Slow Guide to Yorkshire

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Ruth Richardson

Sawday's Expert

5 min read

With the whole sweep of Yorkshire laid out before you, it can be hard to know where to start when planning a trip. A comprehensive list of the county’s beauty spots, fabulous food and cultural highlights would be a very long read indeed. Here are a tiny handful of the places and people that keep us coming back, from cosy bookshops and delightful delis to historic towers, artistic villages and curious rock formations. Any of them could be the start of a few fabulous days in broad and beautiful Yorkshire.

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York, Malton, Harrogate, Brimham Rocks, Staithes, Malham

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Historic chic – York

A blend of creativity, great local food and lovingly preserved tradition make York much more than a stop on the way to the countryside. Narrow, cobbled streets and the looming presence of the spectacular Minster instantly impress York’s long history on you, but the university city has a youthful, lively feel. Although enjoyed by students, the famous profusion of pubs in York’s centre isn’t down to them. It’s a legacy of Quaker families like Terry and Rowntree, who owned the land surrounding the old town and pushed the less abstemious inward in search of ale. While that part of the city can feel a little overrun at times, it’s easy to slip off down cobbled streets and find low-beamed inns now serving grateful walkers and cyclists as opposed to the miners and farmers of the past. 

York constantly gives that sense of heritage and history combining with innovation, rather than being supplanted by it. In the Judge’s Lodging, a stunning townhouse turned beautiful hotel and restaurant has been given a spectacular roof terrace but still feels steeped in the burnished opulence of wealthy industrialism. Careful preservation means that the ruins of Clifford’s Tower, the keep of the Norman castle complex scattered throughout the city, still rises on its conical hill and the unmistakable Shambles, as you’d expect of Europe’s oldest shopping street, is becoming a draw for tourists. This last can get a little crowded, especially around the holidays, but just a minute away is Fossgate, a sort of Shambles for the locals. It has the bakeries, delis and coffee shops synonymous with modern urban life, as well as Fossgate Books, one of York’s eight independent bookshops. We asked the owner how the city managed to sustain so many bookshops when online services and the big chains seemed to be drumming them out everywhere else. There are specialists, like the rare edition and manuscript shop Lucius Books, which survive in their niches, but in the end, his simple reply made more sense the more time we spent wandering the streets – “It works because it’s York”. 

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Foodie Heaven – Malton

If you have any interest in food and drink, you need to visit Malton. In the late 2010s, the small market town about 40 minutes north-east of York, was just another rural community in decline. Then Tom Naylor-Leyland, whose family own large parts of the town and the land around it, made an observation that put it on a path to becoming the food capital of the county. Noticing Yorkshire produce for sale at a hip London food market, he questioned why artisans, growers and farmers weren’t celebrated en masse in the county itself. He set out to use food to breathe new life into Malton, beginning with a single yard where converted units were let cheaply to wholesalers. Now, it is a hive of activity, with artisans of all trades fuelling a restaurant and cafe scene that’ll put a stone on you over a weekend.  

The pace of the change owes a lot to both huge local enthusiasm and Naylor-Leyland’s clout. When one bakery became so successful that they’d outgrown their site, he simply knocked through to the adjoining building to give them more space. From that small yard, the love of food has consumed Malton. Side by side, you’ll find Paley’s the grocer and the Deli of Malton, whose charming claim to be definitive can be disproved several times within the surrounding few streets. 

Tours have even sprung up to help you navigate the many possibilities. A popular one takes in a coffee roastery, an artisan bakery, a craft brewery, a gin distillery and a patissier, and you’d be wise to follow the tour’s advice to “come hungry” even if you’re strolling the rustic streets without a guide. Markets and food events, including the intoxicating Wineathlon, are regular occurrences here, and in September the town’s devotion to celebrating fine Yorkshire produce overflows into a full-blown festival. Every available space fills with stalls and the air becomes an irresistible mix of aromas. 

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‘I was walking through the town on my way to open the bakery and it suddenly struck me, it was finally looking great.’
– Chris Welford, owner of Yo Bakehouse

Less-travelled town – Harrogate 

If York and Malton have led the charge in terms of the showcasing the county’s food and fun, Harrogate is at the front of the chasing pack. A wave of independent businesses has sprung up, giving the town an array of cafés, delis, restaurants and bars that fill every niche. The craft beer craze has settled into a solid scene, with establishments like Husk serving a creative range of ales. “The indy wave has exploded over the last 10 years,” one of the owners, Joe Duckworth, told us. “At Husk we feel there’s a new generation coming through ─ less guarded and more open to collaborate… It feels like craft beer has come home to the UK over the last decade and places like Harrogate have woken up and embraced it”. 

If you’re new to Harrogate, or even if you’re not, a walking tour with local expert Harry will reward you with a host of anecdotes that bring the city’s history to life, although just as in the rest of the county, it feels like youthful innovation is being fostered alongside the preservation of history. Get more of a picture of this charming town in former Telegraph journalist Charlotte Egglestone-Johnston’s tale of coming home to Harrogate after 13 years away.

Beyond dry stone walls – Brimham Rocks 

If you’re leaving Harrogate and heading north-west, you’ll soon be passing by Brimham Rocks, which is only about eight miles from town and well worth jumping out to wander round. The bizarre formations, where layers of rock lie seemingly balanced on top of one another, makes a striking contrast to the traditional vision of the Yorkshire countryside. Whether or not you believe the tales of druidic carving and mystic practices which have given names to many of the rocks at the site, it’s a magical spot to sit and watch the sun set.  

Artistic harbour – Staithes 

The tiny fishing village of Staithes watches the North Sea from a gap in the cliffs of the North York Moors National Park. It’s incredibly remote, but the stunning setting still caught the attention of a small group of Victorian artists. Inspired by the French Impressionists, they took up residence on the Yorkshire coast to explore a more realistic method of painting, with ordinary rural life as their subject. When Alison Milnes visited in 2006, there was no visible trace of the artist community that thrived here. She founded a gallery devoted to their works, now one of two in this tiny village at the bottom of the hill. As her husband and artist David told us, reflecting on the surprising variety of landscape and people in such a small place, “if you want a new subject in Staithes, just turn your head.” 

Alison decided to showcase the revival of Staithes’ past and present with the Festival of Arts and Heritage. The local community took some time to come around, including the resident who loved the idea but wondered if she couldn’t, “just take the word art out”. Finally, in September 2012, after months of “sitting in the pub and hassling people” Staithes was ready to welcome back the art world. To Alison’s surprise, most of it showed up. The narrow streets of the village were overrun and the parking at the top of the hill was chaos, despite her children being put to work on directing traffic. These days, the festival is a more organised affair. It offers you the chance to wander around the tiny pop-up galleries in each cottage, chat to the artists and gain an understanding of how a tiny fishing village fringed by cliffs and sparkling sea became an art haven. 

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‘It’s a thing this village does together, it makes us stronger.’
– Allison Milnes, owner Staithes Gallery

Industrial landscape – Malham 

It’s easy to mistake the striking landscape of the Yorkshire Dales as a feat of nature alone but the dry-stone walls, crumbling barns and even the contours of the hills tell a story of countryside that shaped, and was shaped by, human endeavour. Look around as you pass through – the agricultural and industrial history of the region is written in the fields. Drinking Yorkshire Tea in the kitchen with Neil Heseltine, of Hill Top Farm in Malham, we hear how the nature of each dale influences the farming within it and so the kind of people who settle there. Even the difference in topography and weather from the harsher top to the gentler conditions lower down can have a profound effect on the life of its residents. His wife Leigh told us of the history visible in the densely packed barns and rough longhouses characteristic of the landscape. “Looking at them, you really understand how people used to live,” she said, explaining how smallholdings clustered together and families would live above their animals, supplementing their income with mining; a stark contrast to the large-scale agriculture there today. 

While the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority released an app that explains historic mining sites like Grassington Moor and the Old Gang peat store at Swaledale, the industry’s impact is visible everywhere. Lonely chimneys and dark shaft entrances dot the hillsides, old bell pits have left large circular depressions and some of the rippling slopes are evidence of erosive hushing, where a dam was built and then broken to wash away topsoil. There’s a timelessness to the dales now, where the pace of change is slow, subtle and influenced only by tourism. Hikers come to enjoy routes to iconic spots like the Ribblehead Viaduct and Aysgarth Falls and while the locals welcome visitors, they know a few special spots to get some peace when they need it. Back in Malham, we talked with tax accountant turned blacksmith Annabelle Bradley who smiled as she happily confirmed, “It’s quite easy to get off the beaten track here, I’m just not telling you where.” 

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‘The best way to see local life is in the pubs. And the tearooms. You just have to talk to people.’
– Neil Heseltine, owner of Hilltop Farm

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Ruth Richardson

Sawday's Expert

Ruth loves a good story. Following a decade living in London and working in publishing, her ears are always pricked for a spicy plot twist or unforgettable character. She delights in meeting hosts and discovering the history that brought saffron to her spaghetti, the hiking detours that will lead to temple ruins, and why someone cares so passionately about their special corner of the world. She loves that as a marketer for Sawday’s she can share these stories with others too.
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