Nostalgia: An ‘oasis’ on bleak Yorkswold

Sir Christopher Sykes, was the principal architect of Sledmere House, its gardens and parkland seen today.
Sir Christopher Sykes, was the principal architect of Sledmere House, its gardens and parkland seen today.

In the 1811 edition of his history of Scarborough, Thomas Hinderwell noted that “transient visitors in the Spaw-season” were mistaken if they thought that there were no “agreeable Rides to induce excursions”. It was therefore his purpose to convince such “transient visitors” that the neighbourhood of Scarborough offered a rich and interesting variety of pleasant Rides into the countryside.

For instance, to enlighten his readers, he recommended that they should first ascend to “the summit of Weapon-ness or Mount Oliver”, which since its inclosure in 1797 had been “judiciously laid out” with convenient, wide roads. There, from the summit, they would see not only the castle, harbour, town and great stone piers of Scarborough but also to the westward the Vale of Pickering and to the south the rolling hills of the Wolds.

The Wolds were clearly of special interest to Hinderwell. After he had escorted his “transient visitors” down the coast to Flamborough, Filey and Bridlington, he then took them inland to “the most magnificent assemblage of chalky hills which this island affords”. Much of what was then often called the Yorkswold was bleak and barren, yet there was at least one notable “oasis” where nature had been improved and “decorated” by human ingenuity: it was called Sledmere.

In fact, after this build-up, rather surprisingly Hinderwell had very little to write about Sledmere, especially since by the beginning of the nineteenth century the village, dominated by Sledmere house and parkland, had already become a destination for “respectable” visitors.

What made Sledmere special was that the whole parish by 1812 belonged to one family of resident landlords who were industrious and enlightened improvers. By the time that Hinderwell saw the estate, Sledmere had been the property of four successive members of the Sykes family.

Richard (1706-61), previously a Hull merchant, had first purchased part of the estate, built the first new mansion there, and during the 1750s started to plan a total renovation and re-location of the village. He was succeeded by his younger brother, the Rev Mark Sykes (1711-83), rector of Roos in Holderness, who became the first baronet shortly before his death.

However, it was the third Sykes, Sir Christoper (1749-1801), who was the principal architect of both Sledmere House, its gardens and parkland, and the homes and farms of his servants and tenant farmers. Richard had started to clear the cottages south of the House and turn the area into a parkland, but it was Christopher who added to, extended and completed the essential landscape.

Effectively, Christopher had taken over management of the estate in 1770 when he was still only 21. He sought the professional advice of many leading gardeners and landscape designers, including the famous and expensive “Capability Brown”, yet in the end the decisions were all his, not theirs.

In 1776 Christopher secured an Act of Parliament which allowed him to raise money to pay for enclosure. The following year, the old Bridlington-York road was closed and a replacement, passing north instead of south of the House, was staked out. Where the old chalk, thatched, wattle and daub cottages had stood for centuries, now a great triangular avenue of 100 acres flanked by trees and ending in a plantation of beech provided Sledmere House with an open, southern vista. The former village pond became an ornamental lake.

All the villagers displaced were re-housed in far superior dwellings. The estate had its own brickworks and the new brick houses and farms were roofed with pantiles, flat tiles or slate. Some of the larger farm buildings resembled “villas erected for the purpose of rural retirement”, in the words of one description of 1812.

Between 1787 and 1794 Christopher transformed the House built by Richard, turning it into a classical H-shaped ashlar building with a slate roof. To it he added a courtyard, an octagonal walled kitchen garden and large greenhouse. The whole of the first floor was to be used as a library for the growing family collection. These changes cost him £19,000.

However, perhaps the most conspicuous change carried out by Christopher was his plantation of trees in a landscape previously bare, unsheltered and inhospitable. In the year 1778-9 alone, 177,000 trees of 13 different varieties, though mostly larch, spruce, Scotch fir and ash, were planted. By the time of his death in 1801, he had spent more than £10,000 on his trees which covered a thousand acres. They were not merely “decorative”, as Hinderwell seemed to think. They provided shelter for animals as well as people; the estate sawmill sold wooden posts and rails; pit props went to Derbyshire coal mines; and larch bark went to Beverley tanners.

The second baronet had made the estate profitable even in the short term by enclosure of sheep pasture and turning it into arable. During his 30 years of management he increased arable acreage from 500 to 1,500. Ewe Pasture, for instance, was converted into Ewe Flatts. By 1801, a thousand acres were under turnips and rape, 695 under oats, 559 under barley and 200 under wheat. And all of this was the work of only 335 men, women and children living in 43 houses.

Not least of Sir 
Christopher’s creations and 
buildings were a new inn, called the Triton after the Sykes family crest; a schoolroom and adjacent master’s house; and “a lofty arched Gateway erected over the new road to Bridlington” which could be seen “from every quarter”, to quote Hinderwell.

When Hinderwell published his revised history in 1811, the new baronet, third in the line, was Sir Mark Masterman Sykes (1771-1823). While his wife, Henrietta Masterman, was re-building their inherited estate and manor house at Settrington, Sir Mark was busy in his stables and stud. He bought his first thorough-bred in 1801 and soon afterwards took an ex-jockey from Malton, George Searle, to train his race horses.

Sledmere was not the only East Riding community transformed and dominated by one family of improving landlords. What the Sykes did to and for Sledmere was done, on a smaller scale, by Nathaniel Cholmley to Howsham, the Thompsons to Escrick, the Stricklands to Boynton and Sir Mark and Henrietta Sykes to Settrington. With their willing servants and tenants, these were the people who transformed what William Camden had disparagingly called “nothing but a heap of mountains”, the Yorkshire Wolds.