I am standing at a crossroads feeling a distinct disconnect. Now that might sound like the bad opening line for a book that can only get worse, but in my case, it really is true. Behind me is a coach which has just disgorged a small group of art lovers, to which I belong, here to explore a new East Riding and Yorkshire Wolds tourist trail inspired by the Royal Academy’s current blockbuster exhibition, ‘David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture’. In front of us is the site for ‘Bigger Trees Near Warter’, one of Hockney’s most majestic Yorkshire paintings. But on this deep winter day, with the light as dull as Yorkshire ditchwater, the scene in front of me bears so little resemblance to Hockney’s depiction of it (even if the painting is a winter one) that seeing the two as one and the same thing is nigh-on impossible.
I peer through the half-light and try to strip away the layers of grey to arrive at the bare bones of the scene, on to which I can then superimpose Hockney’s lush reds and vibrant greens and his steely blue outhouse roof. It’s hard, and I’m distracted by wondering how the recent purchasers of the house to the right of the copse feel about tourist buses dumping bemused Hockney pilgrims on their doorstep. Looking around the lonely rural spot, I think: They should set up a tearoom, they’d make a fortune – a sure sign that I’m not spiritually in the right frame of mind to see great art in the landscapes here. Arty Yorkshire fans such as William Turner, John Atkinson Grimshaw and Thomas Girtin all had no such self-doubt and – mindful of Hockney’s belief that ‘there are no dull days, only dull people’ – I determine to try harder.
We plough on through the Wolds, a little-known part of the county that arcs, boomerang-like, across the right-hand corner of Yorkshire, from near Hull in the south, west of Beverley up through the heart of Hockney country and round to Bridlington. The other Hockney sites we visit – Thixendale, Sledmere, Garton, Kilham and Woldgate – seem equally resistant to informing my grasp of Hockney’s art.
I decide it’s the group thing that’s making spiritual or aesthetic communion elusive, and so return to the area on my own a fortnight later; press releases, art trails and piles of leaflets and notes replaced by stout walking shoes, some maps, a camera and – a novelty for me – a sketchbook.
My first stop is Hull, where the Humber Bridge provides a grand introduction to the area, but leads into a city that’s grey enough to challenge the most imaginative of colourists (World War II left only about 5 per cent of the city’s buildings unscathed). Still, with two medieval churches, a few patches of elegant Edwardian architecture, a picturesque old town, its very own Hoxditch-style area in the former fruit market and a refreshingly unpretentious café culture, Hull is a nice place to spend a day. But it’s a resolutely Northern town – resistant to contemplative pursuits – so I push on to Beverley, nine miles north, thinking of Philip Larkin’s 1967 poem ‘The Trees’ and the appropriateness of its closing line: ‘Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.’
Beverley is a revelation. With a superb gothic minster easily as uplifting as most English cathedrals, squiggles of cobbled lanes and streets of Georgian and Victorian terraces, it feels both cosmopolitan and provincial; a winning mix.
From here I head for the Wolds proper. My first stop is a planned return to Warter’s ‘Bigger Trees’ site, but for the life of me I can’t find it; maybe those homeowners have been out sneakily skewing a few road signs. It doesn’t matter; the handsome estate village is worth visiting for its own sake, but it’s also where I find the Yorkshire Wolds Heritage Centre, housed in the lovely St James Church. Here I mosey round examining some stunning Robert Anning Bell stained glass in the church and impressive Victorian statuary and mausoleums in the pretty churchyard. I pick up a wealth of information about the Wolds in general and the local area in particular, including a walks leaflet, and head off. I’m soon in a landscape made up of large arable estates owned by families going back to the Middle Ages – like much of the Wolds – and it’s just beautiful.
Muted colours and hues spread out like the proverbial patchwork quilt, only made up of neutral earth tones and myriad shades of green, white and grey rather than Hockney’s candy-colour yellows, purples and oranges. The open undulating farmland is punctuated by trees everywhere, clumped in valleys, orderly as shelter belts or standing tall along ridges in majestic ones, companionable twos or soldierly threes and more. The scale and sweep of the land and scenery is impressive but somehow also makes me aware of details and the beauty of each element within the scenes around me.
This sensation grows stronger as I tramp down the lanes around Thixendale, exploring the site of Hockney’s ‘Three Trees Near Thixendale’ series and a number of his seasonal ‘foliage tunnels’, stopping to peek into St Mary’s, one of several Sykes family churches in the area designed by George Edmund Street, architect of the Royal Courts of Justice (a leaftlet from the Heritage Centre details all ten Sykes churches in the Wolds).
As I travel through the Hockney Wolds heartland of Sledmere, Garton, Kilham and Woldgate, seeing sites that inspired works such as ‘The Road to York Through Sledmere’, ‘Hedgerow, Near Kilham, October 2005’ and the numerous ‘Woldgate Woods’ pictures in the RA show, I become attuned to the landscape via senses other than sight: the smells, the feel of the terrain, the sounds; and I am soon if not ‘at one with’ then certainly at ease with nature. Still, the intimate and friendly Jacobean hall of Burton Agnes, owned by the same family for 400 years, makes a nice counterpoint to the unending hills, valleys and ridges, particularly when I discover its top-floor Long Gallery is home to an art collection that includes Corot, Derain, Walter Sickert, Duncan Grant, Cézanne, Gauguin and Utrillo.
By the time I arrive in Bridlington, a buckets-and-spades seaside town with a smart prom, a fine beach and even finer views from the Bridlington Spa, I’ve fallen in love with the bit of Yorkshire that was probably its best-kept secret until last month. The tourist board is going ahead with its ‘Hockney’s Yorkshire’ trail leaflet, which will soon be available from the Heritage Centre and is already online at www.yorkshire.com/hockney, but really, you don’t need it. You just need some stout walking shoes, a decent map, a camera and – go crazy – a sketchbook. And if you want to see my art, you can’t.
First Hull Trains run between London and Hull, with prices from £10 one-way (standard). East Coast Trains run between London and York, with prices from £13 one-way (standard).
The Pipe and Glass Inn (West End, South Dalton, HU17 7PN; 01430 810 246) is a Michelin-starred restaurant (and the current guide’s pub of the year) that offers two suites with private patios. Hockney has dined here. Kilham Hall Country House (Driffield Road, Kilham, Driffied, YO25 4SP; 01262 420 466) is a true rural retreat with overstuffed armchairs, croquet lawn and a heated pool.