Guide to the North York Moors
The North York Moors is one of Britain’s cherished National Parks and is one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in the United Kingdom. With high central moorlands, towering peak such as Roseberry Topping, a series of sweeping valleys (dales) and the cliffs, bays and stunning beaches along the Yorkshire coastline, the North York Moors is an area of Yorkshire with so much to offer.
In our guide to the North York Moors, you can find out about some of the places, sights, history, culture and people of the amazing moors.
A Human History
The North York Moors is as fascinating for its landscape as it is for the relationship it has had with mankind for thousands of years. When Neolithic Man arrived in the area we now know as the North York Moors, it was a highland region covered in trees – vast forests on the upland areas, on the valley sides and along the dales. Intent on farming the land, Neolithic Man (the first farming man, no longer just a hunter-gatherer) set about transforming areas of land to be used for agriculture, which largely involved cutting down trees and replacing them with cereal crops. An unintended consequence of this activity in this wetland area was saturated ground and soil that quickly turned acidic and became unsuitable for arable farming. As Neolithic Man was forced to clear more trees to create new farmland, he quickly removed the vast majority of trees and left behind areas of acidic soil that eventually turned into a vast heathland – the largest continuous heather moorland in the UK that we now call the North York Moors.
These early settlers left behind barrows and cairns across the Moors, while later Iron Age settlers built defensive forts and a new and complex system of boundary dykes; they were also the first to exploit the minerals found in the hills within North York Moors.
The Roman occupation of Britain led to the building of forts and signal stations across a region that the Romans views as a dangerous and hostile frontier. There has been little evidence found of the Romans in the Moors, although a section of Roman road can be followed on foot running roughly north-south, passing close to Goathland and Snape.
The medieval history of the North York Moors brought monks to the region, erecting crosses as way-markers and building stone pathways across the inhospitable moorland.
During the 17th – 19th centuries and the Industrial Revolution, the North York Moors were exploited for their rich mineral content, with jet and alum mining from the hills and open iron mining transforming the landscape. The iron mining left behind a series of industrial relics, including kilns at Bank Top above Rosedale Abbey.
The modern North York Moors have been largely unaffected by urban sprawl and the mechanisation and modernisation of farming, meaning the North York Moors still showcases its entire and fascinating history.
Fascinating Towns and Villages
The North York Moors is much more than a wild and rugged natural landscape. Within the boundaries of the North York Moors National Park are some truly remarkable towns and villages, each with a story to tell and a unique history of their own. From the market town of Helmsley tot eh busy fishing town of Whitby, from the medieval town of Pickering to the priory town of Osmotherley, the villages and towns of North York Moors chart more than two thousand years of human history – including Roman, Viking, Medieval and Industrial settlements.
With Jurassic rocks and cliffs on the coastline, Roman roads and medieval monk trails running through the Moors, as well as magnificent monastic ruins (including Rievaulx Abbey and Byland Abbey) and ancient castles (including Pickering Castle and Helmsley Castle), the North York Moors is awash with historic sites. Relics of the Industrial Revolution around Rosedale, the steam railways of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, and the redesigned high-tech RAF Fylindales listening station, show off the modern history of this diverse region of Yorkshire.
The picture-postcard market town of Helmsely is loctated in the valley of the River Rye – an area known as Ryedale – and occupies a corner of the grand 12th-13th century estate of Baron Robert de Ros, a signatory of the Magna Carta. Helmsley received its official charter to become a market town in 1191 and enjoys a spacious central market square, dominated by its town hall and a statue of the 2nd Earl of Feversham. The statue reminds visitors of the town’s current noble connections – the Duncombe Park estate occupies land on the edge of Helmsley and is the seat of the Earl of Feversham. Surrounded by 182 hectares of sprawling park and farmland, Duncombe Park was built in 1713 – designed by John Vanburgh, a man best-known for designing nearby Castle Howard.
The ruins of Helmsley Castle tower over Helmsley town centre – the castle has spectacular earthworks which surround a superb keep, while an Elizabethan mansion stands within the castle grounds and contains a variety of exhibitions.
The streets of Helmsley are lined with independent shops, award-winning cafés and tearooms, antique dealers, bookshops and bakeries. You can admire the beautiful murals on the walls of Helmsley’s impressive All-Saints Church, while a visit to Helmsley Walled Garden provides an excellent experience for gardening enthusiasts.
Yorkshire’s beautiful coastline is dotted with fantastic towns and quaint fishing villages – and the jewel in the crown of this spectacular Jurassic coastline has to be Whitby. Whether it’s the lure of Britain’s best fish and chips, the mystery and intrigue of the Dracula tales, the challenge of walking the 110-mile Cleveland Way or just climbing the 199 steps – there are so many reasons to visit Whitby!
James Cook was born in the village of Marton, just outside the area that is now the North York Moors, and by the age of 8 he was living in the famous family home in nearby Great Ayton, only a few miles west of Whitby. He earned his first wages as a grocer’s lad in a small shop in Staithes, where he spent many shifts staring out to sea, watching passing ships and dreaming of a more exciting life on the open water. He soon moved to Whitby to become an apprentice at a shipping company, where he learned the art of seamanship. The building where he served his apprenticeship is today the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, where you can chart the life and voyages of Britain’s most famous explorer, learn about his incredible adventures and see the attic which was his bedroom before he embarked on his career as a sea-bound explorer.
The 11th-century monastery towers over Whitby, from its location on the clifftop beside St Mary’s Church. The abbey was partially destroyed by order of Henry VIII, yet much of it has survived and you can visit Whitby Abbey during your day trip to Whitby from York.
The ruins are managed by English Heritage – entrance is free for English Heritage Members and those with an English Heritage Overseas Visitors Pass. Those with a valid YorkPass can also enjoy free entry to Whitby Abbey. www.YorkPass.com
The North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR)
“Britain’s favourite heritage railway” should be an essential part of every visit to Whitby. The preserved railway runs from Pickering to Grosmont, but enjoys a link onto the mainline at Grosmont and continues into Whitby on the route of the Esk Valley line, arriving into the station in Whitby harbour.
The NYMR runs from mid-March (Easter) until the end of October – visit their website at www.NYMR.co.uk for more information, tickets and timetables. You can join a tour from York with Grand Yorkshire – Steam Trains, Whitby & the Moors – which includes a ‘steam train guarantee’ which means you’ll definitely have chance to ride on a steam train on your day trip to Whitby from York.
The Cleveland Way
This 110-mile walking trail begins in Helmsley, crosses the North York Moors, follows the Yorkshire coastline and ends at Filey Brigg. On the way it takes in many of Yorkshire’s greatest sites and some of the UK’s most awe-inspiring scenery. And it passes through Whitby. Walkers and ramblers don’t need any excuse to visit the North York Moors or Whitby, but the challenge of the Cleveland Way gives them one never-the-less!
If you don’t have time to walk the trail, you can explore Whitby, Helmsley, Rievaulx Abbey, the North York Moors and even Robin Hood’s Bay on day trips from York with Grand Yorkshire.
For more information about the Cleveland Way, see www.NationalTrails.co.uk
The incredible Whitby Goth Weekend has been happening since 1994 and is one of the world’s top Goth events. It attracts thousands of visitors to Whitby for its two Goth weekends each year. And not just Goths – all genres of the ‘alternative lifestyle’ are welcomed to Whitby in large numbers – including Punks, Steam Punks, Emos, Metallers and Bikers. It’s a colourful (and dark) weekend of live music, dancing, drinking, hsoppping and celebration which takes over every corner of Whitby.
See www.WhitbyGothWeekend.co.uk for more information.
Bram Stoker visited Whitby before writing his Dracula tale, and he chose the mysterious seaside town as the setting for the early scenes of his novel. Today Whitby’s connection with Dracula lives on; you’ll see reminders of the vampire throughout town.
You can visit the Dracula Experience Museum for a rather spooky way to learn about the Dracula story.