Whether on foot or by two-wheels, a new cycle trail connecting countryside to coast is the best way to explore the hills and heritage of the North York Moors
They say a scar makes you more distinguished. Well, it’s been 100 years since a mining-induced collapse changed Roseberry Topping’s profile forever and from the angle I was standing, it certainly gave it an imposing and dramatic silhouette. This unassuming 322m hill looked like a huge wave, preparing to break on the village below.
But it’s not just its shape that it's famous for; its reputation also comes from one very famous explorer who, as a boy, walked to its summit in the 1740s and declared his intention to travel the world – one James Cook. When he moved to the village of Great Ayton, on the northern fringes of the North York Moors, he would climb it to enjoy the view, not only of his past (Middlesbrough) but also of his future: on a clear day you can see to Whitby, where he would one day become a sailor. The rest is history.
The North Sea coast was my eventual destination too. I was here to test out the final section of the newly completed Moor-To-Sea cycle network, which now covers the whole of the North York Moors. Tracing a southeasterly path from Ayton to Scarborough, I hoped to pick up both Cook’s spirit of adventure and a better understanding of the area: the route encompasses some of the Industrial Revolution’s clumsiest imprints on the Cleveland Hills, from shovel-dug valleys to the ghosts of old rail tracks.
First I’d hiked up Roseberry Topping. The view from the top revealed that the North York Moors – once stripped bare in places – have been reclaimed by nature. Now wild again they’re humming with the promise of adventure. No wonder lil’ Jimmy Cook went walkabout. The view also said that it was about to rain.
I’d communed with the Captain all the way uphill: Cook dominates this northern corner of the Moor – his statue stands in Great Ayton; across the valley is the Cook Monument. My 10km trekking loop took them all in.
The longer path to the summit started as a relaxing jaunt out of Great Ayton. As I passed through the oak forest towards its slopes, I could see the peak occasionally jutting out through breaks in the branches.
However, any initial smugness was gradually beaten out of my thighs as I moved out of Newton Wood and started the ascent up its flanks, the view opening up, all rolling reds, evergreens and late-autumn yellows. The path had begun to lose its annual battle with the brambles and as it climbed steeper, the mud was scorched with skids. I duly added a few of my own.
Scrambling onto the stoney plateau to gain the top, I came under fire from the wind. Battling against the gusty barrage, I walked to the western edge of the ‘Matterhorn of Yorkshire’ and looked down. In 1912, Roseberry’s western flank crumbled after being too heavily mined for alum, jet and ironstone, leaving a sheer Jurassic wall as a reminder of the brutal defacing.
While Cook came this way to enjoy his solitude, I happily shared the hill with a few half-terming families and their flob-faced dogs who’d tracked up the gentler, direct route. However, the approaching grey blur – erasing traces of distant Darlington from our view – soon started to pelt rain, leaving me delighted that I’d made a pit stop at Great Ayton to change into my waterproofs. I might have looked like a traffic cone, but was dry, cosy and unswayed. I skitted spryly down the stone steps on the other side of Roseberry Topping and onto a section of the Cleveland Way. As I traversed the valleys towards Easby Moor, I could see the Cook monument pointing towards the unhappy clouds. The faltering rain ushered in a thin sun, so I cheerily rambled on past rolling fields of endless heather, now raked by the wind into a rusty red comb-over. I passed a couple of fell runners and a dozy dotting of sheep, then arrived at Gribdale Gate and the walk up to the tribute to this local boy done good.
Erected in 1827, nearly 50 years after Cook came a cropper on a Hawaiian beach during a fatal aloha with the locals, the brick obelisk is dedicated to ‘a man of nautical knowledge inferior to none, in zeal, prudence and energy, superior to most.’ As the darkening sky suggested a second nautical adventure was heading my way, I made the downhill dash back through the woods towards Great Ayton for a brew and slice of cake.
The morning mist still clung to the lip of the Cleveland Hills as we took to two-wheels and rode out on bikes from Easby the next day. The new route we were following – a 31km path along the roof of the Moors – was the missing link in the 240km Moor-To- Sea cycle network. We were headed along a recycled cinder rail track, and then down to the picturesque village of Rosedale Abbey for more sugary treats.
But to get to the top of the Clevelands, you first have to tackle Ingleby Incline. When the 1:5 slope was used to transport industrial materials in the 1800s, engineers solved the problem of getting the locomotive up using a second counter-weighted train to pull it. What my regrettably bike-unconditioned thighs would have given for that... “The way to approach hills,” advised my guide, Mike of Dalby Bike Barn, “is to set yourself goals.” I was off the bike and walking before he’d finished the sentence, silently mocked by the sheep as I trudged past. Once at the top, things became much easier. We pedalled through the clouds, past remnants of the industrial age – huge old kilns that once roasted iron ore. Tourism and potash mining are now the big employers around here, but the most visible impact is made by grouse hunting – the main reason for the Moor’s endless heather. This ‘wild’ landscape is actually heavily controlled in order to sustain the number of birds needed once the Glorious Twelfth arrives.
On hearing our cycles trundling over the cinder paths, the grouse ejected themselves noisily from the foliage: fat, deep, slow birds with a distinctive cry, it was instantly clear why they’re easy gun-fodder. We didn’t see or hear any hunting though. But then, the Moor is so vast that it swallows visitors – even huge shooting parties – with miles rolling by before we spotted another MAMIL: middle-aged man in Lycra.
The valley of Rosedale was permanently altered by a boom mining industry. The digging for iron ore eventually expanded the whole place on a scale that competes with the glacier-forged deeps around it. As the population quickly expanded from 200 to 2,000, the Abbey that gave the village its name was dismantled stone by stone to help create new homes, leaving only the small belfry turret. Today the valley has been reclaimed by farmers, with the appealing little village at its centre offering restorative tea and lemon drizzle.
Settlements such as this mean you don’t need to be tough to get the best out of the area. While hardened cyclists might be able to cover a complete loop of the Moor-to-Sea’s 11 stages in six days, more casual explorers will only want to do a leg a day, heading off on bike (or foot), grabbing a pub lunch or picnic, and finishing early in a cosy village to rifle the shops and drink in the atmosphere next to an open fire.
As if to prove that point, we tried to cram in an extra leg to Dalby in the afternoon, only to have the November night – or, more accurately, my aching thighs – crash around us halfway through. One phonecall later and our bikes were in the back of Mike’s van and we were on our way to his B&B in Pickering and a well-earned pint.
The overnight frost gave Dalby Forest’s conifers a spectral tinge. A cyclist’s haven on the southern fringes of the North York Moors, it offers routes for all skill levels and enough dramatic vistas to keep you busy for a full day. For us, it was our starting point for a final push to Scarborough. Once I’d coped with being reacquainted with the bike saddle, the Dalby-Scarborough leg was relatively simple, mostly swapping the previous day’s hilltop scenery for Highwood Brow’s leafy canopy. Along the way, senior ranger Simon explained the differences between the conifers and pointed out the kestrels and buzzards that occasionally soared overhead.
There was a little off-roading to do, and Friday’s rains had churned some of the ground into sucky mud that saw me skid the bike a few times, once coming right off. Thankfully, it was a soft landing. More exciting was the descent out of Highwood, a long, steep hill that provided enough G-force to turn my delighted grin rictus and see me reach Scarborough Jackson-Pollocked with mud. Here, the North Sea looked restless as ever; I, on the other hand, was ready for a rest. And some chips. The North York Moors may have moved forward from its industrial ravages, but it still has all the raw materials – power, beauty, cake – to leave a little imprint of its own on anyone looking to explore them.
Remember: it’s the North York Moors – because it’s just north of the pretty hub town of York – and definitely not the North Yorkshire Moors. People may be upset if you get that wrong.
2. On the north-west fringes of the Moor, Chapters Hotel (Stokesley) offers classy food. Doubles with breakfast from £96pn.
3. Stoneclose Campsite (Dalby Forest), in heart of mountain-bike country, has pitches and six pods. From £7pppn.
4. The White Horse Farm Inn (Rosedale) was voted Yorkshire’s favourite pub in 2012. Above the bar are some convenient guestrooms. From £80pn.
5. The Travellers Rest B&B (Great Ayton) does exactly what it says on the tin. Doubles from £60pn.
1. Overlooking Rosedale, The Lion Inn (Blakey Ridge) offers unreconstructed pub grub and good ales (including Black Sheep). A restorative oasis.
2. If you’re treating yourself, the White Swan (Pickering) does classy, locally-sourced cuisine at reasonable prices.
3. Rivalling Captain Cook for local notoriety in Great Ayton are Petch’s pork pies and Suggitt’s ice creams – either work well after a good walk!
4. The Blacksmiths Arms (Lastingham), between Rosedale Abbey and Pickering, does hearty fodder and local brews in an atmospheric setting.
5. Tea, sarnies and cake are available to weary walkers and cyclists at the Farmhouse Fodder Tea Garden (Rosedale East, Pickering).
1. Ride on the North Yorkshire Moors [sic] Railway Pickering to Whitby steam train. The once-abandoned route was rescued by engine enthusiasts and is now a popular chug through history.
2. Take advantage of the low light pollution to do some stargazing. Sutton Bank – between Thirsk and Helmsley – has official Dark Sky status. Just wrap up warm.
3. Ravenscar, between Whitby and Scarborough, is a prime spot for spotting seals: common and greys are regularly seen here.
4. Limber up for a traditional game of quoits, the art of throwing a ring over a pin. It’s played in a good many North Yorkshire pubs.
5. For an extra adrenalin buzz, try Go Ape in Dalby Forest, an aerial obstacle course.