swan at Oldstead (tasting menu INR 11,770) has a clutch of awards for chef Tommy Banks’s way with local produce. Don’t miss the Yorkshire pudding at Andrew Pern’s Michelin-starred Star Inn at Harome (entrées INR 1,400– INR 3,240).
The 15th-century estate at Shibden Hall is a must-visit for fans of the TV series Gentleman Jack. The Hepworth Wakefield and Yorkshire Sculpture Park showcase works by local sculpture stars Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. You’ll find haunting ruins at Whitby Abbey and Fountains Abbey, while the North Yorkshire Moors Railway covers one of the most scenic routes in the UK.