Take to your bike to explore the pyramids in the Howardian Hills near York.
Everyone knows the Yorkshire Dales and North Yorks Moors but there are lots of other, smaller scenic bits dotted around the county including the Howardian Hills which stretch across a swathe of countryside about 10 miles north of York. A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, they take their name from the Howard family which owned – and still own – Castle Howard, more of which later.
My journey started in Terrington. I’d last visited the village during the snows of last winter when I risked life and limb tearing down Terrington Bank on toboggans with the kids. Returning with my seven-year-old son for his first proper bike ride, it came as no surprise, then, that our journey started with a descent but thankfully it was much more gentle and controlled this time and to the east of the village.
The first place we passed was Ganthorpe. This unassuming hamlet that was the birthplace of botanist and adventurer Richard Spruce who collected 700 species of plant from the Amazon jungle between 1848 and 1862. The oak tree on the green is a fittingly fine specimen.
Another giant oak drew our attention two miles further south in Bulmer. This one was planted in the middle of small triangular green in 1894 to commemorate the act which created parish councils. Unusually for its size, the village has no pub. The Slip Inn used to lie opposite the church but is was closed by the Countess of Carlisle from Castle Howard who was a fervent abstainer. She also made her mark at Welburn which we visited next. Temperance Inn Farm was previously the Bull Inn before the Countess had its licence removed. She didn’t get her way with the Crown and Cushion in the same village, though. Renamed after Queen Victoria’s visit to Castle Howard in 1850, the pub is still going strong.
Ale, on this occasion, was not for us. We headed instead towards the new Pattacakes Shop and Tea Room where we bought some bits and pieces to sustain ourselves for the ascent back, up and out of Bulmer and along the road ahead. And what a road. The Stray, as it’s known, must be one of the grandest thoroughfares in the north. An avenue of beeches and limes, it stretches imposingly ahead like an airport runway all the way up to Castle Howard, as straight as an arrow but with a several undulations. The last time I’d cycled this way I was accompanied by a much fitter girlfriend. As I was descending into one dip she was coming up and out of the next. Fifteen years on I didn’t have the same problem. Bertie preferred to push.
We had ample opportunity to see the various features along the road which revealed themselves gradually and teasingly as, I suspect, would’ve been the intention of their architects, primarily Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Motorists would miss such subtleties but, travelling at our speed, we certainly didn’t.
Looking behind us as we turned right from Welburn we could see a column, the Howard monument, and ahead was Carrmire Gate. Curiously, the Gate – a rusticated arch running into castellated walls – is one of only a few genuinely castle-like features of Castle Howard but serves no defensive or even boundary purpose as the main entrance is some distance away. Vanbrugh gave the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, John Howard, the palace he so wanted but he and Hawksmoor indulged their own preferences for battlements in the walls and outbuildings.
They were also potty about pyramids. We spotted six small capped brick pyramids on piers clustered either side of the arch in the Gate. Then, as we continued up the road a much larger pyramid gradually appeared over a crest which turned out to form the roof of the main entrance to the estate. Getting closer we could see another apex appear in the distance through the gate but this revealed itself to be the top of an obelisk, the first folly at Castle Howard which dates back to 1714 and is dedicated to Lady Cecilia Howard. The most substantial pyramid of the lot is the Hawksmoor Pyramid which we spotted to our right through gaps in the trees as we approached the main entrance. Castle Howard is as close as Yorkshire gets to ancient Egypt.
We had to keep our wits about us as we looked around The Stray especially when I was nipping back and forth through the narrow Carrmire Gate to get photos. This may be a country lane on the map but it’s like a race track for motorists.
We weren’t in the mood to visit Castle Howard being focused on the ride so made do with sandwiches sitting beneath the obelisk followed by a sort of backstage tour. We got a good – if distant – view of the Castle from a corner of the Grand Lake and, a right turn away, explored Coneysthorpe, a picturesque village which provided accommodation for the house and estate’s staff. It was our favourite of the four villages on the route. Houses and the former reading room are arranged around a long green with a Georgian chapel at the top. At the bottom, currently awaiting restoration, is an old estate maintenance yard where Castle Howard’s joiners and stonemason’s would have been based. Completing the bucolic scene two small children rolled gingerly down the green perched on a rickety, home-made trolley propelled by old pram wheels.
The final leg of our journey was thankfully much quieter than The Stray and more secluded, leading us downhill through woodland to the west of Coneysthorpe.
Our journey soon over, we lingered a little among Terrington’s stone-built cottages with red pantiled roofs. The village oozes class. This is North Yorkshire at its most desirable – with all the charm of more well known villages in the nearby National Parks but off the tourist trail and therefore somehow seeming more real-life. There’s a lively local arts scene too. Two musical productions in the village were advertised on the noticeboard and The Backotheshop Art Café behind the village stores includes a gallery. Set up three years ago following the closure of the post office, it has different exhibitions every month.
All those follies and a dollop of art at the end. We had enjoyed an enriching and energetic afternoon on our bikes and hopefully the first of many.
Distance: 11.5 miles.
Time: Easy half-day.
Leave Terrington past the church and heading east. Fork right signed to Ganthorpe. Pass through the village. At a t-junction turn right to visit Bulmer then return to the junction and continue ahead and over a crossroads to visit Welburn. Return to the crossroads and turn right up The Stray. Pass
through Carrmire Gate and by the entrance to Castle Howard and keeping going until a crossroads. Turn right to visit Coneysthorpe, turning left in the village to circuit the green. Return to the crossroads and continue ahead through a forest. Follow the road as it bears sharp left and, soon after, turn right to return to Terrington (repeating the start of the outgoing route).
Pattacakes Shop and Tea Room, Welburn, YO60 7DX. Deli, pattiserie and bakery. Tel 01653 618352.
The Arboretum Café, Castle Howard, YO60 7DA. Tel 01653 648767.
The Backotheshop Art Café (at the rear of Terrington village store), Terrington, YO60 6QB. Tel 01653 648530.
The Bay Horse, Terrington. Has its own CAMRA award winning brewery. Tel 01653 648416.