Sledmere, an East Yorkshire village that inspired artist David Hockney

Sledmere is a glorious East Yorkshire village which inspired David Hockney to pick up his paint brush, as Jo Haywood reports

Sledmere wouldn’t be where it is today without the Sykes family. And that’s not just a pat on the back for the homes and livelihood they have provided over the years, it’s a fact. If it wasn’t for them, the village really would be somewhere else.

In the late 1700s, Christopher Sykes relocated the village to surround his newly expanded estate, which covered a massive 30,000 acres with a large mansion and 200 acres of parkland at its centre. A catastrophic fire in 1911 all but destroyed the house, leaving it like a blackened shell, but it has since been restored to glorious effect and maintains its position today as the beating heart of this lovely, pleasantly isolated hamlet.

It retains its unmistakable ‘lived in’ feeling because it is still a family home, watched over by Sir Tatton Sykes, the 8th Baronet. His is a remarkable family, and not just because they move entire villages from one place to another.

The Sykes family, who amassed a fortune from shipping, finance and the flourishing Baltic trade in pig iron, came to the village in the mid-1700s when Richard Sykes married Mary Kirkby, co-heiress of the Sledmere estate.

His nephew, Christopher (the one who transplanted the entire village), extended the house, landscaped the grounds and planted 1,000 acres of trees, eventually leaving 30,000 acres of farmland and around 80 tenanted farms.

The next notable Baronet was the sixth, Sir Mark, who was an avid traveller, particularly in the Middle East, and a writer before becoming MP for Central Hull in 1911.

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When the First World War was declared, men from his Sledmere estate were among the first to be called up. They brought a special skill to the conflict, driving what were known as pole wagons carrying supplies to the troops in northern France.

This led Sir Mark to create the Special Reserve of Wolds Wagoners, a corps of 1,000 drivers raised from Wolds farms, who are remembered in a special memorial in the village and a dedicated museum with photographs, papers, memorabilia, a fine medal collection and Sir Mark’s uniform.

This was not the end of Sir Mark’s war effort though. He was called to the War Office by Lord Kitchener in 1915 and forged an Inter-Allied agreement about the Middle East.

Each successive generation of the Sykes family has added something to the Sledmere estate. The current incumbent, Sir Tatton Sykes, opens his Grade One listed home to the public for six months of the year.

Despite its ups and down, some of which would have destroyed lesser houses, Sledmere still exudes 18th century elegance.

Almost every room contains exquisite decorative plasterwork by Joseph Rose, the most celebrated plasterer of his day, and examples of work by the finest craftsmen, including Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton.

A tour of the house culminates in the magnificent library, which boasts a delicate artwork ceiling embellished with 22 carat gold, an extensive collection of rare books and lovely views over the Capability Brown-designed landscaped park.

Among the other highlights of a tour round this East Yorkshire gem are the octagonal walled garden and parterre, the Terrace Caf�, the Triton Gallery, the adventure playground, the Wagoners’ Special Reserve Military Museum and, of course, the unspoilt model estate village itself.

It really is picture perfect. Just ask David Hockney. The Yorkshire artist, who has a studio in nearby Bridlington, is very fond of the Wolds and of Sledmere in particular.

He painted a strikingly bold portrait of Sir Tatton Sykes a couple of years ago, but it is his painting of the village itself, The Road to York through Sledmere, painted in 1997, that has captured the imagination of art lovers across the globe.

It shows a snaking, undulating road bounded on each side by rich russet houses with due prominence given to the Sykes well memorial and its rotunda of Tuscan columns under a lead-covered dome. Its bold, lush colours have brought comparisons to Stanley Spencer, Richard Diebenkorn and the celebrated 19th century landscape painter Thomas Moran.

Gone but not forgotten

The body of Sir Mark Sykes, the 6th Baronet, was dug up in 2007 so that scientists could study it.

The Yorkshire aristocrat had lain undisturbed in a quiet village churchyard near his family seat for 88 years, but was exhumed when experts decided his lead-lined coffin might hold the key to halting the deadly bird flu pandemic.

Sir Mark died at a peace conference in Paris in 1919 during the Spanish Flu epidemic which swept the world, killing more than 50 million people in its deadly wake.

With the agreement of his family, scientists harvested cells from his lungs and brain to gain insight into how the virus mutated as it travelled the globe.

His grandson, author Christopher Simon Sykes, was quoted at the time as saying: ‘We all agreed this is a very good thing and it should go ahead.

‘I think he would have gone on to have a very distinguished political career. A lot of people compared him to Churchill. All the accounts of him say that he was a very gregarious, entertaining and funny man. It’s rather fascinating that maybe even as a corpse he may be helping others.’

Open house

Sledmere House reopens on April 2nd. Visitors can tour the house from 11am to 4pm and the gardens from 10am to 5pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (plus full bank holiday weekends) until September 26th.

Admission to both the house and gardens is �7.50 for adults, �3 for children and �17 for families. For the gardens and parkland only, it’s �5 for adults, �2 for children and �4.50 for Royal Horticultural Society members.

Special tours of the gardens and park are being held on April 8th, 15th and 22nd, priced �8 (including coffee and biscuits). Visitors should meet for coffee in the Terrace Cafe at 1.30pm before going behind the scenes to learn about the gardens’ history and the planning that goes into creating a riot of colour every season.

As well as the grandeur of the gardens, the tour also takes in the potting sheds, hot house and, for the mechanically minded, the machinery shop.Sledmere House is located on the B1251, just off the A166 between York and Bridlington (OS ref: SE931 648). 

For further details, phone 01377 236637, email or visit

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