The Howardian Hills AONB: ‘If Yorkshire really is God’s own county, then the Howardian Hills are the divinity’s chosen estate within it’

John Goodall takes a look at one of the varied and picturesque parts of Yorkshire: the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

If you allow that Yorkshire is God’s own county, then the Howardian Hills must surely constitute the divinity’s chosen estate within it. This is a supremely hospitable landscape of Jurassic limestone — the only Jurassic landscape in the North to be designated an AONB — well wooded with rolling hills and attractive, stone-built villages. The population of this 79-square-mile AONB is less than 10,000.

The principal river is the Derwent, flowing from the North York Moors and out through Kirkham Gorge, the deep-cut outflow of a huge lake that existed here after the last ice age. Yet part of the attraction of the Howardian Hills is that they border magnificent stretches of very different landscape. At the northern tip of the AONB is the market town of Helmsley, the gateway to the North York Moors, and, to the south, east and west, the hills drop into the Vales of York and Pickering.

This landscape is rich in history from the Iron Age onwards and there was a Roman fort at the nearby town of Malton. The village of Crayke, set on a high, isolated hill, was a resting place of the body of St Cuthbert during the Danish invasions of the 9th century and an outlying part of Co Durham until 1844.

As well as castles and former monastic sites, there are some outstanding country houses. The most celebrated is Castle Howard with its spectacular estate, within which is the Yorkshire Arboretum. It is after this house — and the owning family — that the hills are named.

The pyramid at Castle Howard set beside abandoned city walls, evokes memories of the Mausoleum of Caius Cestius, beside the walls of Rome. ©Paul Barker/Country Life Picture Library

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Also of note are the Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth and Hovingham Hall, a magnificent country house in the AONB built in the Palladian style by Thomas Worsley. Thomas’s twin interests were horses and architecture — his descendant, Giles Worsley, brother of the present owner, Sir William Worsley, was Country Life’s Architectural Editor from 1989 to 1994. Thomas, who built an indoor riding school as the entrance to the Hall, reputedly taught George III to ride; in turn, the King made him Surveyor General to the Board of Works

The estate has a notable link with cricket: Sir William Worsley, 4th Bt, was captain of Yorkshire in 1928–29. The pitch in front of the house, the oldest privately owned ground in the country, has been graced by Freddie Trueman and Geoff Boycott.

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