As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the North York Moors, Paul Bloomfield traverses the southern moor, encountering dozens of curlews and relics of feisty giants
Traversing the Moors from Centre to South.
The heart-tugging call of the curlew echoes the character of high heather moors as no other sound can. Like rooks in a churchyard or a blackbird’s trilling song in a summer garden, the curlew’s plaintive, drawn-out cries is the aural epitome of its habitat: it whispers bleak beauty, empty expanses, wind-tugged heather. It’s perfect.
Which is just as well, because on the moor above Goathland I’m being serenaded by curlews from all directions. Everywhere I look there seems to be a speckled brown-and-cream bird stalking a open patch in the heather, its distinctive long, curved bill lifted as it calls.
I’m just beginning my 16-mile hike from Goathland, in the heart of the eastern moors, to Pickering, southern gateway to the national park. The day had started with bang – or, rather, a whistle, a chuff and a clank – as I set off from Pickering on a vintage train of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.
For over 40 years, one of the country’s finest heritage railways has puffed its way through the moors, and it’s a great way to start a day’s walk (or just a short stroll – the gentle 3.5-mile rail trail from Goathland to Grosmont is a perennial favourite). I would be stretching my legs on a longer route, which traverses a cross-section of the national park’s varied habitats and landscapes.
If Goathland seems familiar to you, it might be because of its star turns on the silver and small screens: its station, forever stuck in 1922, played stunt double for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts stop, while the village is Aidenfield in TV drama Heartbeat. Coachloads of nostalgic fans visit to take tea and admire vintage cars. I amble along the broad, attractive main street before heading south and up onto the moors.
As the path climbs among heather, cottongrass, curlews and skylarks, the sense of isolation and timelessness becomes palpable. Though I can turn my head to see Goathland and a few neat farms over my shoulder, and the huge pyramid of Fylingdales early warning station is intermittently visible to my left, I have a strong sense of stepping out of time, that the well-worn path I’m treading must have been followed by generations of travellers. The impression is heightened as I reach the Two Howes, cairn-topped mounds surrounded by small stone circles. My reverie is broken by the disgruntled cackle of a grouse as it whirrs out of the heather, disturbed by my clodhopping boots.
After an hour or so, the scene changes: I descend to a field among fir plantations, crossing sheep pastures to reach a stony track through woods intermittently pine and broadleaf. Here, I know, crossbills and siskins feed, and goshawks may hunt; though I’m alert, the wood’s avian inhabitants are much shier than those curlews.
I time my arrival at Newtondale Halt, a request stop on the railway, just in time for a steam loco to go chugging through. Then it’s a steep climb up the rocky escarpment called Yewtree Scar, with fabulous views back down to the halt and the thickly wooded gorge, before ascending to the broad path along Gallows Dike – those names! – and another classic vista: this one across the Hole of Horcum. This round-shouldered bowl of a valley was formed by spring sapping – or, should you choose to believe the favourite legend, the result of local giant Wade scooping up a clod of earth to hurl at his wife during a tiff. Either way, the panoramic scenes south and east from the ridgeway are celestial.
The landscape changes again as I descend to Levisham, a rural idyll with neat fields and a tempting pub, the Horseshoe Inn – hours could be lost (and calories gained) in its bar or front garden.
Now wandering cowslip-lined lanes, farm tracks and paths, I stop at ruined Levisham Church to admire its oldest gravestones before crossing pastures and wild-garlic-scented woodlands to reach Pickering and the end of the line – for me and the railway.
17 Burgate is a truly exceptional, intimate guesthouse in the heart of Pickering, an ideal base from which to explore the east and south of the national park. This imposing Georgian town house has been extensively refurbished by owners Pat and William Oxley, retaining period features – wonderful ceiling mouldings, multicoloured glass window overlooking the stairs – but with flair and taste, being comfortable and stylish rather than arch or effortfully hip. On a chilly evening, the wonderfully snug, flagstoned bar, with its wood-burning stove and comfy sofas, is the ideal place to browse the maps and walking guides, and plan your next day’s adventure. Breakfast is a showcase of local talent: kippers and salmon smoked nearby, free-range eggs laid nearby, mushrooms grown nearby, bacon and sausages from the butcher in Malton. Oh, and the marmalade is home made. Every effort is made to nurture environmental responsibility. Opened in 2003, it was a boutique B&B before the term really took hold, and still offers one of the best options in the region.
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway runs up to nine trains daily between Pickering and Grosmont, some continuing to Whitby. Check the timetable to be sure of catching a departure pulled by a steam loco – though the diesel trains are also atmospheric. Various period themed days and Pullman dining options add to the fun.
This walk is flexible – it can be shortened by starting at Newtondale Halt and/or catching the train from Levisham back to Pickering instead of walking the last few miles. Use the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL27. Inntravel is a lauded local tour operator with a strong green ethos, and offers a fine three-day self-guided walking holiday in the North York Moors. The third day of this tour tackles the walk described above.
The North York Moors National Park website has a wide array of walking routes to download, as well as information on guided walks and holiday companies arranging tours. The new Lime & Ice app (currently for iOS only) helps visitors explore the dramatic landscapes around Sutton Bank.