If you tend to think of Yorkshire as a region of hills – Pennines, North York Moors, Dales, Wolds, the Vale of York, that fertile plain which lies between the Pennines and both the North York Moors and Wolds, stretching from the Lower Aire Valley to the Tees, confounds that expectation.
When you travel along the A1(M), along what used to be known as the Great North Road towards Scotland, or the East Coast railway, once into Vale of York (which north of Thirsk is known as the Vale of Mowbray after a Plantagenet landowning family) you are constantly aware of hills to west and east. Over aeons, slow moving glaciers, carrying millions of tonnes of boulders and debris from ancient mountain peaks, gouged out this wide, shallow valley between the up-thrusted, ancient rocks that formed the hills. Yorkshire’s great rivers – the Swale, Ure, Foss, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire, Derwent all drain into the Ouse and eventually the Humber, continuing the process. The rivers also brought down rich alluvial deposits that created marsh and fenland in the huge plain. When drained by generations of farmers, these fenlands became fertile soils.
Amazingly, a fragment of that ecologically rich fenland remains at what is now the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve at Askham Bog, close to York.
Ancient highways and byways
For millennia, the rivers were Yorkshire’s principal transport arteries. Several towns and cities in Yorkshire owe their existence to rivers through the Vale which enabled trade to flourish across the North Sea. Towns grew at the highest navigable point of their respective rivers, many deepened and straightened into ‘navigations’. York itself, but also Leeds, Wakefield, Selby, Castleford, Goole, Ripon, Yarm, Doncaster, even Malton owed their existence to the trade brought by their rivers.
The glacial moraines, low-lying hills formed of glacial debris, on one of which the Romans established their colonial capital Eboracum, we now know as York, also enabled the Vale to become the major trade route between southern England and Scotland. Initially using prehistoric highways such as Rudgate and Dere Street, the road builders also utilised another major geological feature – the long, narrow ridge of Permian-era creamy-white Magnesian Limestone, the wonderful building material of York Minister and many buildings elsewhere. This narrow ridge extends from Nottinghamshire to County Durham. It divides the Vale of York from the South Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales. Roman engineers also developed the technique of raising the level of their military roads above surrounding fenland, hence the term ‘highway’ in use to the present day.
Stagecoaches, steam trains and automobiles
In the days of stagecoaches, towns developed along the line of magnesian limestone where networks of inns and stables were established to meet the needs of travellers, all within a distance of around 12 to 15 miles, or ‘stages’ of each other, so that horses could manage before being refreshed or changed. Towns such as Doncaster, Pontefract , Aberford, Tadcaster, Wetherby, Boroughbridge, Northallerton and Thirsk, developed rapidly in importance from the 17th century onwards, as did others on the east-west routes across the Vale between Leeds, Knaresborough, Tadcaster, York, Selby and Hull.
When the railways that formed what is now the East Coast Main Line were constructed, like the Romans, the Victorian engineers took advantage of the low-lying land. York itself became a major railway centre, but Doncaster, Northallerton, Thirsk and Selby also grew in importance as junctions.
The significance of the Vale as a transport corridor continues into the 21st century, not only with the present motorway network including routes such as the A1(M), M18 and M62, but the now electrified East Coast Main Line connecting London Doncaster, York, and Edinburgh and the soon to be part electrified Trans Pennine route linking Teesside, Scarborough, and Hull with Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.
A veil of uncertainty over a Vale of plenty
However, the Vale of York has another vital role – as a crucially important area of food production, including both arable and livestock farming. According to Natural England, in 2019 there were 1,089 farms in the Vale of York alone. The rich, alluvial soils are predominantly used to grow arable crops such as wheat, barley, oilseed rape, and a range of vegetables. To the west of the area, closer to the West and South Yorkshire towns and cities, beef and dairy farming and pig rearing are also significantly important.
But farming in the Vale is also vital for Yorkshire’s future. Given the current hugely disruptive impacts of climate change as summers become drier and hotter, and also for many food-producing areas, regular devastating floods, the likelihood is that food shortages, worldwide, will make domestic food production increasingly vital. Brexit has made imports more expensive and unreliable. Yet the somewhat one-sided deal negotiated by Liz Truss to increase imports of Australian beef and New Zealand lamb, could force many farmers, also facing catastrophic rises in energy, feed and fertiliser costs, out of business.
Adapting to inevitable change
Climate change is, as heat and drought are, a particular threat to the livelihood of Vale farmers, as are the disastrous floods the area is subject to. There must be more effective flood risk management in the Pennines and North York Moors, including protection of peat moorland, planting of trees, slowing down of river water flow by blocking drainage grips, and even reintroducing beavers on upland streams.
As Britain enters a period of unpredictable change, it may well be that traditional beef, dairy and arable farmers will need to consider new opportunities to survive in business. Already in the hillier Pennines, smallholders are embracing new types of ‘marginal land’ farming that require less energy and fertiliser input by using new methods of soil conservation and food production, including techniques known as permaculture, and also forest grazing to combine woodland and areas of pasture for livestock rearing.
Talking about a revolution
There are now serious questions about the practice of growing crops to feed to cattle for beef production, not only in terms of damage to the planet, but the inefficiency of the process in terms of the cost per calorie generated. Equally irrational is the use of cereal crops for so-called biofuel production, turning edible food into fuel for cars when people in the UK face malnutrition and even starvation. Perhaps the Vale of York could soon see a significant expansion of market gardening, a shift to locally-grown vegetables and fruit and salad crops to replace ever scarcer imports, while also meeting new demand from increasing numbers of vegetarian and vegan consumers. This is a commercial opportunity for farmers facing loss of traditional markets. Climate change has even enabled the growth of viniculture, such as at the excellent Heart of Yorkshire vineyard at Nun Monkton.
The Vale of York offers much for the visitor – several attractive market towns, all with a rich coaching age heritage, some wonderful country houses, gardens and parkland, for example at Beningborough, Lotherton, Newby and, near Masham the wonderful arboretum at Thorpe Perrow. But could the real reason to visit the Vale of York be to witness the revolution in agriculture needed to feed the people who live in our region in these most challenging of times?