THE sizzling days of 1976 are scorched into the memory of many of us. Fast forward 19 years, though, and another glorious summer is firmly etched in my mind. It marked the start of a love affair with the North York Moors, which is still going strong today.
I became besotted when, after a glorious summer’s day, I was heading back home from Whitby. “Let’s take a bit of a detour,” I suggested to my wife as we drove along with our two dogs in our trusty old Ford Fiesta.
A few minutes later the scenery began to cast its magic spell. We were transfixed by the vast expanse of heather moorland, a breathtaking sea of purple. With the sun still warming our faces, it was all far removed from when William the Conqueror, no less, got lost in a blizzard on the moors while inspecting his kingdom after the Battle of Hastings. If only something like the Lion Inn, that famous hostelry of rest and refreshment on Blakey Ridge, had been available for the exhausted traveller in 1066.
Had the new king been able to take it all in, he would surely have been impressed with the awe-inspiring beauty stretched out before him. Earlier this month we had the pleasure of driving along Blakey Ridge again and once more we were wowed by the views across the moors and down into the valleys.
But you don’t have to venture on to wild, sweeping moorland to have your spirits lifted in my favourite national park, which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary. Worries about pensions in peril or the cost of fuel are soon subdued by the priceless tranquillity of this landscape. “Everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvellous freedom from the tumult of the world,” as St Aeldred, the 12th century Abbot of Rievaulx, so eloquently described Ryedale.
Unlike the abbot, we have marvellously detailed Ordnance Survey maps to guide us to the spots that soothe the soul. One day we decided to investigate Sinnington, not far from Pickering. It turned out to be a peaceful, picture-postcard spot with stream, village green and pub. And a further look at our well-creased map showed a network of paths to be explored around the village.
Only last week we were enjoying a walk through peaceful woodland not far from Sinnington when we heard the sound of a cuckoo calling. My wife’s face lit up with joy at hearing this increasingly rare sound, which she had not picked up at all last year in the countryside near our North Yorkshire home.
More map scrutiny over the years has revealed a whole new world of quiet tracks and twisting lanes. And when you’re poring over a plethora of pleasures and you spot somewhere called Paradise – it’s not far from Sutton Bank – you just have to go there. With awe-inspiring views and an enveloping peace, it doesn’t disappoint.
For an even more sensational view, the top of Sutton Bank itself takes some beating. The magnificent, 180-degree – or more – panorama was much loved by Thirsk vet Alf Wight, better known to millions of fans worldwide as James Herriot.
As the TV series showed, the veterinary world was seeing rapid advances in science during the Herriot years, but I wonder what the vet would have made of the hi-tech, interactive exhibition at the Sutton Bank National Park Centre. It reveals how the landscape was created and the influence it has had on man through the ages.
To protect this natural gem, the park came into being on November 29 1952. It was the sixth area to be designated as a national park and the first in Yorkshire. It famously contains the largest area of open heather moorland in England plus other important landscapes and habitats including river valleys, wetlands, coastal cliffs and rocky shore, grassland, forest and woodland, hedgerows and traditionally managed farmland.
The highest cliffs on the east coast of England can be found at Boulby, which also has the deepest mine in Europe, plunging to 1,100 metres.
Around a third of the Park is designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest and much of this is also designated at an international level as Special Areas of Conservation or as a Special Protection Area.
Our addiction to the Moors compelled us to spend a full week there. From our holiday cottage at Newton on Rawcliffe, near Pickering, we could walk a few yards and look down into majestic Newtondale where the North Yorkshire Moors Steam Railway carves its twisting route.
Another holiday, in the hamlet of Esk Valley, was again within tooting distance of the railway. You don’t have to be a steam buff to be entranced by the engines and transported into another world far removed from your daily grind on the 7.52 into Leeds.
Our Esk Valley cottage also offered easy walks to Beck Hole, with its amazingly characterful, tiny Birch Hall pub, and to Goathland, home to TV favourite Heartbeat.
It’s no wonder artists have been drawn to the area for many years, as testified to by the Inspired Landscape exhibition, which opens tomorrow at The Inspired by… Gallery at The Moors National Park Centre in Danby. The exhibition marks the start of a programme of celebratory events to mark the Park’s diamond anniversary and features work by internationally renowned artists William Tillyer, Len Tabner, Peter Hicks, Joe Cornish, Stephen Gillies and Kate Jones.
If you find yourself missing the coast, try a trip to atmospheric Staithes, where a number of artists came together in the Victorian era and became known as the Staithes Group.
A few years ago I carried our old collie-cross down steep steps that tumbled to the seafront past old cottages and narrow alleys and it was easy to imagine smugglers bringing ashore their booty.
The cliff-top walk south to Port Mulgrave and beyond also boasts magnificent views along the coastline and out to sea, enough to inspire artist and artisan alike.
Be warned, however, that the lure of the North York Moors can tempt irrational behaviour in the love-struck.
A few years ago a house came up for sale in a fairly remote hamlet near Captain Cook’s monument. Surrounded by stunning scenery, we had an almost overwhelming urge to snap it up – despite the fact that living here would commit us to a completely unrealistic commute to work.
Luckily, common sense prevailed, even though we were within a mile of one of the most romantic places on Earth. Roseberry Topping, the much painted, much photographed hill near Great Ayton was placed sixth at the World Travel Awards on a list of the most romantic places on the planet to propose.
If you receive a proposal to go there, or indeed anywhere else in this national park in this year of celebration, just make sure you say “yes”.
Special 60th anniversary event
Inspired Landscape, The Inspired by… Gallery, The Moors National Park Centre, Danby, Sunday, May 13 – Tuesday, July 17. An exhibition of new work to mark the national park’s 60th anniversary. Works by William Tillyer, Len Tabner, Peter Hicks, Joe Cornish, Stephen Gillies and Kate Jones.
Boltby Scar Excavation Talk, Sutton Bank National Park Centre, Thursday, May 10, 7pm. Prof Dominic Powlesland explains the role of the Boltby Scar hillfort and talks about the excavations of 2009 and 2011.
Scotch Corner Chapel Open Afternoons, Saturday, May 12, Sunday, July 1, Sunday, August 26. Noon to 4pm. Drop in to see inside the hidden chapel near Oldstead.
Britain’s National Parks, Moors National Park Centre, Danby, Thursday, July 26, 1.30pm - 3pm. Talk by Bernie McLinden, Head of Park Management, on the history of the National Parks.
Moorland Festival, Sutton Bank National Park Centre, Sunday July 29, 11am to 4.30pm. Dry stone walling demonstration, meet the rangers, moorland management, bees, ways with wool. Drop-in event.
Booking is required for talks. Telephone 01439 772738 or call in at The Moors National Park Centre, Danby or Sutton Bank National Park Centre.
For a full list of events see www.northyorkmoors.org.uk