As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the Howardian Hills AONB, Paul Miles pays a visit to Castle Howard, a magnificent stately pile in the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in North Yorkshire, and ends the day with a glass of homemade cider at nearby Ampleforth Abbey.
“This area’s a bit of a hidden secret,” agrees a friendly holidaymaker in the pretty village of Hovingham, with its little brook, sandstone cottages and red pan-tiled roofs. I’ve only just arrived in this neck of North Yorkshire and already complete strangers are enthusing about the place.
It may not the the UK's most well-known protected area, but the Howardian Hills AONB has lots of offer the visitor. Not least Castle Howard, the stately pile made famous by the filming of Brideshead Revisited.
I’ve stopped for a break on my 14-mile bike ride from Malton train station to Ampleforth. John, on holiday from Wiltshire with his Yorkshire-born wife and family, sings the praises of the cycling, walking and “the wonderment of the buildings,” before his young grandson pulls him away to fish for minnows in a shallow ford. With sunshine and blue sky, it’s as if the tourist board has directed the scene.
The logo for the Howardian Hills AONB, that greets you by roadsides as you enter the 77 square mile Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is two graceful intersecting lines. These are not hilly hills, it seems to say, just gentle slopes: an enjoyable challenge for cycling but rarely too steep or arduous. The hills never reach higher than about 200m, in the northwestern corner, near Ampleforth, where the AONB borders the North York Moors National Park. This famous neighbour is, possibly, the reason why the AONB remains little-visited, apart from its crowd-drawing stately home that is, most recently, the setting for a new TV drama, a three-part adaptation of PD James’ Death comes to Pemberley.
Castle Howard was built by Charles Howard, 3rd earl of Carlisle in the 18th century and is still home to the Howard family. The ornate showpiece – the first house to have a dome, design of which was advised by Sir Christopher Wren – and the grounds, laid out in the early English landscape style, with walled garden, fountains, lakes, follies and monuments, attracts over 200,000 visitors a year. It’s not only the grounds that, to use a word of the era, are ‘sublime’.
“This is the most beautiful, typically English view,” says the estate’s forestry manager, Nick Cooke, as he leads me to a belvedere known as the temple of the four winds and shows me a panorama of gentle hills, fields and forests, with barely a house to be seen. “We can afford to ‘under-manage’ the estate because we own the entire 9,000 acre block,” he explains. “Continuous ownership is one of the key factors to how this landscape has stayed the same throughout generations.”
He takes me on a drive through aptly named Pretty Wood, following dirt tracks the 3rd earl had cut so he could impress guests on carriage rides through stands of oak and ash enhanced by the occasional pyramid. The present owner, Simon Howard, adopts a less hubristic approach to managing the estate’s 2,000 acres of woodlands, criss-crossed with 50-miles of public rights of way. “We’re replacing conifer plantations with mixed woodland that looks more natural and improves biodiversity,” says Nick.
Apart from some invisible environmental innovations, such as a ground-source heat pump for the 145-room house, the buildings and grounds, constantly being renovated, are much the same as they have been for generations. Proposals for a zip-wire from a 100-ft fir tree in Ray Wood, near the house were rejected. “It was thought that people screaming as they whizzed through the air wouldn’t be appropriate,” says Nick as we reach around the fir’s vast trunk, fingertips unable to meet, and decide it’s a three-person-hug. We wander back to the house, past exotic rhododendrons that form the understorey to this colourful – and quiet – woodland garden.
I cycle off along the five-mile stretch of tree-lined Roman road that traverses the estate, up and down like a rollercoaster, from obelisk to gated archway to monument. My bed for the night is in more humble surrounds: a single room with shared bathroom in a guesthouse in the grounds of an abbey. The views, however, are priceless: across wonderful sandstone buildings to fields and wooded hills beyond.
The order of Benedictine monks has 2,000 acres of land, including lakes and a wildlife reserve. It seems it’s not only the landed gentry who have shaped – and continue to shape - this landscape. Religious orders have done so too: picturesque abbeys, mostly ruined, grace riverbanks and hills. Ampleforth Abbey, with its 20th-century abbey church and private school, is very much alive. The 40 or so monks have the largest commercial orchard in the north of England from which they make cider. You don’t need to be a cider-drinker, Catholic, or even religious, to stay here but if you appreciate serenity and Gregorian chant more than wi-fi and television, it’s a perfect base, at a reasonable price, from which to explore this small AONB. I’m tempted to keep it all a secret but perhaps three nights in a monastic setting has made me more willing to share?