THE Wolds are a beautiful area to travel over by car, with little traffic on the roads, and miles of peaceful countryside all around. It was not always so. Sir Christopher Sykes, of Sledmere Hall, was one of the first landowners to transform the Wolds into their present prosperous condition.

He married Elizabeth Tatton of Tatton in Cheshire. The place name henceforth was adopted as one of the Christian names for sons of the family.

In a family that, over the centuries, has produced more than its share of eccentrics, Sir Tatton, Fifth Baronet, and his wife, Jessica, were perhaps among the most outstanding. He was 48, she barely out of her teens, when they married in 1874. Devoted, like his father, to the breeding of racehorses, he was also a passionate traveller, and, as it seemed, an inveterate bachelor, possibly as a result of domination by a very masterful father.

Jessica's mother, Penelope Cavendish-Bentinck, was also a forceful person, and well known in high circles for eccentric economies. There was a legend that she once decked her dinner table with flowers taken from a funeral attended the day before. Clearly, she was a woman quick to seize opportunities.

Sir Tatton provided one such opportunity, when one day he inadvertently travelled by train alone in a carriage with Jessica from York to London. At that time there were no corridors on trains. And for a gentleman to travel alone in a carriage with a lady was simply not done.

When Penelope, meeting Jessica at King's Cross, saw her emerge from a carriage with Sir Tatton, she at once declared that her daughter was compromised', and they must marry immediately. Sir Tatton, completely innocent, tried in vain to wriggle off the hook, even appealing to his brother Christopher to obtain the backing of Edward Prince of Wales, a great friend of Christopher's.

Jessica, equally innocent, and utterly bewildered, was not at all enthusiastic but was not consulted as to her wishes.

To make sure there was no last minute hitch, Penelope called for the reluctant bridegroom in a brougham, and drove him to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony.

Jessica proved as formidable as her mother, without the economies: more than a match for her 48-year-old husband. She was a brilliant talker, much admired by many prominent men, such as Gladstone, Randolf Churchill and Ruskin. But she was extravagant, crazy on gambling, and lavish in entertainment.

Whenever they were at home in Sledmere, it was open house, especially during Doncaster Race Week. Sir Tatton was far from sociable, and would retreat to his stables, and to his designs for churches, and let her get on with it.

It was five years before their only son Mark, was born, (an indication perhaps that there was little love lost between the two). Husband and wife differed sharply over his upbringing. Three years after his birth Jessica was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and to Sir Tatton's lasting and bitter resentment, insisted Mark be brought up in this faith. Sir Tatton wished Mark to go to Harrow. Jessica insisted on Beaumont, a Roman Catholic school. Sir Tatton wished to take his son to criminal trials perhaps by way of education as a magistrate. Jessica whisked him off to racecourses and casinos. Sir Tatton favoured Oxford. Jessica fancied Cambridge. Naturally, he went to Cambridge.

At any time during Mark's schooling, Jessica was apt to arrive on a flying visit, to take him off on some foreign journey with her. Thus Mark was, early on in life, infected with the itch to travel, especially to the Middle East. Evidence of that can be seen at Sledmere in one of the most interesting rooms in the house, the Turkish Room, lined with blue and white tiles, designed for him by an American artist, in the style of the Sultan's apartment in an Istanbul mosque.

On the other hand, his early exposure to gambling and race meetings left him with a lifelong disgust for such amusements. While he was still a student at Cambridge, there was a tremendous family row, which ended in a public lawsuit. Sir Tatton had refused to honour a bill for £60,000 run up by his wife, insisting that the signatures on the cheques were not his, ignoring the fact that he never did sign his own cheques. Jessica had from the start managed all financial matters, signing cheques with his name!

At the trial, stubs were produced. Counsel then realised that one of the largest cheques had been for losses at baccarat to the judge himself, who had been staying at Sledmere during Doncaster Races. Finally, it was Mark who brought about a settlement, out of court, taking on the debt himself, with his prospects as heir for security.

Jessica's activities were not limited to entertaining, travelling, gambling, talking and writing cheques. When the Boer War began, she went out as a voluntary hospital worker. There, like Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, she found an appalling lack of organisation. She set to work to organise things more efficiently, no doubt making herself unpopular with the authorities. Afterwards, she wrote a book about her experiences, called Sidelights of the War. For some reason, like the cheques, and like other books she wrote, it was published under Sir Tatton's name. It seems odd that so dominant a woman should have chosen to do that!

Dorothy Cowlin, Pickering.