Posted by: Kirsten | Friday, 31 October 2008

North York Moors National Park: The Moor the Merrier

Another business trip to England and another chance to visit a British national park on a Saturday.  Last year I spent considerable time in the Yorkshire Dales National Park visiting caves, castles, cheese factories, and cathedrals.  This year I was determined to visit one of the other nearby national parks in northern England and the two closest options were Peaks District National Park and North York Moors National Park. The weather all week had been windy and somewhat rainy, and they were calling for the chance of snow a few days after I was scheduled to fly home, so the thought of scaling some lofty peaks during a windy and rainy or potentially snowy day didn’t set too well with my goal of enjoying myself for the day, so I set my sights on North York Moors instead.

I got up early on Saturday and headed out toward the town of Pickering, which is the southern terminus of the historic railroad that runs north through the eastern portion of the park up to the town of Whitby on the North Sea coast. My thought was to hike north as far as I could and take the train south, leaving the option of hiking the second half as well if the weather and adequate daylight cooperated.

Sixty miles and numerous roundabouts later, I approached Pickering and decided to drive further into the heart of the park to start my hike.  The hamlet of Levisham and its rail station offered free (donations accepted) parking as well, and ensured I wouldn’t have to walk a considerable distance just to get into the park proper. 

By 9am I was dressed for any weather, backpack full of goodies for the day, and heading north on a road alongside the railroad tracks, armed with my GPS unit and my handy dandy laminated map of eastern North York Moors — very detailed!  My GPS, while still extremely useful for getting around, had no road information for the U.K. whatsoever, so I was basically reading off latitude and longitude coordinates and placing myself on the map that way.  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked pretty well. And on a cloudy day, having the GPS serve as a compass to ensure I was still heading north at times was very comforting.

The road climbed steadily higher while the railroad remained down in the Newtondale Valley, and eventually I made a sharp left turn into the woods, up the spine of a ridge, and finally to an overlook with views like you see above.  The woods themselves, however, were equally idyllic at times, with winding green carpets of grass inviting you to “come this way instead”.  Flowers and berries lingered for a final week or two before succumbing to the first frost, and with a very stiff wind at my back, it made for a very pleasant hike — at least this far into it.

About halfway into my hike, the woods gave way to open moorland, and soewhere beyond the moors was my destination — the town of Goathland, with train service back to Levisham when I was good and ready.  The last trains didn’t head south until well after 6 pm, so I had plenty of time, the wind at my back, and oh crap, what happened to my GPS?

It had just started to rain and with a steady 25-30 mph wind with gusts approaching 50, it wasn’t really the best time to realize you’ve lost your GPS somewhere in the past mile or two. Now I was walking back into the wind and rain trying to remember every step I took over the past 30 minutes or so.  Half a mile later I found it in the grass between a gravel road and the woods — thankfully I was using it inside a plastic bag to keep the rain off of it, and the bag stood out as it laid there on the roadside. Retracing my steps I finally made it back to the place I realized the GPS was missing, and continued northward.  At least by now the rain had stopped coming down again.

My first view of the moors was rather disconcerting.  They seemed to go on forever, and although you could see a very long way since there were no trees on the moor, the town was still nowhere in sight.  Halfway across the moor, following a muddy, narrow, rutted path through the heather, I stopped at a rockpile, which was a welcome sign on an otherwise homogenous landscape. Two or three times I spotted another hiker or a couple following the paths up ahead of me, and every time the people seemed to vanish into thin air.  For landscape with literally no place to hide, I couldn’t help thinking of the movie An American Werewolf in London where they were told to “beware the moors”.  It was a tad creepy.

Also as I hiked, it seemed I could always see the top of the hill ahead of me, and when I got there, more uphill remained.  It’s a very strange landscape, and I suppose having very few reference points lends itself to illusions and misjudging of distances. The moorland is a manmade environment designed to support the grouse population. Lands managers burn areas from time to time so there’s high heather and low heather, some for food, some for nesting. In the winter, the sheep are allowed to roam around the moors, knocking snow off the heather so the birds (not only grouse, but curlews, plovers, lapwings, and merlins too) can get to their food source.

Finally, I made it to the edge of the Goathland moor and spotted the outskirts of Goathland up ahead.  Sheep were everywhere, both on the moorland and within the town itself, wandering pretty much anywhere they wanted. I still had at least a mile to go to reach the train station, which as it turns out, isn’t just any train station.  If you don’t recognize it from this first photo, see if the next photo helps jog your memory.

That’s right — it’s the Hogwarts Express with service to Hogsmeade Station via Track Nine and three-quarters — the actual train station and locomotives used while filming scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s (Philosopher’s) Stone.  Funny thing is, I had no idea this little gem was here when I started my hike in the morning, and what a pleasant surprise it was, and a great way to end my day.  If I was to return with the kids, this journey would make a great two-day hike, stopping once to overnight, and dividing the trip roughly into a forest day and a moor day, making more frequent stops to check out the birds, flowers, and ferns. The trains only run for one more weekend this year, but 2009 is just right around the railroad bend.



  1. It takes a visitor to Britain from a country with a rich ecology in the wild lands of its National Park and wilderness systems to expose the emptiness of the barren wastelands of the upland moors of our national parks. Unfortunately, in Britain, there’s none so blind as those who will not see. The cultural baggage we have will keep it that way.

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