Sledmere, Yorkshire

The wide chalk uplands of the Wolds are crossed by open roads edged with wind-bent hedges, giving views to bare, sweeping horizons and glimpses of distant blue country. Sometimes there are long dark woods and coppices, half-hidden in hollows, or small villages set in shallow valleys lying low against the ever-bracing winds. If there are clouds, more often than not they are scudding fast, but on some days a sea fret comes in from the coast and obliterates every feature with a thick mist.

‘Sledmere may be considered the ornament of that bleak hilly country,’ wrote the author John Bigland in 1812, ‘In summer the waving crops in the fields, the houses of the tenantry elegantly constructed, the numerous and extensive plantations skirting the slope of the hills and the superb mansion with its ornamental ground in the centre of the vale form a magnificent and luxuriant assemblage…’ Over 150 years later Sledmere still shines out as an exemplary kingdom,  well loved and well cared for.

Sledmere HouseThe village itself sits in a shallow dip in the hills. Along its main street, past  farm and stud buildings, richly detailed Victorian estate houses and cottages line one side of the road all built of the local gingery red brick and adorned with deep bargeboards and grand rainwater hoppers bearing fleur-de-lis designs. Before them kempt gardens are half hidden by  neatly clipped holly hedges above low brick walls. The postbox, set in the leaded lattice window of the Post Office, still bears the letters GR. On past the creeper-clad 18th century rectory stands a dignified domed rotunda raised on columns above a well. It was built in memory of Sir Christopher Sykes, ‘who by his assiduity and perseverance,’ the inscription reads, ‘in building and planting and inclosing on the Yorkshire Wolds, in the short space of thirty years, set such an example to the other owners of the land, as has caused what once was a bleak and barren tract of country to become now one of the most productive and best cultivated districts in the county of York’.

Across the road, lodges and grand gates herald the entrance to the park, which curves and sweeps gently away up to the Sykes of Sledmere’s elegant house with its faintly raised eyebrows, arched over the windows. Spectacular beech trees around it look anchored to the ground by their huge spreading skirts, up to 80 feet across. Each generation of Sykes has planted trees so that there is a never-ending succession to come.  Richard Sykes laid the  foundation stone for the house in 1751 and planted 20,000 trees but his son Christopher had far more grandiose schemes. First he employed Thomas White and subsequently Capability Brown to lay out pleasure grounds and rides and to draw up proposals for improvements. By 1779 he had planted 177,210 trees — mostly beech, Scots pine and larch. He built strategically placed farms and other buildings — eye-catchers at the end of wooded views to be seen from the house, like the mile-distant and castellated Castle Farm (by John Carr of York). As if the Wolds had not been justly rewarded by Christopher’s planting, his grandson Tatton became even more of a legend. He restored or built afresh 16 churches in the neighbourhood and according to Gordon Home, writing on Yorkshire in 1908, Tatton was ‘the sort of man that Yorkshire folk came near to worshipping. He was of that hearty, genial, conservative type that filled the hearts of the farmers with pride. On market days all over the Riding one of the always fresh subjects of conversation was how Sir Tatton was looking. So great was the conservatism of this remarkable squire that years after the advent of railways he continued to make his journey to Epsom, for the Derby, on horseback.

Sledmere House Photo:  Wikimedia Commons / Andy Beecroft

 

 

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