An Unrivalled Landscape

Five Great Estates

The unique nature of the landscape of the Howardian Hills has been shaped by the ownership of the land and the way it has been farmed. This custodianship goes back almost a thousand years and has evolved today into a unique legacy of care and maintenance of the land. Many of the families who planted the hedges and forests hundreds of years ago still live and work here. The estates of Newburgh, Gilling, Nunnington, Hovingham and Castle Howard are still associated with the families who built them. A remarkable continuity after centuries of change.


People have been drawn to these hills and valleys to escape the material world for thousands of years. In prehistoric times land was divided for social, ritual and agricultural purposes. The hills were for ritual, with many examples of round barrows on high ground. These funerary monuments date from the Late Neolithic period to the Late Bronze Age, with most examples belonging to the period 2400-1500 BC. “The City of Troy” near Dalby, is said to be Europe’s smallest turf maze. It follows the classical labyrinth pattern (as found on coins from ancient Knossos) rather than the medieval variation. The origins of this maze and the people who built the round barrows are now lost to us but their legacy remains within the landscape.

Christianity came early to the area. Stonegrave Minster was established before 757 by the Kings of Northumberland. The first monastic Order arrived in 1132. Their perseverance transformed the wild and untamed countryside into a farmed landscape and gave rise to some of the great monastic houses of England: Rievaux, Byland and Kirkham. Orchards were a fundamental part of monastic life. That centuries old tradition ended abruptly with the Dissolution of 1536. Popular uprisings led to widespread repression. The deep spirituality of the hills was never fully suppressed though, and monasticism returned to the valleys with the founding of Ampleforth Abbey in 1802, where the monks make cider to this day. Britain’s newest monastic house, Stanbrook Abbey, was built above Wass in 2009. It looks out across the landscape to Yearsley Moor, sacred ground for the Neolithic and Bronze Age people who built round barrows there to bury and honour their dead. Stanbrook continues a spiritual tradition as old as the hills themselves.

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