Purple heather moorlands give way to green fields and the coast
Purple heather moorlands give way to green fields and the coast

North York Moors – now available in purple

The North York Moors offer a huge variety of walks and landscapes to explore, most notably its famous purple heather moorland, as Paddy Dillon describes.

The first time I saw the North York Moors was when I was a child in the 1970s, squashed into the back of a three-wheeled Reliant van with my brothers, on our way to Whitby. My father stopped the van and we were amazed at the sight of purple heather moorlands stretching away into the distance. On our next visit, I was allowed to camp on my own, although within sight of the chalet that the rest of the family used.

I re-acquainted myself with the moors when I completed my Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition with my school-pals. I’d like to say I enjoyed it, but if any of you recall the searing heatwave of 1976, you’ll know it can’t have been fun. No, my enjoyment of the moors had to wait until later, when I made a series of visits on my own and comprehensively criss-crossed the moors, then wrapped everything up neatly by walking the Cleveland Way around the national park.

The first edition of my North York Moors guidebook was the result of trips that generally fell outside the main summer holiday period, so I tended to miss the purple heather. However, for the second edition I purposely chose to visit in high summer and made an effort to get more purple into the book. There is a large notice at the national park visitor centre at Danby that says: ‘Three quarters of all the world’s heather moorland is in Britain. And the biggest expanse in England is right here in the North York Moors.’ I don’t doubt it.

I have walked in many places where heather grows and this is where it grows best.

Man-made beauty

While some people believe that the heather moors are natural, that’s not the case. Heather doesn’t grow uniformly, but has to be ‘encouraged’ by careful management. The moors were made the way they are to support large populations of grouse, and whether you like it or not, those gorgeous moors exist primarily for grouse-shooting. On the plus side, access used to be discouraged from large areas, but following the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act), there is a high level of access available most of the time.

While I enjoy long walks across wide-open moorlands, they can be a bit grim in rain, wind and mist, especially when the ground underfoot is boggy. Fortunately, there are plenty more walking opportunities around the national park. There is a stunning cliff coastline punctuated by interesting towns and villages. There are verdant dales threaded by charming rivers, where fields and woodlands alternate, with little villages dotted around. There are surprises galore, in the form of ruined abbeys, quiet country churches, nature trails, waterfalls and the delightful North Yorkshire Moors Railway and its delightful vintage stations. What I like best about the area is its variety.

I don’t drive, so I’m always on the lookout for useful public transport services, and the North York Moors offers some interesting options. Apart from the steam trains through the heart of the moors, there is a splendid scenic railway running through Eskdale to Whitby. The coast is well supplied with buses, as are many other places around the edges of the national park. Getting onto the high moors is possible using the Moorsbus. This network of buses presents opportunities on summer weekends to start and finish walks at different points high on the moors, or in adjacent dales, without having to return to a parked car. (See www.moorsbus.org.)

People have crossed the North York Moors since time immemorial, and it wasn’t always easy. Some of the oldest and bleakest routes were marked with wooden posts and stout stone crosses, and of course the stone crosses were more likely to survive. Some of them date from as early as the 10th century, and when monasteries were built in the area, the use of stone crosses as markers increased. Drovers crossed the moors with cattle, sometimes travelling all the way from Scotland to London, and when turnpikes were constructed and tolls were levied, some travellers preferred to keep their money and take their chances on the old moorland routes.

To this day, loose change is sometimes left on top of old stone crosses for the use of needy wayfarers!

Up for a challenge

In more recent times, several challenging long walks have been established on the moors. The most brutal was the Lyke Wake Walk, and if crossing the entire width of the national park wasn’t tough enough, participants were expected to do it in 24 hours! Other routes, such as the Cleveland Way National Trail and the Coast to Coast Walk, covered some of the same paths, but avoided the bleakest and boggiest moors in favour of diversions into gentle dales, in search of accommodation, food and drink. There are plenty of country pubs, and this is one of those areas where you can still find traditional English tearooms that are well supported by outdoors folk.

One of my favourite places on the moors is the Lion Inn at Blakey. I mean, who could resist a night or two in the middle of nowhere, a comfortable bed and meals, with great walks starting and finishing at the front door? The Moorsbus passes the inn on summer weekends, but in the depths of winter the inn and its road can be cut off and buried under snow for days on end.

I have enjoyed simple day walks on the moors, as well as long-distance backpacking trips. I have pitched my tent on campsites or simply thrown my sleeping bag onto the heather until woken by the rising sun and cackling grouse. I have stayed in hostels and humble B&Bs, as well as enjoyed comfortable hotels or self-catering cottages. Rarely staying in one place for more than two or three nights, I have always been keen to keep moving and make the most of the variety offered around the North York Moors.

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