Moor and more
Craig Roberts explores North Yorkshire from the famous York Minster via the coast and steam railways to ruined abbeys and much Moor.
The Yorkshire Moors National Park covers some 554 square miles and is the largest expanse of heather moorland in England and Wales and also has some of the best scenery that the UK has to offer. But is it the best part of North Yorkshire, or are the classic Dales superior? Well, really it’s down to personal taste. I particularly like the moors, due to its sheer variety, which can be split into three distinct sections; the moors, the coastline and the lower hills to the south and so this became the basis of my trip. I was looking forward to driving up the coast, with its contrasts of high cliffs and small fishing villages, the famous resorts of Scarborough and Whitby, as well as enjoying the remoteness of the open moorland later on.
My first stop however, was to be the county’s most famous and historic city, York. This is dominated by its impressive Minster, a cathedral that still retains its Saxon title, meaning monastery. It was built in the Perpendicular style, which is most evident in its towering west front, as well as inside. And once inside, prepare to have your breath taken away with the sheer size and beauty of it all. One of the most impressive features inside is the magnificent Rose window, which underwent two and half years worth of refurbishment in 1984, after an infamous fire produced about 40,000 cracks in the glass. Now that’s quite a repair job!
As well as the Minster, there’s so much to see in the city, including the Railway Museum, the Viking Museum, the Clifford Tower and the Shambles, which is the town’s most famous street. The York Dungeons are also recommended, especially for anyone who likes a scare, but be prepared to interact with the guides. I was sentenced in the dock and was lucky to escape without my head being chopped off for the nasty crime I had supposedly committed!
The 13th century walls still encompass much of the city, giving an almost continuous three mile, elevated walk. Thankfully, there’s plenty of Park and Ride parking for motorcaravans around York, as well as standard Pay and Display parking, with bays specially allocated for vans, which is always welcome.
Leaving York, I headed northwest, as a friend had recommended Castle Howard as a place to visit if in the area. It was John Vanbrugh who designed this flamboyant Baroque house, which is set in 10,000 acres of equally stunning grounds, featuring follies and sweeping views. The tour of the house, takes you through some of its finest rooms that you may remember from the TV programme, Brideshead Revisited that was filmed here. The Great Hall is one of the most impressive rooms, with four immense columns supporting the dome above. Casting the eye upwards, it bears a similar resemblance to St. Paul’s Cathedral’s dome. Highlights in the grounds, include the Atlas Fountain, the Temple of Four Winds and the Cascade, a small waterfall at the end of one of the lakes.
I hadn’t planned to, but the historic house even has its own campsite, so I decided to make use of the facility as the day was now drawing in. Booking is advisable, but luckily there was enough room for me when I turned up.
From Castle Howard to the coast, the A170 skirts past the most scenic part of the Moors, with many pretty villages along the route. I stopped off at Hutton le Hole and Thornton Dale, both very picturesque, in particular Hutton le Hole, where half of the residents are the grazing sheep. There are in fact several villages in Yorkshire called Hutton, most of them coming with a suffix denoting a connection with a manorial family. Hutton le Hole is particularly worth a visit to explore the history of Yorkshire villages and their crafts at the Ryedale Folk Museum located here.
My first view of the sea, always a highlight of a trip echoing my childhood days and still true today, was at Scarborough, one of the oldest seaside towns in the country. What made it so popular was the mineral springs discovered on the beach that attracted the hypochondriacs, heralding the beginnings of the ‘seaside watering place’ and it wasn’t long before they surpassed the spa towns as ‘the’ place to visit. It has two lovely beaches, sitting either side of the castle high up on the hill. The South Bay has the usual seaside attractions and arcades, as well as the harbour and the height of its popularity in Victorian times is evident in the Grand Hotel that was built overlooking this bay. The North Bay is more sedate by contrast, but there are cliff top roads on either side with good parking, offering some wonderful views of both sides of the town. They are a good place to stop for lunch and watch over the bays and out to sea through your binoculars.
Although besieged a number of times, Scarborough Castle however was never taken by force, although the defenders were starved into submission on two occasions. The top of the keep has disappeared, but some remaining walls provide a good indication of how splendid this structure was and of course the views from the castle are also spectacular.
Robin Hoods bay, north of Scarborough, was a name I constantly heard from friends when I mentioned to them that I was heading for Yorkshire. Many of them are actually from Yorkshire themselves and it seems that it was, and still is a popular school trip location, both here and Boggle Hole, which is set within the cliffs further along the vast beach. Robin Hood’s Bay is a delightful place, with a steep hill down to cobbled streets, full of tiny, quaint shops nestled between jumbled houses. At low tide, the beach is full of rocks pools to explore for crabs, mussels and other small creatures of the sea. Although it shares its name with Sherwood Forest’s famous son, no one has yet come up with a suitable connection between the man and this village. One tale suggests he once fired his bow from Whitby Abbey and the arrows landed here. Not bad for a distance of five miles! Smuggling on the other hand is well connected to the place and its narrow streets and nooks and crannies were ideal to provide escape routes for smugglers from the long arm of the Excise men in days gone by.
A short distance further north is Whitby, very much the jewel in Yorkshire’s coast. It’s a harbour town surrounded by high cliffs and is where Captain Cook was educated. I decided however, not to drive to the town, but instead I headed to Goathland, to the south west of Whitby. This is where the North Yorkshire Moors Railway runs through, which will take you on an alternative ‘days gone by’ journey into Whitby, to arrive in nostalgic style.
If you haven’t heard of Goathland before, you will undoubtedly know its two psuedo names. Firstly, it doubles up as Aidensfield in TV’s Heartbeat series. You’re reminded of this at Scripps’ Garage, as well as the Goathland Hotel that is used as the local pub in the series. I parked in the main car park and headed down to the station, where the Whitby Endeavour runs from. Here you might notice another similarity to a big screen location, as the station is the setting of Hogwarts station in the Harry Potter films. Although it isn’t the Hogwarts Express that pulls up in the station, it is nonetheless an impressive steam engine that fills the air with smoke, ready to take you on the historic ride to the coast. As I boarded, I felt like I should have a little brown suitcase with my holiday things inside and a bucket and spade in the other hand. What a great sound, as the whistle goes and the engine chug-chugged out of the station. Glorious.
Arriving in Whitby, it’s all that you imagine it to be, with seaside shops, a harbour full of colourful boats and the impressive abbey, high up on the east cliff. The 199 steps lead up to the abbey and St Mary’s Church and I, like everyone else climbing, counted them all, just to make sure. The steps have associations with Bram Stoker, as much of his Dracula novel was based here. The Abbey's history dates back to AD675, when St. Hilda founded a monastery. The present structure is from 1078 and is now in the care of English Heritage.
On the west cliff, is the statue of Captain Cook, alongside the whale jaw bone presented to the town by Norway in 1963, which serves as a reminder to its whaling past. From the arch the ‘man in black’, Harry Collet conducts ghost tours of the town, as well as retracing the steps that Dracula once took. What better way to spend a dark evening!
In the harbour itself is the Grand Turk, a three-masted 6th rate frigate, well known as the HMS Indefatigable from the TV series Hornblower. Also in the harbour is Whitby Glass, home to the Whitby Lucky Ducks. If you have never heard of these before, don’t worry, because neither had I. However, a visit to the shop enlightens you that these little coloured, glass birds correspond to the gem stones associated with each month's birthdays and find their way into thousands of homes all over the world.
I took the last train back to Goathland to pick up the van and headed on to the last two coastal towns to the north of the moors. If the weather is not too good then there are several fine waterfalls to find in this area. Falling Foss and Mallyan Spout are two great examples and obviously look their best after a spot of rain. Both are well marked on the Ordnance Survey maps, so are not hard to find.
Staithes is another lovely harbour village, also with connections to James Cook. Make sure you park at the top of the village however, as you may find you struggle to get back up again especially in a large motorcaravan. It’s very tight in the village itself and the road back up is as steep as it can get. It’s a daunting prospect as you walk down into the village, knowing that you will have to climb that on the way out, but it is worth it, I assure you. How they have managed to fit so many houses into the village, I don’t know. Again, there are plenty of little shops to explore and lunch was enjoyed in the Cod and Lobster pub, which apparently has been washed away three times by the sea and the guilty feeling of enjoying a large fish and chips later disappeared, as the climb back up the hill soon wears it off. Be sure to drive round to the east cliff side before you leave, for the famous view from here at Cow Bar. A little seat has been thoughtfully provided at the viewpoint so that you can admire the view in comfort. What a view it is too, popular with photographers and artists alike.
You may want to end your coastal tour at Saltburn, a more traditional seaside town with a lovely beach and one of the most beautiful piers in the country. A cliff-side tram takes you down to the pier, or you can drive down as well of course. It’s apparently a great place to surf, but you wouldn’t get me into that cold looking sea unless it was the hottest day of the year. Saltburn also has its own miniature railway and is a fun addition, if you also enjoyed the full size North Yorkshire Railway.
Heading into the moors from here, you can be forgiven for being amazed by the sheer scale, as well as the beauty of it. Its easy to see how bleak it could seem on a cold winter’s evening. On this part of the moor, the delightfully named Roseberry Topping hill dominates from all around, with its distinctive cone shape and overlooks the towns of Guisborough and Great Ayton. Guisborough is a lovely little market town, with its impressive ruins of the priory. Founded in the 12th century, it was home to Augustinian monks and although the large church was demolished after the reformation, one huge gable wall still stands.
Where you head from here is up to you, as there are some beautiful parts to see. Danby Moor, Little Fry up, Blakely Ridge and the Cleveland Hills are all areas worth exploring. This is James Herriot country and also the main route of the Cleveland Way, which runs 110 miles from Helmsley to the coast. If you enjoy walking then this is the place to come. In fact, it's probably the best way to see it. Some of the smaller roads are just too tight and winding for a larger motorcaravan and so its best to park up and put on some walking boots or better still jump on your bike and go explore some of the less accessible places this way instead.
For me, Guisborough had got me in the mood for more history and I decided to look up the two famous abbeys in the area. The first on the map was Rievaulx and these are perhaps the most beautiful of England’s monastic ruins. It was a powerful place in its time, with over 600 monks and it was built in 1131 on a site that was apparently only fit for ‘wild beasts and robbers’. Today, it stands in a sheltered setting, below Rievaulx Terrace, a grassy promenade that overlooks the pretty village of Rievaulx, whose many houses were built from stone salvaged from the ruins of the abbey after the Reformation.
At Byland Abbey, further south, are the 12th century ruins of a large Cistercian abbey. Although not as complete as Rievaulx, its west facade still stands prominent to its full height, giving the impression of just how big it used to be.
As well as these two abbeys, there are plenty more historic buildings in this area to visit if you get the taste for them. Helmsley Castle is an impressive ruin just outside the lovely market town of Helmsley, whilst Nunnington Hall is a picturesque Yorkshire manor house, set on the banks of the River Rye. Coxwold Pottery at Coxwold and Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen at Kilburn are also worth a visit.
Leaving Byland, brought me back to where I had started. Directly south is the city of York, but to the immediate west is Sutton Bank, a vast viewpoint on the fringe of the moors, offering the most amazing view across Yorkshire. It’s a perfect place to finish a tour with the sun setting over the Vale of York from the beginning of the Cleveland Way. The Yorkshire Gliding Club operates from the top of the bank and often the sky is filled with these silent flying machines, along with hangliders and microlights. I hope you enjoy the Moors as much as I did and as I looked west into the sunset, I was already planning my trip around the Dales beyond.
All images and text copyright © Craig Roberts 2007