An English Landscape

If you’re missing your Sunday-night costume drama fix after the conclusion of BBC1’s South Riding, you might enjoy some locations I scouted at the most easterly extreme of the M62 motorway, around the distinctive part of the UK which gave the Andrew Davies adaptation its literary setting.



The fictional South Riding in Winifred Holtby’s novel refers to Holderness, historically part of the Riding of East Yorkshire (and once – for a few decades – of Humberside). Its heroine is Sarah Burton, a fiesty, modern schoolmistress returning to her hometown between the wars to shake-up the local girls’ school during a time of economic depression.



Holtby used the peculiarly flat geography of her childhood home in Rudston and the surrounding Holderness – so distinct from the Dales and Moors beloved of the Brontes and other Yorkshire authors- to colour her novel.

Subtitled ‘An English Landscape’ the 37 year-old wrote the book on her deathbed, and it was published posthumously in 1935. It reflects many biographical aspects of her short but vivid life as a teacher, journalist, feminist, and contemporary of the Bloomsbury set.


Its wide expanses of farmland are veined with drainage canals, and its cliffs relentlessly eroding into the North Sea, Holdnerness is an area of mostly rescued marshland which stretches eastwards from the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Wolds.

The Holderness coast borders the North Sea from the mouth of the Humber at Spurn Head up to Flamborough Head, sixty miles north near Bridlington. You might well mistake some parts of the landscape for the Netherlands. The cliffs and flat expanses of farmland provide setting for dramatic moments within the novel, particularly its tragic climax.

The fictional town of Kiplington echoes Hornsea, Withernsea and Beverley, as well as the larger tourist resort of Scarborough further up on the North Yorkshire coast.


Rail travel linking Sarah’s former life in modern, forward-thinking London with her childhood home in the South Riding is key to both the novel and series, but the actual rail service to Hornsea was closed down following the Beeching Report in the 1960s.



Hornsea Mere is one of the area’s tourist attractions, a two-mile freshwater lake and nature reserve just inland from Hornsea and Withernsea. Here’s a peaceful view from Wassand Hall at its westerly point, away from the sailing boats and anglers.


Not far north of Hull, Beverley is tiny cathedral town, dominated by Beverley Minster. For fans of British history it’s well worth a visit – even its youth hostel is in a 14th century friary!




Burton Agnes and Burton Constable are the area’s best-known country houses and are popular attractions in the summer months.



The Maythorpe Hall of the novel is thought to be based on the White Hall in Winestead, one of the many estate houses which oversaw Holderness’ working farms in the century before WW1. After the financial difficulties of the inter-war years. many of these houses fell into disrepair or were torn down.

Luckily, some remain in wonderful condition:






Having never scouted Holderness before, I was impressed with the wide variety of disctinctive locations, a world away from the rather predictable chocolate-box view of Yorkshire’s hills and dales seen in many productions and commercials.



This private house with a huge working garden is in the unspoilt village of Beswick.




Crossing the Humber Bridge and heading into North Lincolnshire, I scouted an Old Rectory in Epworth, former home of John Wesley - founder of Methodism.



Before heading back towards the M180, the M18 and onto the ’62, I had one final stop at this stunning private estate, not far from Scunthorpe.





The BBC adaptation of South Riding used several actuality locations in Holderness, notably the clifftops at Sunk Island, as well as Rise Hall near Hornsea, recently renovated by Sarah Beeny from Channel 4′s Property Ladder.

You can find out more about the actual locations used in South Riding across East Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and further afield here, and watch the whole of the excellent series here via iTunes. Enjoy.


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