Picture this: Walks across moorland hills, a rich tapestry of color and texture; along meandering streams that cross fertile valleys of rich, green fields and isolated stone farmhouses; undulating footpaths along coastal cliffs overlooking the North Sea and sheltered fishing villages tucked away in protected coves. Returning each day to an eighteenth century Georgian mansion, your bedroom overlooking the Esk Valley and North York Moors National Park. Congenial company, comfort, and invigorating hiking in a dramatic natural setting.
Having taken previous walking tours in Great Britain, I set out to experience a genuine English ramble, booking with a British firm. I was curious as to how walking with the Brits would compare to trips I had taken with Americans. As we hiked and talked, I considered our similarities and differences, quickly learning that though we all spoke “English” we weren’t necessarily speaking the same language.
My needs were met with efficiency and friendliness; I was well fed, well exercised and well entertained, free to enjoy the beauty of my surroundings and the personalities of my fellow travelers. The only decisions required of me were my daily food choices and the hike I wanted to join. On each of five days, three were offered, varying in length and ascent. With stops for coffee and a picnic lunch, so as not to get knackered, we would spend each day walking from four to 12 miles, depending on the walk selected, often ending up in a small village or hamlet with time for afternoon tea or a visit to a local pub before the coach returned us to our country hotel. Here I would attempt to follow the maze of hallways and staircases to my “blue” bedroom, furnished in period pieces, bright with light from two large windows, and totally cozy. Brilliant!
Walking on the moors is like stepping back in time, the vestiges of modern life far from eye or mind on this land seemingly unchanged by time. The North York Moors is England’s largest, unbroken expanse of rolling, heather clad hills, interspersed with rural valleys of lush, fertile greens, woodlands, and stone built villages. Among the 550 square miles are prehistoric sandstone tracks, ancient turf roads, and turnpikes leading from isolated farms to small market towns, as well as ancient crosses and way markers that have been directing moorland walkers for hundreds of years. Where the moorland meets the coast, time and the North Sea have carved out numerous small coves and bays, home to historic ports and fishing havens.
Each day the coach would transport us to a different area of North Yorkshire. One of our moorland walks began at the Hole of Horcum, in a glacial valley cut by melt waters at the end of the Ice Age. Legend tells of how the devil scooped out this land for his punchbowl, giving rise to its other name, the Devil’s Punchbowl. As we circled the rim of this large natural amphitheater, pant legs carefully tucked into socks as protection against ticks, the somber light accented the colors of the three types of heather with their tiny, bell shaped flowers: reds, pinks, purples, russets, and 20 shades in between. Brisk winds of clean chill air shifted gray clouds to reveal brilliant blue skies, and the temporary warmth of the sun. The loud squawks of native grouse combined with the whoosh of our legs as we followed the narrow path through bilberry and rush grasses.
At Dundale Pond, dug by monks for watering their stock, we were visited by a Highland cow and her calf, their rich, russet, coats and long curved horns vivid contrasts to the greenery around us. Here we took our morning break and while I, like a good American, drank from one of my two water bottles, my fellow walkers opened rucksacks and brought out their flasks of hot tea or coffee, and various very English snacks. Chocolate covered biscuits are as English as tea; Kit Kat, Twist, and Penguin bars fall somewhere between cookie and candy. Fresh tomatoes are also a popular snack, as well as a favored treat at breakfast or lunch.
Fortified, we continued along the public footpath into the town of Levisham.
Throughout the week, these footpaths, which traverse all public and private lands, along with their respective gates and stiles, made the routes of our walks possible as we crossed farmyards, fields, and pasturelands. Our goal was the Levisham Rail Station and the North Yorkshire Moors Steam Train. This popular, heritage railway, manned by volunteers, runs the 18 miles between Grosmont and Pickering. Pride is evident in the pristine condition of the station which sparkles with brightly painted boxcars in blue, green, red and yellow, lush flower boxes and a lovely, wood paneled ladies’ loo.
The steam train carried us into the market town of Pickering, the gateway to the moors, and one of the oldest towns in the area, having been founded in 270 B.C. It was Market Monday, so I strolled among the stalls of the street and farmers’ market, picking up a warm wool hat to ward off the cold brisk winds. Winding streets led me to Pickering Castle, a traditional motte and bailey castle and royal hunting lodge built in the 12th century on William the Conqueror’s order. From the top of this man-made hill the impressive spire of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul dominates the skyline. Inside I viewed the 15th century frescoes depicting the lives of the saints and martyrs. I had hoped to visit the Beck Isle Museum of rural life with its exhibits of social, domestic and working life during the 18th and 19th centuries, but time was short and I needed to get off my feet. I ended my brief stay in Pickering at a sidewalk café where, feeling a bit peckish, I enjoyed a great cappuccino while I wrote out some long delayed postcards and watched village life flow pass. School had just gotten out and I observed how uniforms seemed to be conforming to modern fashion as young ladies wearing slim, boot leg, black pants, fashionable black shoes, and school sweatshirts laughed with their friends as they headed home.
Another day, our walk took us to the coast, on a portion of the Cleveland Way, a 110-mile National trail from Hemsley across the Cleveland hills and down the coast to Filey Brigg. We began at Hayburn Wyke, descending through a lush wooded valley, green with ferns, lichens, and hardwood trees, crossing a meandering stream and then ascending man made stairs to Ravenscar, 600 feet above sea level. Here the Romans built a signal station in 367 A.D. as protection from Saxon invaders. At lunch, an utterly British array of sandwiches was taken from rucksacks: peanut butter-tomato, beef-beetroot, and pilchard-sweet pickle. Accompanied by multiflavored crisps, fresh tomatoes, fruit and more chocolate covered biscuits for our sweet, our meal was complete. Our conversation turned to politics and I had the pleasure of explaining California’s upcoming recall election to a populace envious of Americans’ right to remove elected officials from office.
We followed the public footpath along the undulating cliffs with dramatic views of the North Sea, its waters roughed by the wind. At Stoupe Beck we again descended through dense woodland to the shore, a mosaic of dark exposed stones, sandy strands, and rocky pools. Here we became amateur geologists as we exposed layers of shale in search of ammonite fossils, also finding time to take a paddle in the very cold waters of the sea.
Our destination was the infamous smugglers’ haunt and fishing port of Robin Hood’s Bay, a short walk down the beach. Established in the late 15th century, many of the tiny cottages here contain secret recesses behind walls or fireplaces where goods were hidden. The village sits in a steep sided ravine, with narrow cobbled streets, winding down to the quay. Fisherman’s cottages, stonewashed and colorful with red tile roofs, are close together in tiers hugging the steep hillsides. After a restorative, and by this time, mandatory, pot of tea in a New Age Bookshop/Café, I wandered along the narrow streets, camera in hand, ending up at the quay. Here I met an American couple from Pennsylvania, celebrating the completion of their English coast-to-coast walk, 190 miles from the Irish Sea at St. Bees to the Bay Hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay.
Mid week a free day was provided. No events being scheduled, we were on our own. I used this day to explore the charming seaside resort of Whitby, a short walk from the hotel. An important industrial port, shipbuilding town, and whaling center in the 18th and 19th centuries, today its port is mostly used by pleasure craft. Visitors followed the cobbled streets to shops originally set up in Victorian times when craftsmen created jewelry and ornaments from jet, a black gem collected from surrounding beaches. These shops are still busy today selling earrings, pendants and bracelets of carved, polished jet. The harbor, set in the River Esk, which divides the town as it comes down from the moors, was comfortably crowded with visitors enjoying the colorful ships. Others followed the cobbled streets, alleys and many flights of stone steps passed red roofed buildings rising, tier by tier, up to the East and West Cliffs. Still others, myself included, required a fortifying break before ascending to the historic sites at cliff’s top.
Teahouses fill a critical niche in English life, as much socially as for sustenance. I began my day at the Whitby Tea Room savoring a pot of tea and a cream scone, a confection I can only enjoy in the U.K. With lace curtains, pine wainscoting, and the slowly rotating heads of William Shakespeare and Captain Cook, keeping an eye on my cream consumption, I enjoyed a pleasant interlude before climbing the 199 steps up Church St. to the East Cliff.
The Church of St. Mary is unique, with its ship’s deck roof, triple-decker pulpit, and wood interior fitted by shipbuilders. It is easy to imagine its enclosed galleries containing ancient mariners and townspeople listening to the rector’s Sunday sermon, while his deaf wife made use of an avant-garde ear trumpet. Outside, among ancient, crooked gravestones, the views are expansive toward the harbor and town below, and out to the North Sea.
The stark ruins nearby are the remains of Whitby Abbey, founded in 657 A.D., sacked by the Vikings in 870 A.D. and rebuilt as a Benedictine Abbey in the 11th century. The visitor center with museum quality exhibits, artifacts, and interactive displays allows visitors to gain information and feel a participant in the abbey and monastic life. The audio program I listened to while touring the abbey grounds provided first hand narratives about daily life, history, and related topics. Complete with sound effects, the actors’ voices had me thoroughly absorbed, taken back in time to the hard life of Brother Gervase while surrounded by the massive walls of the abbey and the calling of the gulls.
Mile upon mile of open space atop the moors and overlooking the sea; an area described as desolate by some and romantic by others. For me, a week where mind and body escaped the minutia of everyday life. A sole, but not lonely, American among an interesting, inspiring group of keen ramblers, fit into their 70s and 80s. While my pronunciation of British words was usually wrong, and I missed most jokes, I added to my vocabulary. Among “reserved” Brits, this curmudgeon participated in nightly organized team competitions, quizzes, games and country dancing. To my surprise, I also won first place in the limerick competition. With walking holidays offered throughout Great Britain, Europe, and beyond, everyone in the group were veterans. I determined to join them and enthusiastically sign up for another English ramble. Lovely and a bit of all right!
IF YOU GO
Yorkshire is accessible by train, bus, or car. Trains run frequently between London and York, at the heart of Yorkshire, and take about 2 hours. From York to Whitby is 1 hour by car. Rail travel will take you to Scarborough, from there transfer to Whitby by coach or taxi. Manchester Airport is a closer alternative when traveling in the North Country.
Larpool Hall, Larpool Lane, Whitby, North Yorkshire, YO22 4ND, phone (01947) 602 737
This trip was taken through hf Holidays Ltd, Imperial House, Edgeware Road, London NW9 5AL, website: www.hfholiday.co.uk, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Americans can book directly or through Canada using Teachers Travel Services, Tel: 1 800 268 7229, e-mail: info @teacherstravel.com. Tours are offered throughout Great Britain and Europe, from March to November. Seven night tours in Great Britain average between L400 and L500 ($640-$800)
WHAT TO DO:
North York Moors National Park: 30 miles north of York. Primary gateways to the park are York to the south and Middlesbrough to the north. National Park Information Centers at Danby (Tel: 01287 660 654) and Sutton Bank (Tel: 01845 597 426). Both open daily March-Dec., weekends only Jan.- Feb. The Moors & Coast visitor guide (50p), available at Tourist Information Centers and National Park Information Centers is very useful.
North York Moors Steam Train: runs 18 miles through North York Moors National Park between Grosmont and Pickering. (Tel: 01751 472 508), talking timetable (473 535). 3-7 return trips late Mar.-Oct. daily; Nov.-Dec. most weekends; Jan.-Feb. select holidays. All-day rover tickets L10, children L5, seniors L8.50, family tickets from L23. Single tickets also available.
Pickering Castle: in Pickering, 15 miles SW of Scarborough. Open daily, closed Dec. 24-26, Jan.1. Adult L2.60, children L1.30, family ticket L6.50. (Tel: 01751 474 989)
Whitby Abbey: at cliff top above the town of Whitby. Open daily. Adults L3.80, children L1.90, family ticket L9.50. (Tel: 01947 603 568)
Church of St. Mary: next to abbey. Open July-Aug. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closes 2 p.m. in winter. Suggested donation L1. (Tel: 01947 603 421)