A History of Yorkshire

A History of Yorkshire

Physical Geography

The influence of geography can be traced in many aspects of the life of the county of Yorkshire and this is why a book which is primarily concerned with Yorkshire history must begin by introducing the reader to some of the main physical features of the stage on which the historical events have taken place.

The Yorkshire which is the subject of this book, ‘the county of broad acres’, is still the largest geographical county in England and Wales, despite the territorial losses incurred as a result of the 1974 administrative reorganisation. In the form which it held for the millennium before 1974 it covered almost four million acres, and at the last census before 1974 it was the home of over five million people (for present area and population, see table on page 132). The West Riding was the largest administrative county in England and Wales, but since 1974 the new North Yorkshire County Council now governs a larger area than any other county council in England and Wales.

At its greatest north-south extent the geographical county stretches for about eighty miles, and at its widest point it covers about a hundred miles, from Flamborough Head to the Lancashire border. Its 100-mile long coastline reaches south from the estuary of the Tees to the Humber at Spurn Point; and on the west it comes in places to within ten miles of the coast at Morecambe Bay.

There are five broad geographical divisions. The Pennines, which occupy the western third of the county, are themselves divided in two by the Craven lowlands, an area bounded by lines of geological disturbance, known as the Craven Faults. To the south the predominant surface rock is millstone grit, a coarse sandstone which carries a cover of peat bog, heather and cotton grass. To the north, and especially in the area known to physical geographers as the Askrigg Block, lime­stones predominate and give rise to such dramatic scenic features as Maiham Cove, Kilnsey Crag and Giggleswick Scar. The limestone, which is partly soluble in weakly acidic rainwater, has been eroded by underground streams to produce caves and subterranean valleys, which are a great attraction to cavers and pot­holers. Some of the caves, like Victoria Cave above the town of Settle, and Kinsey and Kelcow Caves near Giggleswick Scar, were at times the home of prehistoric inhabitants of Yorkshire.

In some places between the Craven lowlands and Swaledale, another geological formation is to be found. This is the so-called Yoredale series (Yoredale=Uredale=Wensleydale), which consists of alternating layers of lime­stones, and sandstones and shales, lying between the great scar limestone and the grit. The difference in resistance to erosion of the rocks in this formation gives rise to the stepped effect to be seen on the sides of some of the Pennine valleys, of Yorkshire in Upper Wharfedale, Wensleydale and Swaledale. The term Carboniferous is used to distinguish the main Pennine geological formations from the earlier rocks which underlie them—like, for example, the Silurian which are exposed near Ingleton and the Ordovician at Horton in Ribblesdale—and the newer glacial deposits which lie on top of them, such as the drumlin field at Ribblehead and the glacial erratics at Norber. This is because above the gritstone there was originally a series of rocks known as the Coal Measures (i.e. Carboniferous), which contained seams of local coal interspersed with shales, sandstones and other rocks. Although coal seams do occur in other formations, they are most abundant in the Coal Measures. The only place in the mid-Pennines where the Coal Measures survive today is in the Ingleton area, where coal was worked until about the time of the First World War, but Coal Measures are to be found in abundance on the flanks of the Pennines, especially on the eastern side, southward from the Leeds-Bradford-Selby line; and across the borders into Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. The most famous summits in the Yorkshire Pennines are the Three Peaks (Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Wbernside), but the highest point in the county is Micklefell (2,591 ft.). South of the Craven lowlands the peaks are lower, the highest point in the southern region being Black Hill (1,908 ft.) on the Derbyshire border, near the Holme Moss television station.

The second great geographical division of Yorkshire is the Vale of York, which runs through the centre of the county from Durham to the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border. It is drained mainly by the river Ouse and its tributaries, although a northern extension, passing through the Vale of Mowbray, reaches into Teesdale. In its southern extremity it touches the fenlands at the head of the Humber estuary and the low lying peat moors around Thorne and Hatfield. The Vale of York, at the centre of which lies the city of York, contains some of the richest arable land in Britain, although there are some areas of infertile sands and gravels, and others which are subject to flooding. Along the western edge of the Vale runs a narrow belt of magnesian limestone, part of which is followed by the Great North Road (Al). The characteristic building stone which is quarried from this formation can be seen in churches, houses and public buildings in Tadcaster, Barwick-in-Elmet and Pontefract.

The Vale of York separates the Pennines from the uplands in the eastern half of Yorkshire—the North York Moors, the Howardian Hills and the Yorkshire Wolds, The North York Moors, which reach their highest point at Urra Moor (1,490 ft.), consist mainly of sandstones and limestones of Jurassic age, which are more recent in geological time than are the Carboniferous rocks of the Pennines. The oolitic limestone of the Cleveland area contains bands of iron ore which have provided the raw material for the iron and steel industry of Teesside. The Howardian Hills, which run across the western end of the Vale of Pickering between Malton and Ampleforth, are composed of Jurassic rock of similar age to those of the North York Moors. In their foothills Vanbrugb’s magnificent 18th-century country house, Castle Howard, is to be found. The river Derwent, which flows across the Vale of Pickering, breaks through the Howardian Hills in a gorge which is the present day manifestation of the overflow channel which drained Lake Pickering, a glacial lake which occupied the floor of the Vale during the last Ice Age.

The Vale of Pickering, drained by the river Derwent and its tributaries, sepa­rates the North York Moors from the chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds, which form a crescent-shaped arc enfolding the former East Riding. The Wolds meet the sea at the spectacular white cliffs of Flamborough Head. West of Hull, near Hessle, they cross the Humber near the site of the new Humber Bridge, the northern anchorage of which is founded in the chalk at a depth of 21m. The chalk formation continues south of the river as the Lincolnshire Wolds. The steep slopes of the Wolds escarpment, which face the Vales of Pickering and York, are in contrast to the more gentle east- and south-facing slopes which descend to the valley of the river Hull, and the Plain of Holderness. The Plain of Holderness, which lies between the river Hull and the North Sea, is composed mainly of boulder clay, a substance of glacial origin which dates from the last Ice Age. Although it produces rich agricultural land in suitable circumstances, it also contains less fertile areas, and some which are badly drained. The largest lake in East Yorkshire, Homsea Mere, lies close to the coast, in the clay of Holderness.

The cliffs along the North Sea coast between Flamborough Head and the Humber pavements are also of boulder clay, which is soft and easily eroded by the sea (see below, Chapter 21).

Four-fifths of Yorkshire is drained by rivers which enter the Humber, most by way of the Ouse and its tributaries. A small part of the Western Pennines drains by the Ribble to the Irish Sea, and there are some streams which flow from the North York Moors directly into the North Sea. The lower courses of the main rivers are navigable for small boats, and in the early history of the county these waterways, supplemented by canals built in the 18th and 19th centuries, played an important part in the commercial and industrial life of the people.