All aboard the slow boat to one of Yorkshire's most overlooked towns

Paul Miles
In July the Pocklington Canal will celebrate its bicentenary - This content is subject to copyright.

When a town is known as “the gateway to” somewhere, it seems to acknowledge that it has little to offer in itself. The Yorkshire market town of Pocklington is frequently called “The Gateway to the Wolds”.

From 600ft up, flying silently in the skies above (of which more later), you can see how this epithet came about. Red-roofed brick buildings and a medieval church lie at the foot of the gentle hills, as if a giant has rucked up a green carpet next to a toytown model.

A disused lock on the Pocklington Canal Credit: iStock

Apart from that, there seems nothing too remarkable about this East Riding town of 8,000 inhabitants, as has been noted for centuries. Daniel Defoe in his 1778 Tour through England and Wales wrote: “...the market town of Pocklington which we were told was so inconsiderable that it would not be worth our while to go so much out of our way to see it.” But this year, the Gateway to the Wolds is a destination in itself.

In July it will celebrate the bicentenary of its eponymous canal – the nine-and-a-half-mile waterway that finishes just a mile outside the town, at the junction of what was the turnpike road, now the A1079, between York and Hull. Culminating in July, the 1818 opening of the Pocklington Canal will be celebrated with Heritage Open Days organised by the canal’s owners, the Canal and River Trust, with the help of volunteers from the Pocklington Canal Amenity Society (PCAS), who have raised thousands to enable a further two miles and two locks to be navigable by narrowboats.

A reopening ceremony will take place at Thornton Lock on July 25 when a small flotilla of boats will cruise through for the first time since a cargo boat called Ebenezer made its last journey along the canal in August 1932. 

Then, on the last weekend of July, festivities will take place at Canal Head and the Melbourne Arm, four-and-a-half miles’ walk apart along the level towpath (or a free shuttle bus ride). At the Melbourne Arm, there will be outdoor walking theatre performances with an eccentric time-travelling professor who will keep children mesmerised as they meet a lock-keeper, navigator and wildfowler on a walk to a lock. It will be the most action the canal has seen in decades. 

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This short and entirely rural canal, separated from the rest of the canal system by tidal rivers, is only visited by a handful of narrowboats each year and attracts walkers, birders and kayakers who enjoy the wide skies of the flat landscape as the canal meanders through seasonally flooded meadows known as “ings”. It also attracts migrating waterfowl, dragon- and damselflies, water voles and otters.

When it first opened, the canal was full of industry; busy with Yorkshire keels being hauled by horses, bringing cargoes of coal, lime and manure into Pocklington, where the population of less than 1,000 were flax and hemp farmers, weavers and rope makers. Every 10 days there were boats to Hull and, every three to four days, to Leeds. The town had more than 30 alehouses. Today, there are 10 pubs.

Pocklington pointers

In fact Pocklington has undeniable charm – best appreciated if you rise above it. From the edge of town, a gentle waymarked hiking route, the eight-mile-long Pilgrimage of Grace walk, takes you up into the Yorkshire Wolds, Britain’s northernmost chalk hills, with views across to the sparkling Humber on a fine day. The route commemorates an uprising in 1536, a protest at Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries. You cross Kilnwick Percy golf resort and pass the Grade II listed Georgian manor house of Kilnwick Percy Hall, now a Buddhist centre open to the public. 

The Yorkshire Wolds Credit: getty

In the Forties, Pocklington’s numbers were swollen with 5,000 airmen based at an airfield less than a mile from the centre, near Canal Head. Halifax bombers took off on bombing raids to Germany. The Luftwaffe retaliated. This Second World War history is recalled in bars and restaurants in town. On the walls of JJ’s bar and kitchen, above the Co-op, hangs a bold modern painting of a Halifax bomber belonging to 102 Squadron. Dave Scott, proprietor and chef, tells how his property – which he opened four years ago – was bombed and how a nearby house was damaged when a gunner’s cage fell off a plane. 

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Today, the former airfield is now the home of the Wolds Gliding Club. For £90 you can enjoy a peaceful tandem flight, sitting in the front seat of a one-ton fibreglass glider with a 62ft wingspan, the pilot behind you. Far below, the Vale of York, the twisting canal and the gateway town are fairly unremarkable; but the experience of flying like a bird is out of this world. 

Defoe was a few centuries too early, it seems. With the canal festivities and the chance to soar like an eagle, I wager the 18th-century novelist would consider Pocklington definitely worth going out of his way to visit this year.  

Getting there

Pocklington is on the X46 and X47 bus route between York and Hull. It can also be reached via the Way of the Roses cycling and walking route, a 170-mile track between Morecambe and Bridlington. Pocklington is also on the Yorkshire Wolds Way. 

Where to stay

Meltonby Villas B&B (07543 912737) offers doubles from £70 a night; Kilnwick Percy golf resort (darwinescapes.co.uk/parks/kp-resort) has smart self-catering chalets; Wolds Glamping (woldsglamping.co.uk), near Canal Head, has simple wooden glamping pods, sleeping two with a shared shower and toilet block. 

Where to eat

Judsons Wine Bar, 4-6 Market Place (01759 302548, judsons.co.uk); JJ’s bar & kitchen 63 Market Street (01759 306650; simplyjjs.com).

Gliding there

The Wolds Gliding Club (01759 303579; wolds-gliding.com) offers a range of single flights and courses of instruction.