National – and international – recognition for the Yorkshire Wolds

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Even amongst people who love Yorkshire, the Yorkshire Wolds to the southeast of York is one of the least well known and least visited areas of our region. A very different and distinctive part of Yorkshire’s amazingly varied countryside –  it is one which may soon be hitting the headlines as it attracts national – and potentially, international – recognition.

To some extent the process has already begun. Natural England, the Government agency with responsibility for the conservation of the English countryside, following the influential Glover Report, is now in the process of considering the Wolds for designation as an Area of Natural Beauty (AONB). This is the second highest category of landscape designation in England and Wales, soon to be simply known as National Landscapes.

Figure 1: Clockwise from top: Horse above Millington; Thixendale; Rider's near Huggate. All images by C. Speakman.

Fig. 1: Clockwise from top: Horse above Millington; Thixendale; Rider’s near Huggate. All images by C. Speakman.

The Geological & Natural Heritage

The Yorkshire Wolds comprise the most northerly chalk outcrops in Britain, and the second most-northerly in Europe. This huge crescent of chalk hills – stretching from the Humber almost to Filey Brigg – creates a very distinctive landscape of rolling, fertile, mainly arable farmland. The area is crossed by ancient tracks and green ways, as well as deep, dry, grassy valleys. Many of these are now, thanks to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, public access land. There are also many fine walking and cycling routes.

The area boasts one of Britain’s most popular National Trails, the Yorkshire Wolds Way. This 79-mile (127km) walking route extends between Hessle, near the Humber Bridge, to Filey Bigg. The Way follows the great escarpments overlooking the Vales of York and Pickering, and also including several High Wolds villages.

There are also some magnificent stretches of coastline, including Filey Bay, Flamborough Head, and Bempton Cliffs (with its famous bird sanctuary). This is also an area rich in archaeology and local and history. The Wolds lie close to the city of Hull, whose cultural and economic influence still dominates the area today. For the people of Hull, the Wolds are a precious green lung.

Figure 2: Flamborough Head. Image by C. Speakman.

Fig. 2: Flamborough Head. Image by C. Speakman.

Economic Benefits

Much of the proposed AONB will sit appropriately enough within the modern East Riding of Yorkshire. A significant section will also include what is now North Yorkshire, but which pre-1974 was formerly part of the historic East Riding.

Protecting this area from unsightly and environmentally damaging development will bring economic benefits too, as the AONB will become an area known for sustainable forms of tourism. Walking, cycling, horse riding, and nature tourism bring visitors and their spending power not only to villages within the Wolds, but also the attractive peripheral market towns such as Pocklington, Market Weighton, Malton, Driffield, the historic town of Beverley, and the coastal resorts of Bridlington and Filey.

Creating the AONB will require months of consultation with landowners, farmers, local businesses, voluntary groups, public bodies such as parish councils, local authorities and national agencies. But the benefits of national landscape designation, including the protection of nature, will be enormous.

Fig. 3: Bishop Wilton Village. Image by C. Speakman.

An East Yorkshire UNESCO Geopark

A further exciting development for the Yorkshire Wolds, is the proposal for a UNESCO Geopark. The project’s working title,to avoid confusion with political boundaries, is Towards a UNESCO East Yorkshire Geopark. The Geopark would cover an even wider area of East Riding than the AONB, including Holderness and the coast as far as Spurn Point; as well as parts of the Derwent Valley and Vale of Pickering,

This designation reflects all the many qualities that will go into the landscape protection of the AONB, but will cover this larger area. It will also, however, recognise the huge, internationally important educational value of the proposed Geopark. A prime focus is inevitably the area’s rich geology. This will include the predominantly chalk landscape of the High Wolds, but related land formations including the coastal cliffs and caves; a constantly shifting coastline (the Wolds chalk actually goes underneath the glacial clay deposits of Holderness); and the Humber foreshore. Important, too, is the underground and surface hydrology of the complex water and river systems, and the ecology of the chalk streams, draining what is one of the most northerly chalk landscapes of Europe.

The Geopark designation would also incorporate and recognise many crucial aspects of the cultural landscape of the Wolds. This includes the area’s rich archaeological heritage, architecture, farming, engineering, and local and industrial history – spanning from the Romans, through the Victorians, to the last century. It will also celebrate the work of such influential painters as David Hockney and Fred Elwell; alongside writers such as Andrew Marvell, Winifred Holtby, MCF Morris, Edward Maul Caule and many others, who have drawn inspiration from this landscape’s distinctive character.

Figure 4: Humber Foreshore. Image by C. Speakman.

Fig. 4: Humber Foreshore. Image by C. Speakman.

Achieving UNESCO international status will require bringing together significant research evidence to satisfy the UNESCO criteria of the area’s national and international scientific and educational value, especially, but not uniquely, its geology. It will also be essential to prove there is strong and active community support. Evidence of a fully functioning Geopark will have to be demonstrated before any application can be made to have Geopark status formally confirmed by UNESCO. Appointed inspectors will be sent to East Yorkshire to see the evidence of the Geopark at work for themselves.

Before this can be done, a formal partnership will need to be established with the two major local Authorities, East Riding of Yorkshire Council and the new North Yorkshire Unitary Authority, supported by key national agencies. If successful, an East Yorkshire Geopark would join other established Geoparks within the UK covering areas including The Shetlands, North Pennines, North West Highlands, the coast of Anglesey.

To start this long process towards UNECO status, an informal working group has been established between among members of several leading voluntary organisations, including PLACE, as well as the Universities of Hull and York St. John. The group is working with many other voluntary community, heritage, and environmental organisations to consult with (and hopefully harness) the energy of the people of East Riding and beyond in delivering this dynamic new concept to celebrate, conserve and protect the special natural and cultural heritage of this part of Yorkshire.

The actual process of discovery and celebration will be of huge value in itself. If you, or an organisation you are a member of, would like to help in this work, contact Towards a UNESCO Global Geopark for East Yorkshire by email: [email protected].


Colin Speakman, September 2023

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Further Reading

  • Wallace E. and Browen J. (eds) The Yorkshire Wolds Landscape – Past, Present and Future (PLACE 2019)
  • Rawson Peter E. and Wright John K Geology of the Yorkshire Coast (Geologists Association – 4th edition 2018)
  • Traill Jon, Hanson Anabel, Allen Tracy Chalkshire – Britain’s Most Northerly Chalk Outcrop – Yorkshire’s Hidden Landscape (Hull & East Riding Partnership 2021)
  • Speakman Colin & Speakman Fleur The Yorkshire Wolds – a Journey of Discovery (Gritstone publishing – second edition 2022)

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