Cycle route on the North York Moors – 87-miles of tough climbing but stunning scenery
Guy Kesteven takes on an exhilarating compilation of brutal climbs, fabulous descents, minimal traffic and abbeys galore, gleaned from more than 25 years of North York Moors local knowledge.
- Distance 140km (87 miles)
- Climbing 2649m (8691ft)
- Grade Hard
- Duration 4.5-7 hours
- Maps OS Outdoor Leisure 26 North York Moors West
- Download the route here
As a gateway to the North York Moors, historic Helmsley is perfectly placed as the starting point for our ride. It can become a bit tourist choked on sunny weekends, though, so to escape the hordes we dive off sharpish past the old airfield at Wombleton, then hook south and west past beautiful Nunnington Hall and contour along the hem of the Hambleton Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
There’s an ecclesiastical element to our outing too, and first on the list to appear is St Oswald’s Kirk at, er, Oswaldkirk, commemorating an early Christian martyr polished off by the pagans in the seventh century. Further on, the Benedictine School at Ampleforth Abbey is a lot more recent, with monks escaping from the French Revolution ending up here in North Yorkshire via Lancashire. You can take a guided tour of the church and cider mill, an opportunity we pass on as we follow the rolling road past Wass to the most obvious religious ruins on the route.
Sitting out on the plain, bold as brass, there’s no missing Byland Abbey, even if the rows of arches look more like an old Victorian engine shed than a site of medieval monkery. Pause and look over your shoulder as you peel right under the old stone arch past the pub: the impressive sandy facade has a crescent of remaining stonework from the massive circular window that tops it off Turkish style.
the lost world
The feel of a globetrotting crusade continues on the narrow road that rises and falls, and twists and turns along the foot of the bank. On our right, the steep, tree-lined slopes are hung with skeins of drifting mist – we could be in a lost valley in deepest Wales or Scotland – but a single line of trees and rolling hills on our left is straight out of a Flemish Classic. Spray from the filthy farm roads give us suitably Flandrian faces, too, as the rain comes down heavier, but the snaking single track roads are too tempting not to push our tyres to their slippery limits.
Low cloud on the summit reduces the white horse of Sutton Bank to a pair of ethereal equine legs, and wet leaves don’t help traction on the silly steep, snaking climb, but our legs are still fresh and we’re soon heaving over the edge of the plateau. There’s tempting tea and cake at the Moors Visitor Centre just across the road, but today we jink across the Thirsk-Helmsley main road and drop down through Scawton into a forgotten corner of wood-shrouded valleys and our next religious rendezvous at Rievaulx Abbey.
The super-technical roads are likely to squeeze a prayer or two from even the most agnostic riders. With steep, sharp, blind corners, high hedges and big potholes half hidden by greasy leaf mulch, all the fast-reaction, fine-braking and traction-control favourites are to be found between here and the helter skelter descent into Hawnby. Slam up the far side through the village and there’s more of the same, complete with Tolkienesque moss-bearded rocks, twisted trees and damp, dark hollows. For those who want to sprint every climb, there are wrist-buzzing cattle grid ‘finish lines’ on the summits of the windswept ridge lines. We’re content to tap out tempo for now, though, knowing there’s plenty more to come before we’re back full circle.
The National Cycle Network follows an old drove road that forks off to the left, but it’s not one to tackle on your Sunday best bike; it’s rough enough to rattle a full suspension mountain bike into its component parts if you’re not careful. Swooping down into Osmotherley and climbing out might be more taxing on the legs, but it’s relatively smooth under our skinny tyres as we pass Mount Grace Priory hidden on the other side of the hill. Another twisting descent drops us into the mouth of Scugdale and a scuttle around the northern hem of the hills through Faceby to Carlton-in-Cleveland.
More like this
There is a classic cyclists’ cafe hidden in the hills above Carlton, on top of a moorland plateau, boasting a door in the side of the hill – yes, really – but sadly we found the Lord Stones Cafe closed. There are hopes it will reopen in spring, but we had to make do with our own supplies for now.
So fortified with energy gels and fig rolls, we scoot across to the ancient stones that give this curious corner its name, then turn our backs on the view of the tall industrial chimneys of Middlesbrough and Teesside on the horizon.
Another twisting descent drops us into the heart of the western moors at Chop Gate and then it’s a steady Alpine gradient climb up to the summit of Clay Bank. Double-checking for mental motorcyclists turning the road into a race track, we dive down into Ingleby Greenhow, then swing eastwards into a remote part of the moors, crisscrossing the railway line to Whitby. We peel off the nearest thing to a regularly used road at Crag Wood and slither down a pine needle-carpeted descent, over a humpback railway bridge and across the marshy valley floor past a monumental slab of beef and his damp but dutiful harem. A farmhouse straddles the climb on the far side, forcing us to sneak between the barn, house and a particularly free range loo.
Our legs flushing with lactic acid again and our lenses steaming up, we make our way up a series of stepped climbs, loping ever higher onto sparse heather moorland. We know from experience that it’s vile up here when the weather is properly bad so we’re glad it’s just half-hearted drizzle – it’s dampening the roads but not our spirits. The next descent is certainly ‘spirited’ too, goading us into a brake-free plummet then rolling treacherously left just as it steepens to a pad-smoking gradient, a wheel-eating, cobble-surfaced ford lying in wait at the bottom.
We clatter across, feet level, breath held and fingers crossed, then nurse wet tyres up the far side. Heaving over another moorland summit, then down and up again into Westerdale, each step of the climb takes us another rib higher onto the broad back of the moors. With every head-down block of pedalling there’s a significantly bigger view unfolding on either side. Sidewinds ruffle the low heather and tug at deep section wheels as we become the highest point on a landscape that’s otherwise hunkered down and hiding from the squally weather.
God’s own country
Climbing up onto the spine of the moors opens the whole book of this beautiful area like an illuminated manuscript. Even these wild tops hide remnants of the friars’ lives. Massive pillow-shaped blocks forming the footpath across the moor to Great Fryup Dale are typical of the ‘monks trod’ droveways all over Yorkshire. As we roll round the top of Rosedale it’s easy to see why it became another ecclesiastical centre of ‘God’s own county’, with dry stone walls pushing tillable land as far up the valley as possible.
It’s a challenge to keep our lightweight bikes anchored to the undulating road surface with any authority, but however sketchy this feels, it’s nothing to what happens when it tips off the edge. The open roads of the top turn into increasingly big, rolling dips and twisting corners between woods and unforgiving dry stone walls. By the time this nerve-testing plummet spits you out into Rosedale Abbey and its priory ruins, you’ll have either a serious grin or a serious grimace on your face depending on your degree of gravity gutsiness. It’s a gravity challenge of an altogether different form that faces us next. Named after the long-gone landmarks of the area’s mining past, Chimney Bank comes with extra large warning signs about its ferocity, and it gets working on your legs as soon as you roll over the bridge at the bottom. Stiff as the initial gradient is, don’t think you’ve even started until you clear the last houses.
steeped in history
At this point you’ve no option other than to give it everything you’ve got to tackle two of the steepest road corners in the UK. Reputedly 1 in 2.5 at the apex, these knee poppers lead to a fractionally shallower – 1 in 3 or 4 – but crushingly long slab of tarmac to the top turn. We’d like to say keep something in your legs for the final slightly shallower summit push, but to be honest you’ll be well beyond riding smart by the time you crawl past the first car park, and the last hundred metres or so is just about stubborn Strava glory or trying to stay upright while your head, heart, lungs and legs all scream surrender.
But the payback descent is a pearler. Not technical, but a seemingly endless dive off the southern edge of the moors into Hutton-le-Hole. Doubling back uphill past the National Park signs towards Gillamoor puts one last notable climb on the route, and the straightline wooded slope is enough to make our legs sing after several thousand feet of climbing.
Rolling over the top towards Fadmoor and our legs are done for the day as we scoot down to the main Pickering-Helmsley road. It’s far too busy a finish for a route that’s all about wild roads and ancient sites of contemplation, so instead we dogleg across the road and retrace the last few miles through Harome and into Helmsley, physically spent but spiritually enriched by this truly blessed part of Britain.
Food and drink
The North York Moors are a major tourist area and every other farmhouse seems to offer tea and cake in summer. Most villages have a pub and/or shop for easy refuelling too. The cafe at Kildale is a real highlight (and the Lord Stones Cafe, if open), and the one at Rosedale isn’t bad either. Just go easy on the cream and jam there, or you’ll be seeing it again pretty soon.
Where to stay
Everything from campsites, YHA hostels (including Osmotherley and Helmsley) and camping barns (Kildale, Farndale and Sinnington) to posh hotels such as the Black Swan in Helmsley. www.northyorkmoors-stay.co.uk
None en route, though there are some good shops nearby if you realise you’ve forgotten something when driving there. Both Ripon’s Moonglu (moonglu.com) and Guisborough’s Bike Scene are close to the route. Don’t believe everything you read on Google, either, as Zyro in Thirsk is a distributor not a bike shop.
Images: Russell Burton
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