The village of Coxwold sits in an undulating landscape of working farms and secret wooded dells. So it’s no wonder that it’s considered one of Britain’s prettiest places
Don’t make the mistake that many other visitors do when they pass by Coxwold on their way to nearby Byland Abbey or to the famous Kilburn White Horse. Those in the know take time to enjoy one of North Yorkshire’s most picturesque villages, where, whether it’s the early morning light of a spring day, or the late evening sun of autumn, the honey-coloured stone buildings sing.
Coxwold is a perfectly manicured, quintessentially English village, with clipped yew hedges and neat, mowed lawns, and it’s little surprise that over the years it has scooped a host of Best Kept Village awards. Its streets are largely uncluttered by road markings or ‘street furniture’, except a couple of plain black and white bus stop signs on simple poles, which hark back to a bygone age.
Among a clutch of important buildings in the village is the Grade-1 listed Shandy Hall, one time home of Laurence Sterne, local vicar and author of the comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
The hall sits proudly at the western approach to the village, a solid, angular, red-brick building dating back to the 1400s, but considerably altered in the 17th century. Its high chimneys soar up from a dramatic roof of stone slates, many now carpeted with thick green moss. The hall is surrounded by two acres of beautiful gardens, too – Sterne himself was often to be found removing the weeds from the herbaceous borders.
Born in Ireland in 1713, he moved to Coxwold in 1760, where he became vicar at St Michael’s. He’d already written two volumes of the Shandy saga before arriving in the village, but produced seven more at Shandy Hall.
Sterne’s style was unique and quirky – Shandy itself is a local word for crack-brained or odd – and he would often leave stories unfinished, or directly pose a question to his readers, while his books contain typographical flourishes that he would add on a whim. Much of his humour bordered on the bawdy but then again he did once reason that: “every time a man smiles, but much more so when he laughs, he adds something to the fragment of life.”
Sterne is still held in high regard as an experimental writer and a man who broke new ground when it came to literature and story telling. Or, as Patrick Wildgust, curator of the Laurence Sterne Trust says: “He was so experimental, and so far ahead of his time, that we haven’t really caught up with him yet.”
The hall is now home to the Trust, which stages regular exhibitions and maintains the house – it includes the small study where Sterne wrote much of his work.
Opposite Shandy Hall, on the brow of a steep hill, sits the imposing St Michael’s church, with its impressive octagonal tower, one of just a few in the country.
Although Sterne often neglected his congregation, favouring his writing over more mundane, pastoral affairs, it’s said that when he did ordain to make an appearance in the pulpit, the church was full to bursting, as villagers flocked to hear his original sermons.
Inside, to one side of the alter, lie two marble figures, hands clasped in prayer. These are statues from the Bellasis family, ancestors of the Wombwell family, who still live at nearby Newburgh Priory.
The church is also known for its annual service for bike riders, which has been taking place since 1927, and every May hundreds of cyclists from all over the north east of England converge on Coxwold.
From the church, the main street slopes down the hill past a glorious mixture of old cottages and elegant detached houses like the Old House, with its impressive mullioned windows, and the old Grammar School, which was built in 1603 by Sir John Harte, a true ‘Dick Whittington,’ who later moved from nearby Kilburn to become Lord Mayor of London.
The Fauconberg Arms is the village’s only pub. A 17th-century country inn named after Earl Thomas Fauconberg, who founded the village hospital, it has flagstone floors, a huge open fireplace and beamed ceilings.
Set well back behind wide grass verges, on the south side of the high street, runs a terrace of traditional stone cottages. And in the middle stands the old hospital, now converted into five almshouses, each with a bright blue door. The hospital’s old bell tower was restored in the 1960s.
Further down the street, an old red phone box is the only clue that a plain, two-storey building was once the village post office, while on the southern edge of the village stands Railway Cottage, complete with the old signal hut sitting proudly in its garden. Coxwold station closed in 1953.
The smell of home baking drifts from the open door of the old school master’s house, now the Coxwold tearoom, while further up the road you can still enjoy the classic frontage of the old school house. Built in 1860 with a steep roof and gabled ends, its long, tall windows were designed to flood the classrooms with light.
Coxwold’s third great building is Newburgh Priory, which stands on the site of an Augustine priory transformed into a private residence by Sir William Bellasis in the 1540s. Since then it has remained largely unchanged, with its sweeping drive leading to an elegant manor house.
The house is home to many great family portraits as well as several legends, one of which tells how the headless corpse of Oliver Cromwell was secretly brought to the priory and placed in a tomb in the roof. On the orders of the Wombwell family, it remains unopened to this day.
The priory is still lived in by Sir George and Lady Wombwell, and the great gardens include topiary yews and woodland walks, with stunning views over the Howardian Hills towards the famous Kilburn White Horse.
The horse was created in 1857, although there’s some disagreement as to who actually designed it. Many say local school master John Hodgson, with the help of his pupils, cut the design into the flank of Sutton Bank, removing the topsoil to expose the limestone underneath.
Others believe a Kilburner called Thomas Taylor, who’d seen the famous Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, decided the North needed a similar equine landmark, and was both the brains and the money behind its creation. Measuring some 314ft (95m) from tip to tail, whatever its origins, it’s one of the largest white horses in Britain.
Initially whitewash was used to give the horse its colour but today chalk chippings are preferred. It’s said that on a clear day you can see the horse from as far away as Leeds and during the war it was covered over, lest it prove a useful navigation aid for German bombers.
Kilburn’s other great claim to fame is its oak furniture, much of it made by the Mouseman of Kilburn, Robert Thompson. The business he started around the turn of the last century is still flourishing today, producing high quality furniture, all bearing the famous mouse trademark.
It’s thought the first mouse was added after one of Thompson’s craftsmen commented: “We’re all as poor as church mice.” Generations of craftsmen have been adding them to chair legs and cupboard doors ever since. Centuries ago, this secluded corner of Yorkshire was a popular destination for religious orders in search of solitude, and Byland Abbey, just a couple of miles from Coxwold, was once one of the great English monasteries.
It was Gothic architecture at its grandiose best and it is said to have been the blueprint for the great rose window at York Minster. Byland’s great window, like the rest of the abbey, is now an evocative ruin.
Back at St Michael’s, the story of Laurence Sterne comes full circle. He died in 1768 and was buried in a London cemetery much favoured by body-snatchers. His cadaver ended up being used for an anatomical lecture. As developers moved onto the cemetery in the 1960s, so did the Laurence Sterne Trust. They uncovered several skulls, one of which had the top carefully sliced off, probably during a dissection. This was taken to be Sterne’s, and it’s this, along with the original gravestone, that now lies at St Michael’s, a fitting end to a ‘crack-brained’ story.
For more information about Coxwold and the surrounding attractions, visit www.discovernorthyorkshire.co.uk