Rivers in Yorkshire

Rivers in Yorkshire

There are twenty-five major rivers in Yorkshire, which in the main contribute to a clear system running throughout the county. The higher ground of the Yorkshire Dales and Moors provide the source for many of the county’s most famous rivers, with many of them becoming tributaries for the longest one, The River Ouse. This carries most of Yorkshire’s water into the Humber Estuary, the largest on the East Coast, into the North Sea. Yorkshire’s river system is tidal up to Naburn Lock near York, Knottingley and Askern on the River Don.

The sources for many of the picture-postcard Rivers of Yorkshire, such as The Swale, Derwent and The Calder begin in three main upland areas, The Yorkshire Dales, The Yorkshire Moors and The South Pennines. Their sources are formed from natural springs and channels created by rainwater and melted snow. These expand and form gullies, which eventually become large enough to become rivers. Water only flows downhill and so their only destination is to the sea, which in Yorkshire lies to the East. They run downhill off the dales or moors it encountering other similar rivers, which begin to merge and form larger flows of water. For example the Rivers Nidd, Wharfe, and Swale all meet at different points with the Ure to form The River Ouse.


These settlements built by man on flatter ground are often at the confluence, or meeting points of several similar rivers on the flat and fertile flood plain which this creates. A prime example of this is in York, where the now formed River Ouse, a combination of several smaller dales rivers, flows directly through the city on its inevitable path downhill towards the Humber Estuary and The North Sea.

West Yorkshire has its own smaller river system. The River Aire in Leeds, sourced at Malham Tarn and the River Calder which begins near Todmorden join together at Castleford to flow as one to the beginning of the Humber estuary.

Meanwhile, further south the Rivers Don and Dearne are amongst other tributaries for the River Trent, which flows northwards and meets the River Ouse at Trent Falls at Faxfleet near Goole, marking the start of the Humber Estuary.

Nighttime shot of the river Ouse in York, Photo Credit Conor Ives (IFY Community)
Nighttime shot of the river Ouse in York, Photo Credit Conor Ives (IFY Community)

In East Yorkshire the River Derwent, sourced in the Yorkshire Moors, joins the River Ouse from a North Easterly direction at a small village near Selby called Barmby-on the Marsh. In East Yorkshire there are two unique rivers, disconnected from the rest of the county’s network. The River Hull rises up from springs, near Driffield and flows directly down to the Humber Estuary through the city of Hull and into the estuary. The Gypsey Race River, which flows mainly underneath the chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds enters the sea at Bridlington Harbour and similarly further North the River Esk runs through Whitby Harbour and into the sea there.

How humans have used Yorkshire’s River Systems

Over the centuries residents of Yorkshire have tried to take advantage of these natural river systems. Early settlers built their settlements near these rivers to harness their supply of water. When the ancient ridings were first mapped out by the Vikings they used the county’s riverbanks to mark the boundaries between each one. The River Derwent was used to distinguish between North and East Ridings, while the Tees formed the northern boundary of Yorkshire and the Ure/Ouse separated the North and West ridings. One of the first groups of people to exploit the natural course of a river were the monks at Meaux Abbey in East Yorkshire. They saw the potential of transporting their goods by making the River Hull navigable to the Humber estuary, which eventually led to the creation of a port,  named after their river, Hull.

During the industrial age fast flowing rivers were used to operate machinery for the early wool factories in West Yorkshire. It was these water sources which enabled places such as Leeds, Bradford and Halifax to expand and become major industrial towns.

The river systems were used for the transportation of goods to ports such as Goole and Hull and be exported. The Aire-Calder Navigation System was first created in 1704 when both rivers were made navigable by boat from Leeds and Wakefield respectively so cloth, woollen products and eventually coal could be transported from these towns either abroad or to other parts of the region.

This improvement helped to increase the economy of both these places just by making their rivers navigable and connected to the sea.

In the Yorkshire Dales the name of each individual dale is, in most cases, named after the river which flows at the bottom of each valley, for example, The river Swale in Swaledale and river Wharfe, which gives its name to Wharfedale.

In more recent times the Yorkshire Dales Rivers have been increasingly used in the tourist trade. The quintessential picture postcard scene of a babbling stream with a bridge, dry stone wall (and usually a sheep) has been endlessly used to promote the area to outsiders.

Yorkshire’s river systems are also a fantastic place for wildlife and associated pastimes. The river banks throughout Yorkshire are a magnet for fishermen, who take advantage of a ready supply of species such as grayling and brown trout, which live in their waters. Bird and animal watchers can also observe species such as Kingfishers, Dippers and otters. As the rivers widen and become tidal, due to their proximity to the sea, they become a haven for  ducks, geese and wading birds. Several nature reserves have developed alongside these rivers and flood plains, such as Fairburn Ings, Blacktoft Sands, Wheldrke Ings and Spurn.

River in Horbury, used for Canal boats, Photo Credit Conor Ives, (IFY Community)
River in Horbury, used for Canal boats, Photo Credit Conor Ives, (IFY Community)


The make-up of Yorkshire’s river systems has meant that throughout the centuries the region has become very prone to flooding. This is down to several reasons, which conspire at certain times to send parts of the region under water. In the main river system, starting from the Yorkshire Dales, many of them are formed on steep, high ground where they can flow very fast and direct into each other causing high volumes of water to merge at speed during periods of high rainfall. The type of rock, soil, amount of vegetation and man-made developments have an effect on how quickly the water flows from its source into a main river such as The Ouse.

The county’s longest river, which flows through York along with its local tributary, The Foss, has frequently plunged the ancient city under water. One of the biggest floods in the city came in the year 2000 when the river reached a height of 18ft over its normal levels. This deluge of water was caused by excessively high rainfall in the Yorkshire Dales and moors, (and in many other parts of the country) which sent a surge of water down each tributary and swelled the Ouse, causing it to “burst its banks.”

River in York which flooded in 2015, Photo Credit Conor Ives, (IFY Community)
River in York which flooded in 2015, Photo Credit Conor Ives, (IFY Community)

In 2007 it was the turn of South and East Yorkshire to suffer flooding. Once again excessive rainfall throughout much of the UK contributed to high river levels in many parts of the country. In the case of the Hull floods 100mm of rain fell on the city on June 25th coupled with similar weather around the area in the preceding ten days. The results were just over 9,000 affected homes and businesses plus an estimated repair bill of £200m.

On the same day in South Yorkshire, Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham were also underwater with landmarks, such as Meadowhall and the Hillsborough football ground were affected by the flooding.

To try and prevent disasters such as these, steps have been made to defend towns against flooding. In York the Foss barrier was constructed to try and separate the two rivers and control the flow of water into the Ouse from its tributary. Over in Hull defence projects are ongoing to try and prevent a repeat of the 2007 floods. In 2014 a £20m upgrade was announced by the Environment Agency over a 9km stretch down the banks of the Humber estuary and its confluence with the River Hull.

The complex nature of Yorkshire’s river systems have helped to both create and partly destroy the region. Their existence meant the county could become the “workshop of the world,” during the Industrial Revolution, with access to sea in order to export their goods right around the globe, thanks to the Humber Estuary. However, the severity of floods increased by population and planning projects on the banks of some of these rivers have caused some of the worst flooding in the region since records began, posing further challenges to authorities, environmentalists and residents of Yorkshire in the future.