The North York Moors National Park is an area of 1,434 square kilometres of moorland, forest, and coastline in North Yorkshire. It is not the biggest National Park in the UK, only the fourth largest in England, but I would argue that for its size, it’s one of the most varied and beautiful parts of the UK.
I used to visit the Moors quite often as a child, not realising they were part of a vast National Park. When I went to university, the Moors became a key part of my identity as a northerner (a rarity in a London university), as I was mocked for my pronunciation—’moo-ers’, not ‘mores’. This was something that I’d never even been aware of before, and it simply made it more obvious that the north was a foreign area to most southerners. The North York Moors was, in fact, totally non-existent in their mental maps of the north, which consisted of industrial sites and forgotten towns.
Middlesbrough feels, at times, like one of these forgotten towns. Look eastward to the coast, and you’ll see the residue of its industrial past—steel and iron works that no longer run, shipbuilding facilities that are abandoned. To the south, though, the moors offer a complete change of scenery—endless heather moorland separated by valleys and rivers that stretch unimpeded in the east to the North Yorkshire coastline and in the south almost to the city of York. During the times when Middlesbrough felt like too small of a town, too insignificant, the moors offered the radical opposite—wild nature, escape, a landscape so different it was almost shocking.
The best way to explore the moors is, of course, by walking. Much of the moorland is designated Open Access, meaning you can walk without question over entire stretches of it without keeping to a strict path or track. But it’s also fun to travel through the park by road, too—sign posts offer enticing destinations like ‘Ancient Monument’ or ‘Roman Road’, and once you’ve chosen a road, you have to keep to it, snaking over the high moorland with no end in sight. One day, I finally found the mysterious ‘Roman Road’, a long stone path which stretched for miles across the moors, as far as i could see, and which looked distinctly ancient. An information board was vague about its origins, wavering between calling it a Roman Road or something even more ancient. I stood on the old road and watched a few birds in loop around in the sky above, making a strange, foreign call that sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie—lapwings, I’d later learn, 3,000 of which have made the North York Moors their home.
There is nothing wild in Middlesbrough (unless you’ve witnessed a Saturday night in the town centre, that is). In contrast, the moors are wildness to a T, where, travelling late at night, you can suddenly be engulfed in a thick fog that covers the road ahead. That same day, I’d watched the sun filter in beams through gaps in the cloud cover, completely unaware of the drastic change the weather would bring later on. Despite this unpredictable weather, not a rarity of the moors but perhaps of Britain as a whole, the North York Moors retain a mild climate conducive to exploring the area—and there’s so much to explore. Here are a few highlights if you’re taking a trip to the North York Moors National Park:
In the east, Whitby is perhaps the best known of towns in the North York Moors. Famous for its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the form of the imposing Whitby Abbey on the hill, it’s a quaint little fishing town, the perfect size for a short, two-day getaway. It’s also on the Cleveland Way, a walking route that follows the North York Moors coastline and then loops around the moors to end in Helmsley, in the south of the park. Unless you’re interested in getting an up-close view of the Abbey, you can leave paying the entrance fee and instead take advantage of the Way. By following the path south out of Whitby along the cliff edge, you’re rewarded with great views of the Abbey on the hill (as well as some nerve-wracking close encounters with cows in the fields). Make sure to eat fish and chips while seating on the harbour, watching the fishing boats and tourist vessels heading in and out of the bay.
Further inland, Goathland is another picture-perfect moors village, so much so, that’s it’s been the set of a number of films and television series (Heartbeat and Harry Potter most memorably). The village contains everything you’d except a rural, touristy village to have: quaint cafes, where you can eat freshly baked scones (another pronunciation battle I had—’scone’ like ‘gone’) and only Yorkshire Tea is allowed, Yorkshire-themed gift shops, information plaques covering everything from the history of the local railway line to the wildlife in the area. Goathland train station also sits on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway line, a heritage line that runs with steam trains, a unique way to see the surrounding moorland.
One for any history fans, Rievaulx Abbey (founded in 1132) was once one of the largest Abbeys in England before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. Now, the site is run by English Heritage, and comprises of a whole host of ruins, the most spectacular being of the Abbey church, the most characteristic feature of Rievaulx. The Abbey sits in a valley near the town of Helmsley in the south of the moors, and feels quite remote from the heather moorland which forms almost a third of the park. Here, in the valley, it’s quieter, and also less wild, somehow. It’s a tranquil, off-the-beaten-track place to wander for a couple of hour, and gives a great glimpse into what this area might have been like 500 years ago.
Of course, there’s plenty more to visit and see in the park—I could have made this list utterly exhaustive, but I’ve lived in the area for 20 years and there’s places I still haven’t been. There’s also a lot to say for the small villages, the places you would only think to pass through but yet are worth a stop on their own. Egton Bridge, where I visited the smallest pub I think I’ve ever been in, but which managed to serve a hefty list of meals; Danby, the home of the Moors National Park Centre, and which has the best little bakery on the moors (Stonehouse); Hutton-le-Hole, a more scenic village than its name suggests, where sheep roam freely on the roads and village green. If you’re still stuck in the belief that the north isn’t full of nature or scenic, the North York Moors will prove you wrong.