As the days get shorter and the air grows cooler, it’s almost impossible not to spot a pheasant or two lurking near hedgerows or strutting along country lanes wherever you go in rural Britain. Here in the Howardian Hills, it’s no different.
Driving along the narrow, tree-lined roads that cut through this corner of North Yorkshire, often rising on to a gentle ridgeline before descending into a dense copse, there seems to be a pheasant around every corner.
Following a rutted lane between cultivated fields, my companion and I encounter a small group of men chatting away as they pack up a few cars on this damp and misty autumnal afternoon. As we get closer, I see that they’re carrying shotguns and are accompanied by a few mud-caked labradors and spaniels. ‘This must be the Newburgh shoot,’ explains my companion, referring to the nearby Newburgh Priory estate.
Numerous carefully managed private estates are found within or straddling the boundaries of the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), providing the perfect cover for game birds such as pheasants, which are reared in large numbers for the annual shooting season (October to February).
‘Geographically, you have the North York Moors to the north, then the Vale of York on the western side and the Vale of Pickering and the Yorkshire Wolds to the east,’ says Paul Jackson, manager of this 204-square-kilometre AONB. ‘It’s only about six miles [ten kilometres] wide but it’s quite distinct in that it’s characterised by extensive designed gardens and parklands that have been established here for centuries and belong to several large houses.
‘There are the larger designed landscapes such as Newburgh Priory estate, which was converted to a private estate during the Dissolution of the Monasteries,’ Jackson continues. ‘Then there’s Gilling Castle estate, the original family home of the Fairfaxes, which is really a remnant parkland now – it has been largely planted up as woodland. And all that remains of Wiganthorpe Park are clumps of trees, the old boundary wall and the lakes and ponds. It was sold off during the 1950s and the main house was demolished.’
The largest estate inside the AONB is Castle Howard, from which it takes its name. Before the estate was built, the area was known as the Lower Hambleton Hills, after the ridgeline that extends into the North York Moors and forms the western flank of the national park.
The 18th-century writer Horace Walpole (whose father, Sir Robert Walpole, served as prime minister from 1721 to 1742) described Castle Howard and its 4,000 hectares of grounds as ‘a palace, a town, a fortified city’. Today, it encompasses 14 farms and more than 100 houses within the estate villages of Welburn and Coneysthorpe.
Construction of the Baroque castle that forms the estate’s centrepiece – widely considered to be architect John Vanbrugh’s masterpiece – began in 1699, completely and irrevocably displacing the village of Henderskelfe.
‘Today, 60 per cent [of the house] is open to the public,’ says Castle Howard’s resident agent, Henry Rayment. ‘You can go up to the staterooms on the first floor, whizz through the bedrooms, go along the antique passage and see the Great Hall and the Garden Hall. And now you can also go up to the top floor – we funded the restoration of it through the Brideshead Revisited filming, which really put us on the map.’
The area’s numerous estates are a huge tourist draw – Castle Howard alone received an impressive 210,000 visitors last year. But why is there such a concentration of large country estates in this small corner of Yorkshire?
‘The answer is likely to lie in the fact that this part of Yorkshire has always been a strongly rural area, hence the long-established aristocratic or gentry families, as well as a structured society focused to some degree around the important city of York,’ explains Castle Howard’s curator, Dr Christopher Ridgway. ‘The fact that industry, by and large, bypassed this area means it has remained largely unchanged. If you look at 18th-century maps, you will find many of these estates marked, and today, a good number of those families are still present or not long gone.’
The fact that so much of the AONB has remained under the same ownership for so long has actually benefited the local wildlife. The wide, tree-lined avenues that can be seen across the AONB, for example, cut through large tracts of species-rich grassland, while some of the ancient trees and woodland pastures are home to a host of unusual invertebrates and birds.
WOODS ARE GOOD
Away from the clean lines of the formal gardens and avenues, about 18 per cent of the AONB is wooded, with half considered to be ancient. Woodland ownership is divided between large estates or landowners who have long considered their woods to be an important resource – for fuel, timber or pheasant shooting. No self-respecting landowner would be without woodlands. But, as I soon discovered, these activities don’t necessarily adversely affect native wildlife.
‘Shooting is what you might call the more traditional side of Castle Howard,’ says Rayment. ‘We have a landscape and wildlife conservation department – alias gamekeeping department – that’s trying to build up a wild-bird shoot on the estate. It manages the margins around the fields [where the birds like to live] and we’re actually extending the sensitive margins around the fields where commercial farming is going on, under the countryside stewardship scheme, which benefits lots of wildlife – not just pheasants.’
In addition, Castle Howard’s coniferous plantations are gradually being converted back to native broadleaf woodland under an initiative that aims to boost the ecological health of commercial woodlands up and down the country. Under the Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites project, coniferous tree species that were planted 50–60 years ago are gradually being replaced with native broadleaf species to increase faunal biodiversity.
Nick Cooke, the estate’s head of forestry, says he feels ‘duty bound’ to convert the coniferous swaths, not only for the benefit of wildlife during the trees’ lives, but also to yield financial returns once the trees have matured and reached felling age. ‘We have to balance our efforts to benefit the ecological needs of our woodlands with the need for the estate to make money,’ says Cooke. ‘The gradual restoration allows the natural regeneration of native broadleaved tree and shrub species but also means we can continue to use the woodlands for commercial gain – long after I’m gone.’
Like much of the AONB’s land, this area has been under the same ownership for centuries, which has meant that it has largely been subjected to consistent and cohesive management. ‘There are no piecemeal developments or piecemeal farming techniques here,’ says Cooke.
Wherever you go in the Howardian Hills, it’s difficult to escape the influence of these intensively managed and planned estates. A typical view of the AONB incorporates a succession of ridges and valleys, interspersed with clumps of trees and a glimpse of some aspect of an old historic estate, whether it’s a manmade lake or pond, or a folly. It’s what gives this area its unique character.
‘The continuity of ownership and management has definitely contributed to the area’s designation as an AONB,’ says Jackson. ‘It has kept the area as it is and made it worthy of such designation, and, if we continue to work closely with the estate managers, we can continue to maintain the character and appeal of the Howardian Hills for years to come.’
Enjoy a right royal view
‘Exclamation Gates really encapsulates what the Howardian Hills are all about. You have the woodland and the designed landscape of Castle Howard, laid out in the way that it was supposed to be viewed originally, with the two gate posts framing the main house. Few people see it from this angle, but it’s how Queen Victoria would have seen things when she visited in 1850.’
Paul Jackson, Howardian Hills AONB manager
Overlook some classic landscaped gardens
‘With East Moor Banks [on the Castle Howard estate] to our rear, before us lies a perfectly planned 18th-century landscape and one of the finest views on the estate. The Howard family mausoleum is on the right, the New River Bridge is ahead, Castle Howard is beyond, and the Pyramid, another feature of the gardens, is on the left.’
Nick Cooke, head of forestry, Castle Howard
Discover a ‘gorge-ous’ geological feature
‘I can remember swimming in the River Derwent down by Huttons Ambo when I was little; it’s where I grew up. And back towards Kirkham Gorge, it gets quite narrow and is very secluded – it’s a really special place.’
See a landscape of visual surprises
‘That sense of undulating hills enabled the third earl and his architects to lay out the landscape and its various buildings in such a way that it’s a landscape of appearance, disappearance and reappearance. Something is always popping up into view. Even after 25 years of working and living here, I see views that are entirely new to me.’
Dr Christopher Ridgway, curator, Castle Howard
Get lost in a tiny turf maze
‘The City of Troy Turf Maze [near Dalby] was re-cut during the early 1900s because a local discovered an old newspaper article about it. Some say it’s an ancient pattern similar to those found in Scandinavia, but no-one really knows – it’s a bit of a mystery.’
Natalie Hoare stayed at The Old Lodge in Malton (www.theoldlodgemalton.com). For more information about the area, visit www.yorkshire.com/places/yorkshire-coast.