There’s a whole library of books on great British battles, from Hastings to Culloden. In the north of England the most famous was at Towton near Tadcaster, fought between Lancastrians and Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses.
However, the history books don’t record another Yorkshire conflict, the War of the Wolds, and associated skirmishes like the Battle of Welton Dale and Invasion of Millington. That’s because these weren’t military engagements. There were no combatants standing knee-deep in gore, although some participants might’ve worried things were heading that way. They were bitter disputes about the right to walk through some of England’s most exquisite countryside.
The spoils of war were footpaths in the Yorkshire Wolds, a crescent of chalk hills rising from the adhesive brown mud of the Humber and terminating abruptly at the white cliffs of Flamborough and Bempton, a terrain of undulating fields and hidden valleys like nothing else in the north. Its fields and dales dazzle with vibrant greens and yellows in spring and summer, matching colours found in the gaudy palette of Bradford-born David Hockney. No wonder his best landscapes were painted there.
I’ve come to know the area well, and when I returned a couple of weeks ago and walked through a lovely steep-sided valley at Thixendale, accompanied by a singing skylark, I found myself mulling the injustice that has prevented the area from being given the same protection from undesirable developments enjoyed by national parks like the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.
The area is indisputably more lovely than the similar chalk landscape of the South Downs National Park between Winchester and Eastbourne, created less than a decade ago.
Yet sadly for the Yorkshire Wolds there isn’t even the second tier of landscape protection, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, despite the Lincolnshire Wolds on the other side of the Humber being so designated in 1973.
Why are the Yorkshire Wolds cold-shouldered by governments? The answer must surely be that it’s one of the most fertile areas of the UK and there has always been resistance from many farmers and landowners to anything that might introduce restrictions on their work. When battles to secure public access in the 1960s and 1970s took place many footpaths had long disappeared under the plough and ramblers were a rarity. Which is why the Invasion of Millington Dale in the 1960s by walkers was necessary to secure access, a demonstration inspired by the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District back in the 1930s.
Recently, I was pleased to discover that the Yorkshire Wolds may yet have its beauty, heritage and culture acknowledged by being designated a Unesco Global Geopark, joining a list of unique landscapes that includes the volcanic island of Lanzarote and the lush vineyard-patched slopes of Beaujolais in France.
Achieving Global Geopark status is a slow process but one I hope will eventually lead to wider recognition of the Wolds’ beauty, not just abroad but also in the north of England – the landscape is often described as Yorkshire’s best-kept secret. Geopark status should be a first step to stronger protection, though, because lack of it has seen some areas desecrated by inappropriate developments. With wind turbines starting to bristle along its skyline I fear for the future of this lovely part of England.