The beauty of Hockney's Yorkshire Wolds

By Stephen Mcclarence ( China Daily ) Updated: 2017-03-04 07:24:32

A visit to England's most underrated destination, now immortalized in a great painter's landscapes

As we drive eastwards-ever-eastwards, we pass places called Drain Lane and Sand Hole. Wetwang and Fangfoss aren't too far away. Then, most intriguingly, there's a road sign to Land of Nod. We turn right pretty sharpish to investigate.

On an auburn autumn morning, my wife and I are in East Yorkshire, ultimately heading for Spurn Point, one of the strangest, most haunting outposts of England. It's on the extreme edge; it redefines remoteness; and from time to time it becomes an island.

East Yorkshire - or, if you prefer, the East Riding - is a place of vast horizons that sometimes feels more Dutch than English. It's off-the-beaten track and easily overlooked. Even the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds, the area's biggest concession to altitude, don't get much of a look-in thanks to the higher-profile (and, yes, simply higher) Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.

The Wolds don't offer rugged drama; they offer lyrical landscapes of the sort celebrated by David Hockney and on show in his new exhibition at Tate Britain. And 2017 is a good year to explore the area, as Hull, East Yorkshire's only city, becomes UK City of Culture.

We'll be sampling Hockneyland and what's arguably Yorkshire's - arguably the North's - smartest market town, over a busy weekend. There are, we discover, some rich pickings for City of Culture-Vultures.

But first: In Search of Land of Nod. We drive down a dead-straight, dead-flat track. The occasional tractor trundles across the fields on either side; heavy clouds press down in a pearly sky; starlings form chorus lines along telegraph wires.

We pass the turn-off to Rascal Moor; and after two miles reach a gate that's literally the end of the road. Beyond, there's only a canal and further flatness. So this is Land of Nod: two brick-built farmhouses with outbuildings.

Farmer Mark Laverack is talking to a pair of builders. "In summer, people stand next to the road sign to be photographed with their heads resting on it, as though they're asleep," he says. Pause. "It's lovely down here. So quiet." He's right. Land of Nod is - aptly - a hint of the wound-down, no-rush-we've-got-all-day pace of life in East Yorkshire.

We carry on along the main road and soon reach Beverley, a spruce and handsome part-Georgian town with streets called Old Waste, Toll Gavel and North Bar Within. Its most celebrated building is the Minster, one of Europe's finest Gothic churches, which stood in for Westminster Abbey for the coronation scenes in the recent Victoria TV series.

For all its soaring grace, it's the Minster's detail that registers. Like the Percy Tomb, a festival of intricately carved medieval masonry, blooming into flowers and leaves. They look so organic that, if we come back in ten years' time, more flowers may have bloomed and leaves unfurled. A row of carved medieval minstrels lines one of the aisles. They strum, blow, bang and pluck their instruments, like a band hired by Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims. The bagpiper's cheeks puff out as he blows.

Any other small town would have been satisfied with one great church. But Beverley also has St Mary's, as big as many an abbey, with a pure blue nave ceiling studded with golden stars. The chancel ceiling has 40 panels, originally medieval, depicting Kings of England. Both real and legendary, they include Egbert, Canute, Athelstan and, unexpectedly, George VI (needless to say, added later).

Across the road, the White Horse is probably the best-known of the town's pubs (Beverley's useful new Historic Pub Guide weaves a potentially tipsy trail around 30 of them).

Dating back to before the 17th century, and not looking greatly changed inside since, the White Horse - known locally as Nellie's after a previous landlady - is a warren of densely dark rooms, stone flags, creaking staircases, gas lighting and blazing coal fires.

"We get groups in from America, Australia, all over Europe," says licensee Ian Wardle. "They can't believe it." He surveys the lunchtime regulars busily getting on with the glass in hand. "We've one or two here who helped build the place," he says (ironically).

We stroll through the market square to the Eastgate Bookshop, where owner Barry Roper brings the Far East to East Yorkshire. He leads the way up steep stairs to a book-stacked room. "2,057 items," he says. "Around 60 per cent about Borneo. Some I've only ever seen one copy of."

Here is The Home Life of Borneo Head-Hunters and Among Primitive Peoples in Borneo and Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo. "This belonged to the first Rajah of Borneo," says Roper, picking up a book at random. "And this was the author's copy. He gave it to his manservant and I bought it from the manservant."

Next day we veer off our eastwards-ever-eastwards trajectory to explore the Yorkshire Wolds. Dozens of pheasants scurry in front of us as we weave down high-hedged lanes.

David Hockney has described the Wolds as "hidden, small, full of valleys... a lovely bit of England, not spoiled". They have a quiet, understated charm which his landscapes exactly capture - rather oddly, really, as the pictures are as vibrantly colourful as the brightest Matisse.

Hockney has defined the area for outsiders. What once seemed just copses of trees are now Hockney copses - nowhere more so than at Warter, location of one of the most celebrated canvases. We edge through a hedge and 'into' the picture. The silence is broken only by crows and distant pheasant-shooters.

Finally, back eastwards. We drive - through Thorngumbald, past Swine and Roos - to Spurn, a needle-thin three-mile-long spit of land, curving out into the Humber estuary. It sticks out - not so much like a sore thumb as like a slightly arthritic finger scratching an itch on the Lincolnshire coast on the far side. In places, it's only 50 feet wide and a tidal surge three years ago breached the road running down it. The Shipping Forecast is essential listening out here.

Visitors can reach the far end, with its lighthouse and lifeboat station, only after an arduous and potentially dangerous walk (heed the warning notices). So at low tide, its owners, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, are running Spurn Safaris, lasting three hours or so, on board a converted Unimog truck.

On a sunny day Spurn can be idyllic, with a great arching sky, silver-shimmering water on either side, and the splash and slush of the tide. Its windswept wildness and the promise of unexpected migrating birds lures naturalists from all over Britain.

"We've recently had a mega-twitch," says Andrew Mason, the YWT's Heritage Officer as a dozen of us clamber into the Unimog. "There was a Siberian Accentor!" Hundreds of enthusiasts turned out last October to see this small bird from the Urals - a first sighting on mainland Britain.

We trundle along the road and then across the sand where the road used to be. "Spurn is all about change," says Mason. We tour wartime remains and see roe deer and climb the 144 steps to the top of the black-and-white-striped lighthouse. The whole of Spurn stretches behind us, itching to scratch.

Dusk comes down. We drive home. And as we pass Nod, we nod.

Trip essentials

Stay at Tickton Grange (01964 543666;, a Georgian country hotel outside Beverley with stylish rooms, a welcoming family atmosphere and an outstanding restaurant.

Eat at The King's Head (01482 868103;, a popular pub with rooms in Beverley's market square.

Spurn Safaris: 01904 659570;

 The beauty of Hockney's Yorkshire Wolds

David Hockney has described Yorkshire Wolds as "hidden, small, full of valleys... a lovely bit of England, not spoiled". Provided To China Daily

(China Daily 03/04/2017 page24)

Most Popular