The North York Moors formed my introduction to Britain’s high ground, back in the early 1970s when I was a student at the University of York. I remember an excursion in which first I walked from Scarborough to Robin Hood’s Bay, mostly by the old rail track rather than the coast, then inland to roughly follow the Lyke Wake Walk and finish somewhere near Roseberry Topping. It must have been autumn; there was mist, and I remember interfering with a shooting party.
But a bit of casual tourism aside, I had not been back in more than 40 years. The Cleveland Way gave me a chance to right this wrong, for its second half takes the Moors’ northern and western escarpments in a dramatic line of over more than 50 glorious miles. I took just three days – most would take more.
Saturday 24 March 2018: Saltburn to Kildale, 16 miles
Saltburn is thought of a beach (and these days, surf) resort, but the town proper occupies high ground between the ravines of Hazel Grove and Skelton Beck, and half a mile of sea-cliff between them. It’s the beck that provides a quick way out of the town for the Way, dipping slowly down into Saltburn Valley Gardens. At the valley bottom, the railway viaduct bearing the Boulby line soars high above – my landlady had warned me the path would be very muddy here, but maybe she had lower tolerance than I.
Rising back away from the beck, there’s a brief trudge through new housing, before the clean and tidy High Street at Skelton is reached. I had a first snack on a bench by the library, which sounds OK but it’s a dusty street corner, but I would have done much better in the rather lovely Ringrose Orchard, a community project just up the hill.
From the town the evocatively-named Airy Hill Lane leads away, past its eponymous farm, through typical northern rural scenery, until the dip down to the A171 at Charltons. There’s a pub and café here. It was just after 11, so nicely timed for a coffee. In the woods above, you compete for space with a motocross course. It’s not my idea of outdoor recreation, but it is for some, and the course owners had put some effort into the safe segregation of walker and rider. From the map, it looks as if the first viewpoint of the stage, Highcliff Nab, is surrounded by trees, but in fact there’s plenty of visibility. Indeed, you’re close now to the first proper moorland, Hutton Moor.
Dead ahead is Roseberry Topping, its mini-Matterhorn peak an image on many a moorland postcard, and though it’s a short deviation for the Cleveland Way, it would be a crying shame if it did not take it. And a busy top it was too, on this placid springtime Saturday, with family groups walking up from Newton village.
The moor-edge swiftly regained, it’s not far to Captain Cook’s Monument, in view for much of the intervening way. The great navigator’s boyhood home was in Great Ayton, just below the scarp; in the 1930s the cottage was moved, brick by brick, to Melbourne, where we saw it on our Oz trip in 2016. The stage ends with more woodland, heading down into Kildale. Here, the Middlesbrough to Whitby railway crosses the Way, so it’s an important staging post, though the village itself is tiny. I continued on for a mile to the campsite at Park Farm, run by friendly folk.
Sunday 25 March 2018: Kildale to Osmotherley, 20 miles (19 on CW)
Not a day to underestimate: though it only tops out at around 1500ft, there is over 3600ft of climbing to add on to the 20 miles, and the central section is full of ups and downs. In planning, I’d looked for places where this stage could be shortened a little, but there’s nothing practical. Even a wild camp is tricky, for there are no reliable streams outside the valleys.
The Sunday before, this stage was a full-on winter slog, well beyond my abilities, as a late cold front brought strong winds and snow. Many dozens of runners on an ultra-marathon event had to be evacuated, some with hypothermia. And a week after my walk there were to be chill conditions too. Me, I just revelled in the sunshine.
From Park Farm I was soon back on the tops, at Warren Moor. There’s a memorial here to the four-strong crew of a Hudson aircraft that crashed here in January 1941, disorientated in a storm; the crew survived the crash but not the weather over the next 36 hours, before their bodies were found.
After a while I was passed by small groups of motocross bikes – I wasn’t too keen on this, disturbing my peace and all that, but on many of the trails round here the activity is not illegal. On Ingleby Moor and approaching the turn point of Bloworth Crossing, where the escarpment changes from north-south to east-west for a while, there was heather burning to contend with too, as the moors were readied for the late summer’s grouse shooting. The crossing, by the way, was a railway crossing – long gone now, an ironstone railway once ran across the moors, with trucks hauled up a still-visible incline from the valley floor just north-west of the crossing.
The Way’s high point is at Round Hill, just below its 454 metre trig point. So far the walking has been great easy, level striding, but from Clay Bank all this changes. The next three-and-a-bit miles took me the best part of two hours, as a succession of sharp little ups-and-downs test the leg muscles and allow no easy striding either in ascent or descent. The highlight is Wain Stones, a sandstone outcrop completely at odds with the moorland round about, although Highcliffe Nab and Roseberry Topping have a similar basis.
To help the walker on their way, there is an excellent café at Lord Stones Country Park. It was heaving, and I could hear mumblings of discontent about how long food was taking to arrive. I needed a baguette badly, and was in no rush, though it wasn’t badly delayed in the circumstances. For a walker the technical difficulties now are over, although there is one big descent and ascent to come, to the hamlet of Huthwaite Green. Why on earth someone here doesn’t do a bit of B&B or offer a garden pitch for a tent I have no idea – at 15 miles from Kildale, it would be a sensible break point for many. My day ended with a charming walk through the woods of Scugdale, before easy going dropped me gently down towards Osmotherley.
I was booked in at its hostel, to the north of the village – there is a campsite here too, but I’ve just about worked out now that if there are stone walls available adjacent to a camp site, choose the stone walls.
Monday 26 March 2018: Osmotherley to Helmsley, 22 miles
The good weekend weather was set to continue, but I had a dilemma. I’d planned an overnight camp stop just off trail at Bungdale Head Farm, and I was looking forward to it, for it sounded a nice place. But Tuesday’s weather forecast was dire, so that would have meant wrapping up a wet tent and a damp few miles into a dripping Helmsley. Good idea? Not really. I do after all walk with the LDWA, so it made sense to continue to Helmsley and enjoy stone walls once more.
And though there was an extra couple of miles to yesterday, it’s a much easier walk. Once the scarp-edge is regained after passing through the centre of the pretty little village of Osmotherley, via a little dale called Oak Dale with its couple of reservoirs up to the oddly-named Square Corner, there’s precious little up-and-down the whole way, while the paths are for the most part wide and generous. Conditions were made for walking too, beautiful spring sunshine with none of the blustery wind of yesterday, and good visibility meant long views across the Vale of York over to the Dales – was that Ingleborough? Great Shunner Fell … ? A day to keep on walking forever … !
There were still one or two snow patches hanging around from a week ago, as a reminder of how Yorkshire’s weather can change, the first of them at White Gill Head, below the sprawling moor of Black Hambleton – the moors from here on are more properly called the Hambleton Hills.
South of here, a grand ancient drove road takes you past the former (19th century) stone quarries around Kepwick. A brief edge-of-woodland experience leads to High Paradise Farm and its very welcome, and rather wonderful, café. I’d determined earlier to use my time here to look for a B&B in Helmsley. The waitress dropped a throwaway line about using AirBnB, and since I’ve got the app (and the café had Wi-Fi) I sorted myself something out within minutes.
I spent the hour beyond the farm enjoying the views, while meanwhile a subtle change was taking place: wild moorland was being left behind, and arable uses becoming the norm even above the wooded scarp. As the planned lunch stop of the National Park Centre at Sutton Bank came closer, coach-party tourism intruded too – a fingerpost points to ‘the finest view in England’, and waymarked trails for town-shoed strollers proliferate.
Beyond Sutton Bank, there’s barely an inch of moorland left all the way to Helmsley. In reality, it’s just a nice half-day wander through rural North Yorkshire. Nothing wrong with that, but there is one major annoyance. The originators of the Cleveland Way thought it very important that you deviate a mile to the White Horse at Kilburn, and hence a mile back again. Alas it’s not a pub but a chalk figure of no great antiquity (1857), and from the terminus of the trail spur you can’t even see the animal properly (and I certainly wasn’t going to trudge down and back up all the steps to find out – there’s a perfectly good view from the train north of York, which I’ve seen many times). So two miles for no great purpose, just so I could be honest in claiming my trail completion. But it was quite nice seeing the gliders take off from the little airfield on the other side of the path!
Back on the main path, I met a couple of heavily-laden walkers who had set out on the CW earlier that day and would be soon be looking for a pitch. They seemed quite surprised to hear that I had a tent too … they gave the game away by saying that they had ‘spare clothes’ and so had to endure my strictures about what actually needs to be carried. This was beside the main road in the hamlet of Hambleton, which despite its size is an important racehorse-training centre – echoes of the Lambourne Downs on the Ridgeway. The Way is soon picking its way between stables.
There’s a steady slow decline in height now: a day that started with many miles above 1000ft is now dropping below 800ft on its way to 300ft. The spacious village of Cold Kirby is the main feature, a few dozen houses grouped around a single street with impressively wide grass verges. I’d planned a brief stop here but a big dog made me think it was better to keep walking.
A long green lane drops slowly from here into Flassen Dale, and soon into the impressively broad Nettle Dale, which brought into mind more a Scottish glen than a Yorkshire Dale. If only there were Scottish access laws! Somewhere near the junction where I would have climbed up to Bungdale Head Farm would have been ideal wild camping territory.
Soon it’s time to join the River Rye, at Rievaulx Bridge, half a mile downstream from the eponymous abbey. If the trail creators had run a spur from the bridge to the abbey and back, instead of the pointless and tedious trudge to the White Horse, I would have made no complaints. But they didn’t, so I just enjoyed the view of the ruins from across the fields. There’s one last rise to come, but it’s not a great one, as the Rye takes a loop to the south, and it’s then just a slow drop down with the town and castle of Helmsley in view all the way.
Overnight in Saltburn I used the Victorian Guest House, which is full of bric-a-brac. Night time reading, auction catalogues! The very friendly Park Farm, a mile from Kildale, is a popular spot with walkers, and has bunkhouse as well as camping field. Osmotherley, like Whitby, has a large youth hostel; in Helmsley, I was the first person ever to stay in Jean’s ‘lovely location for the North Yorkshire Moors’!
Back to Coast: Filey to Saltburn
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