Our walk began at the North York Moors Visitor Centre, at the top of Sutton Bank. From here signs direct to you to "the Finest View in England". Opinions naturally vary as to whether this claim is accurate (and I can certainly think of many other views which I'd consider to be finer), but nevertheless there's no denying that what awaits those who follow the direction signs is nothing short of stunning.
Following the signs from the visitor centre led us along a clear pathway that winds its way through shrubby undergrowth. At the start of the path we were greeted by a woodland sculpture, expertly carved from a tree stump into the form of a wise old owl, resting sleepily amongst the autumnal foliage.
As the path wound its way through young conifers, saplings and grasses, we noticed that the ground was dense with bramble briars in full fruit. Freshly rinsed by morning dew, we picked and ate the berries as we walked, blowing on them first, to remove any resident insects.
These were the sweetest, juiciest, most flavoursome blackberries I've ever tasted and I regretted not having some kind of container with me so that I could have gathered enough for a pie. Instead we grazed our way along the path until it brought us out to the edge of Sutton Bank's escarpment and the "finest view".
This is a view I've gazed out over many times in my life and it never fails to impress and inspire. It may lack the drama of the view from the summit of a Lakeland mountain, or the Limestone splendour of the Yorkshire Dales, but even so it is without doubt a panorama to savour. Gazing out over the Vale of Mowbray it feels as if there is before you a space into which your mind could flow. And on a clear day, if you're lucky, you can see the hazy western outline of the distant Pennines.
We had now joined the Cleveland Way and from the edge of the escarpment we followed the route of this National Trail in the direction of Boltby Scar. The view was now obscured for a short time as we passed through an area of woodland with a distinctive primordial feel. Many of the trees were still in leaf, with the beginnings of an autumnal carpet of fallen leaves lining the edges of the path.
Emerging out of the woodland I stepped towards the edge of the scarp to take a closer look over to Whitestone Cliff, a massive slab of Lower Calcareous Grit formed in the Lower Jurassic period. It's an awesome sight which, to me, as I gazed upon it, seemed to call out "Jurassic".
As we walked a little further along the cliff-top path we had a clear view of Gormire Lake down in the woodland below. This is one of only a few natural lakes to be found in Yorkshire and it was formed at the end of the last Ice Age when boulder clay was deposited by retreating glaciers which subsequently trapped a quantity of water. There are several local legends connected with Gormire Lake, one of which alleges that it is bottomless (although, as I was to later discover, it is actually quite shallow). Another tells the tale of a knight who was challenged to a horse race along the top of the escarpment by the abbot of nearby Rievaulx Abbey. The knight had to borrow a horse from the abbot who promptly forced both horse and rider over the edge of the cliff, whereby they plunged to their deaths into the so-called bottomless depths of Gormire. As the knight was falling, his last earthly sight was that of the abbot who had transformed into the devil. Looking down from the top of the cliff, I think the horse may also have sprouted wings, because a fall from this height would by no means have deposited horse and rider into the lake. However, it is a landscape with something of an otherworldly feel, and I can see how this almost ethereal setting could easily give rise to legend and superstition.
The day was overcast, but pleasantly warm, as we followed the line of the cliff and the Cleveland Way in the direction of Boltby Scar. Occasional stray beams of sunlight broke through the cloud cover, lighting up distant patches of the countryside. The light had a soft quality which suited the mellow shades of the landscape and the hints of autumn's approach.
Ahead of us I caught my first glimpse of Boltby Scar. Like Whitestone Cliff, Boltby Scar is an area of exposed Upper Jurassic rock which has been undermined by erosion. It is also the site of an Iron Age hillfort which has been the subject of recent archaeological excavations (at the time of writing the findings have yet to be published). From the course of our walk, however, I was unable to distinguish any visible earthworks.
Just after Boltby Scar we left the Cleveland Way and began our descent in the direction of the village of Boltby, our destination suddenly conveniently highlighted for us by a patch of sunlight.
The route downhill was steep to begin with but soon levelled out into a short, pretty section of holloway which then led us on to field-side paths which skirted the margins of lush pastureland.
The hedgerows along this section of our walk were heavily laden with sloe berries. The fruit looked plump, juicy and ripe and it was hard to resist tasting a couple. These were rapidly spat out! They were as bitter as battery acid and definitely best reserved for the making of sloe gin.
Crossing a stile brought us out onto a quiet country lane which led downhill into the village of Boltby. A refreshment break would have been welcome at this point, but sleepy little Boltby doesn't have a pub (which is probably a good thing, seeing as I've been doing so well with my diet!) and so we turned to follow a footpath which left the main street after crossing a bridge over the stream.
What followed was a pleasant and straightforward walk for a couple of miles, following Sutton Beck over fields before eventually joining a country lane which led us to the village of Thirlby. Here a ford crossed the beck and although we could have avoided this by following a path over a bridge, the water was shallow and I opted to wade across, thereby rinsing the dust from my boots.
From Thirlby we continued to follow the lane in the direction of Gormire Lake. Approaching the lake provided us with an excellent view of Whitestone Cliff which seemed to rise up out of the trees, once again giving me the sense of a primeval landscape, well defined by the term "Jurassic". I wouldn't have been surprised to have caught sight of a pterodactyl soaring overhead.
So far we had only encountered two other walkers and a couple of cyclists. Now though, as we entered the woods that surround Gormire Lake, the sound of voices rang out from all directions. The lake is easily accessible via a path which climbs downhill from the visitor centre, providing a short and pleasant family walk. It was clearly very popular and although we couldn't actually see anyone, we could hear their voices and the sound of children's laughter echoed around the lake's basin. As we walked along the shore I peered into the water, which really did look quite shallow. Because the tree cover extends right up to the water's edge, it was rather difficult to get a clear photograph.
Perhaps the lake had distracted me, because at this point I made a small error in my route planning. Instead of consulting my map, I blithely led us on, following a public footpath which passed by the side of farm buildings. Our route, however, should have branched off to the right. My error meant that we emerged onto the busy A170 road at the foot of Sutton Bank, at the point where most drivers are accelerating to get a good run at the hill's 1 in 4 (25%) gradient and double hairpin bend. At almost a mile long, Sutton Bank has a reputation for blockages. In July 1977 no fewer than 30 vehicles became stranded and, according to the warning sign we passed, there had been 74 blockages in the past year alone.
Should any of my readers wish to follow our route, you would be well advised to ensure the correct path is taken from Gormire to the A170. Otherwise, like us, you will find that you have to walk along an uneven grass verge by the side of a busy road. Which is exactly what we had to do, for what seemed a lot longer than the couple of hundred yards it actually was.
Once we were safely off the road again, we headed across a field in the direction of a farm that nestles beneath the distinctively shaped Hood Hill. The hill is believed to have been formed towards the end of the last Ice Age by water eddying between the escarpment and the retreating glacier below. In the medieval period the top of Hood Hill had been crowned with a motte and bailey castle, constructed by Robert de Stuteville circa 1086. In 1106 de Stuteville rebelled against Henry I and subsequently Hood Hill passed into the ownership of the monarch. The castle fell into disuse some time after 1322, which is the last time it is mentioned in any historical record.
Our route continued past the farm and out to the edge of a field which was in the process of being ploughed. Thankfully our route didn't have to cross this field, but instead skirted round its edges before turning into the woodland to take us along the foot of Hood Hill. Above us to the left we could see the cliff face of Roulston Scar which, after something of a climb, we would soon be walking along, back in the direction of the visitor centre.
Leaving Hood Hill woods, we climbed steeply up by the side of the famous landmark of the Kilburn White Horse. The largest and most northerly hill figure in England, the Kilburn horse is 318 feet long, 220 feet high and covers approximately 1.6 acres. It can be seen from the northern outskirts of Leeds (approximately 28 miles) and is said to be visible from as far away as 45 miles (in Lincolnshire). Originally cut in 1857 the work was financed by a Kilburn resident called Thomas Taylor, with the cutting being undertaken by a local school master called John Hodgson aided by 20 helpers. During the Second World War the white horse was covered over so as not to provide a landmark for enemy bombers. At close quarters though, very little of the horse's shape can be determined...it's definitely best viewed from afar! I paused for a while, looking over the horse's ears, across to the village of Kilburn and over the Vale of York beyond.
Roulston Scar is home to the Yorkshire Gliding Club and all along this section of the cliff-top signs warn walkers to beware of planes landing and taking off. The gliders are towed off the cliff by light aircraft, which is a fascinating sight to witness. As they come into land, however, they are almost completely silent and, if you're not paying attention, they can take you by surprise. I waited a while as I spotted one approaching and snapped away as it gracefully, and yet almost stealthily, glided over my head.
A little further along the path a memorial stone commemorates two aviation tragedies which occurred in this area. In May 1943 a Halifax returning in fog from a raid on Dortmund crashed onto Hood Hill, killing five of its crew members (a further three members of the crew survived with injuries). The second crash occurred in September 1954, just a few hundred metres away from the first, killing the pilot of a F86 Sabre from RAF Linton-on-Ouse.
The sky was darkening as we approached the end of our walk, but before we left the escarpment to head back to the visitor centre the sun momentarily broke through the clouds, sending shafts of light onto the land below Hood Hill, as if to shine a spotlight on the path we had taken just a short while before. The view was very hazy but as I gazed westwards and through the sunbeams, in that perfect moment I had to agree...it was indeed a very fine view.
Directions for this walk:
From the Visitor Centre at the top of Sutton Bank follow the signs for the "finest view" out onto the edge of the escarpment and then turn right, heading in a north-westerly direction along the route of the Cleveland Way and in the direction of Sneck Yate (Boltby Bank). Once you have passed Boltby Scar and are approaching Heskett Grange, follow the public bridleway steeply downhill and then across fields to emerge onto the road which will take you into the village of Boltby.
Once in the village of Boltby, turn left after the little bridge to follow the public footpath which runs along the side of Sutton Beck. This will emerge onto a quiet country lane which will take you to the village of Thirlby.
Take the road out of Thirlby in the direction of the escarpment and into the woods by the side of Gormire Lake. At the southern end of the lake be sure to take the right hand path towards the A170 across which a stile leads to a path down to Hood Grange. The footpath from here takes you along the valley between Roulston Scar and Hood Hill to emerge onto the road at the foot of the White Horse hill. Cross the road where you will find a footpath to take you up to the car park from where steps climb very steeply up the side of the white horse. At the top of the bank turn left and follow the escarpment all the way back to the visitor centre.
Total distance - 11 miles.
Coming soon...We set off to walk a 12 mile circuit around the North York Moors, but actually end up walking for 16 miles, distracted by the wonderful steam trains travelling along the North York Moors Railway.