Newtondale, Simon Howe & Saltergate (North York Moors)

What is it about steam trains that people love so much?  On the face of it, a huge chunk of metal, billowing out clouds of steam as it rattles its way along iron rails that cut through the landscape ought to be loathed by most lovers of the countryside.  And yet, for me at least, that's not the case at all.  The sight, sound and smell of a steam locomotive can't fail to make me smile, and if one of our walks just happens to follow the course of the North York Moors Railway, so much the better.  In early October we set off from the car park at the Hole of Horcum, midway between Pickering and Whitby, to undertake just such a walk.

The route I'd planned was a circuit of just over 12 miles, crossing over sections of the railway line and passing two ancient moorland crosses along the way.  It was a pleasantly bright and warm autumn morning with a hazy blue sky and a hint of mistiness as we left the car park by the side of the A169 Pickering to Whitby road.  This particular car park is popular all year round because just across  the road visitors are treated to a wonderful view of the valley known as the Hole of Horcum, a huge bowl formed by spring water eroding the underlying Oxford clay.  From this point footpaths head out in all directions, providing walkers with many enjoyable possibilities.  
The Hole of Horcum

Our walk began by heading away from the Hole of Horcum to the edge of the scarp known as Saltergate Brow.  Walking out onto the edge of the brow gave us a sweeping view over the moors in the direction of RAF Fylingdales (to be passed later in the day) and over to the steep-sided gorge that was to be the next point on our route.

View from Saltergate Brow

The light was very mellow and the grasses and bracken tinged the landscape with autumnal colours.  Ahead of us we could just make out the line of a path through the marshy ground that would take us to the edge of the ravine which cuts through the side of Saltergate Moor.

Saltergate Moor

We've walked in this area many times before but this was the first time we had struck off in this particular direction.  What awaited us was a lovely surprise as our route took us down the side of the ravine along a path through the bracken and trees, the colours combining in the subdued lighting to create a visual treat.  The undergrowth was alive with birdsong and we paused regularly, catching sight of bullfinches and wrens fluttering through the bracken.

Shades of Autumn

As we reached the bottom of the descent we had a wonderful view of North Dale, the northernmost end of the Newtondale Gorge.  This deep gorge was formed at the end of the last Ice Age by the torrent of meltwater overflowing from Lake Eskdale and the North Sea ice sheet.  The gorge is a stunning example of a glacial outflow channel, which was put to good use by George Stephenson in 1836 with the construction of the Pickering to Whitby railway.  This section of line closed in 1965 but re-opened just eight years later, in 1973, as the North York Moors Railway.


At the bottom of the hill we entered a densely forested area known as Pifelhead Wood.  Here an old farming relic of some kind caught my eye, resting by the side of a stone wall with a thick covering of moss.  I was struck by the wall's vivid shade of green, in contrast with the ground, which was predominantly brown with dead pine needles.  I'm really not sure what this old contraption would have been used for and if any of my readers can enlighten me, I'd be most interested.

What kind of contraption is this?

Our route now picked its way through the woods, aided by very helpful yellow direction arrows which had been painted onto some of the stumps of felled trees.  Overhead the sun was shining, but only a few stray beams of sunlight were able to infiltrate the dense tree cover.

Path through the trees

Emerging from the woods brought us onto the floor of the gorge where we crossed a little stream - a mere trickle compared to the raging torrent which had once torn its way through this landscape.  This led us to the track of the North York Moors Railway and here I paused, listening for the distant telltale whistle of a steam train, recognising that this would be the perfect place to photograph an approaching train.   All we could hear though was the sound of a large white van, driving along the dusty track at the other side of the line, and so we continued, crossing the rails and heading off down the track in the direction taken by the van. 

Crossing the railway line

Perhaps it was the prospect of photographing a steam train that had distracted me (or, if I'm honest, more than likely it was my poor map reading skills), but at this point we were not actually following the correct route.  We were heading in the right direction but, had I studied my map a little more closely, I should have realised that a climb was necessary at this point, to follow a path along the top of the gorge in the direction of the open moorland.  Oblivious to this fact, we followed the track and hadn't been walking for very long when the sound of an approaching train's whistle had me running in search of a good vantage point.  I didn't have to wait for long before a train came steaming past, heading in the direction of Pickering.

Train heading to Pickering

I shot several frames and once the train had passed we continued along the dusty track which gradually became narrower and narrower until, as it dwindled away altogether, we found ourselves walking through knee-high grass.   Eventually we came to a fence beyond which no clear route was discernible.  As I looked at my map I soon realised that we needed to be on the higher ground to our left, but we could see that there was no way up the steep side of the gorge from this point.  As we were studying the map to find out where we had gone wrong, I thought I heard the distant sound of steam once again and, sure enough, shortly afterwards this was confirmed by the unmistakable tooting of a whistle.  As quick as I could I clambered over the fence and waded for a short distance over the marshy ground just in time to catch another train as it steamed by.  This time the engine was pulling the carriages tender first (or "arse about" as I eloquently described it), which I don't think makes as appealing an image as when it's the "right" way round.

Full steam ahead

I took a few photos from this position, satisfied by the amount of steam billowing out across the landscape.  Then, suddenly, it dawned on me...where was the white van?  We had definitely seen one drive up this way, and I was certain that we hadn't passed any tracks leading off the one we had followed.  The bank to our left was densely forested and to our right there was just the railway line.  Had I imagined the van?  Tom confirmed that he had seen it too and was equally puzzled as to where it could have gone.  We studied the map and couldn't see any possible exits the vehicle could have taken.  It was a complete mystery.  We also now realised that we would have to retrace our steps for over a mile, back to where we had originally crossed the railway line.

Heading for Whitby

As we walked back along the lane we both kept a look out for tyre tracks, joking that we must have seen a "ghost" van.  The only possible place it could have driven was through a gateway which led onto the railway line...but then where?  The other side of the line was a marsh.  This puzzle kept us occupied all the way back to the spot where we had crossed the line at which point we concluded the van must have turned around and driven back without either of us noticing.  Soon all thoughts of the mysterious vehicle were forgotten though as we spotted the route we should have originally taken, which began with a steep climb uphill into the woods.

The right path

Now we were heading back in the same direction we had previously taken along the valley bottom and before long I heard another steam train below us, and attempted a quick photograph through the cover of trees. 

Train from above

After a couple of miles or so we found ourselves above the furthest point we had reached in the valley bottom, where I had climbed over the fence to photograph a train.  From this height we had a lovely view of the track as it curved its way through the valley.  And then I spotted it.  The white van!  It was parked by the side of the railway track and had obviously been driven along the line by maintenance workers.  Mystery solved...what a relief!

Looking down the line

Turning away from the valley, we headed into the woods, our unintentional diversion having added a few extra miles to our walk.   It was therefore something of a relief to find a handy wooden bench by the side of the path in the woods and here we rested for a while to eat our packed lunch.  As we enjoyed our break we could hear another train passing along the valley below.  I was surprised at how busy the railway was, given that the summer season had now well and truly come to an end.

A welcome seat

Our route was now leading us towards the open moorland and as we walked along the edge of the woodlands we passed a group of beehives.  We are very fond of heather honey and firm believers in its health-enhancing properties.  Rich in antioxidants, true heather honey is a dark amber colour and of a firm consistency with a rich, pungent flavour.  Our favourite beekeeper is based in nearby Egton Bridge and we visit him whenever we are in the area to replenish our stocks.  I couldn't help but wonder if these were his hives, although there are many heather honey producers based around the North York Moors.

Watch out for the bees

We emerged from the woodlands and out onto the open moors, with a sweeping panorama before us across the northern edge of Cropton Forest and over to Wheeldale Moor.  From this point onwards the rest of our walk would be across moorland.

Onto the moors

After a short distance we turned northwards to follow a path along Simon Howe Rigg.  The earlier hazy cloud cover had now drifted away and the temperature was unseasonably warm.  As we both shed our jackets it was hard to believe that it was October.  On the higher ground ahead of us I could see the outline of the Bronze Age earthwork and the cairn which was to be the next way-mark on our route.

Heading towards Simon Howe

Simon Howe is a Bronze Age round barrow and standing stone which tops the highest point of this section of moorland.  There are over 2,000 "howes" on the higher ground of the North York Moors, the word "howe" being used throughout North and East Yorkshire, originating from the old Norse word "haugr", meaning "hill" or "mound".  The most prominent feature at Simon Howe though is the cairn which is a more recent addition built, as these structures usually are, by passing walkers. 

Simon Howe

From the cairn at Simon Howe we turned eastwards, heading in the direction of Eller Beck Bridge where we would cross the A169 again.  This area of moorland is open access, which is just as well as we seemed to lose the footpath and instead walked through the heather, using the conspicuous landmark of RAF Fylingdales to take our bearings. 

Heading towards Eller Beck

After descending off the moors and passing over the railway line again, we crossed over Fen Bog, a nature reserve which is in the care of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.  This 19 hectare site is home to some of the most unusual sphagnum moss in the region and supports a huge variety of insects, birds, butterflies and reptiles.

Fen Bog

Once safely across the busy A169 we continued eastwards across the moors, following the course of Eller Beck.  Here a herd of Swaledale sheep were grazing the grassy margins of the stream.  They very calmly watched us walk by and were clearly well used to the passage of people along this busy moorland route.

Swaledale Sheep

I have a particular fondness for derelict buildings and ruins and was therefore somewhat taken by a collapsed shed by the side of the path.  I call this one "Death of a Shed". 

Dead Shed

Ever since we had left Simon Howe we had more or less been following the route of the Lyke Wake Walk, a long distance route of approximately 40 miles which crosses the entirety of the North York Moors from Osmotherley in the west to the sea at Ravenscar.  Traditionally this walk must be completed within 24 hours, the fastest time on record being a staggering 4 hours and 41 minutes.  At the height of its popularity in the 1970s, as many as 10,000 people a year completed the challenge which understandably had a significant environmental impact.  We continued along this section until we reached our next way-point at Lilla Cross.

Lilla Cross

One of the oldest Christian relics in Britain, Lilla Cross purportedly marks the spot where in 626 AD King Edwin of Northumbria was saved from an assassin's poisoned sword by a priest named Lilla who leapt forward and took the fatal blow.  King Edwin was so grateful he is supposed to have had this cross erected in Lilla's memory and also a few months  later, at Easter 627 AD, the previously pagan Edwin converted to Christianity in a wooden church in York, which subsequently went on to become York Minster.

Lilla Cross - Looking towards Dalby Forest and the North Sea

From Lilla Cross we turned southwards to follow a route along Worm Sike Rigg which skirted around the northernmost edge of Dalby Forest.  This track eventually turned westwards, leading us in the direction of RAF Fylingdales, a radar base which is also part of the ballistic missile early warning system, shared between the UK and the USA.  During the Cold War RAF Fylingdales would have been responsible for the "four minute warning".  The massive pyramid structure, which is visible in the landscape for miles around, is actually a group of radars which can cover a complete 360 degrees.  As well as providing the early warning system, Fylingdales also tracks orbiting objects in space.  Our route took us right up to the perimeter fence before we turned southwards again to head back towards the Hole of Horcum.

Approaching RAF Fylingdales

The area around RAF Fylingdales was rather bleak and eerie, with lots of warning signs from the Ministry of Defence and a patrolling police car.  We quickly passed it by and continued along our route which eventually brought us to a more pleasant landscape and a pretty little glade where we found the second moorland cross of the day.  Malo Cross was erected at some time after 1220 AD, when Peter de Mauley obtained the Mulgrave estate by marrying into the de Turnham family.  One side of the cross is inscribed with "RCE", being the initials of Sir Richard Egerton, who was notorious in the 17th century for moving stones and claiming them for himself in order to snatch more land than he was entitled to!

Malo Cross

From Malo Cross we followed the curve of a hill which led us all the way back to the car park by the Hole of Horcum.  In total we had walked for just over 16 miles - a full four miles further than intended.

Saltergate Brow

The shadows were lengthening as I gazed out over the landscape from the top of Saltergate Brow once more, a little more footsore than I should have been, but it had nevertheless been a wonderful walk with plenty of interest along the way.  And so many steam trains!

Back to where we started

Directions for this walk:

From the car park by the Hole of Horcum cross the road and turn right, following the path to a stile at the top of Saltergate Brow.  Cross the stile and continue downhill, following a path in the direction of the ravine where you will find a public footpath along the western edge of the ravine, descending into Newtondale.  Having crossed the railway line turn left onto the narrow lane (not right, which is where we went wrong!) and follow the track for a short distance until you find a path which climbs upwards through the trees.

Follow the path through the trees in a northerly direction all the way round to the northernmost edge of the woods and eventually out onto the moors until you meet with the footpath at Simon Howe Rigg.  Follow this to the top of Simon Howe from where you should be able to find a path which will take you down to Fen Bog.

Cross the A169 again at Eller Beck Bridge and take the public footpath eastwards all the way to Lilla Cross, from here head south along Worm Sike Rigg in the direction of the eastern perimeter fence of RAF Fylingdales.  From this point a public footpath is clearly marked to the Hole of Horcum.  Turn right at Malo Cross and take the path which curves around the foot of the hill and eventually leads to a lane which will return you to the car park.

Total distance (should be) 12 miles.

Coming soon...Off to the Yorkshire Dales we go, with a superb walk from Austwick starting with the Norber Erratics and crossing the fantastic limestone pavement at Maughton Scar.


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