After exploring historic York, this itinerary samples the wild and beautiful countryside of two National Parks: the North York Moors and the Yorkshire Dales. This is an area of rugged, untamed, harsh beauty in its landscape and its stout stone villages. With seemingly endless miles of heather-covered moorlands, few roads, and even fewer sturdy villages sheltering in green valleys, the North York Moors appear vast and untamed, dipping to the sea to embrace the villages and towns of the east coast. Across the flat expanse of the Vale of York lie the Yorkshire Dales, characterized by sleepy rivers weaving through peaceful valleys and by gray-stone walls bounding the fields and tracing patterns on the countryside to the moorlands above. Here every valley has a name and a very different character-Swaledale, Littondale, Coverdale, and Wharfedale. Scattered throughout Yorkshire are small gray-stoned villages with a cluster of stone houses, a hump-backed bridge, a friendly pub, and an ancient church.

Recommended Pacing: Spend two nights in York to appreciate the flavor of this historic city. Follow this with a minimum of one night on or near the North York Moors and two nights in the Yorkshire Dales.

If you delight in historic towns, you will love York, a compact city brimful of history, encircled by 700-year-old walls with great imposing gates known as “bars.” There has been a settlement here since Roman times and by the time of the Norman Conquest it was, after London, the principal city of England.

Your first stop in York should be the Tourist Information Centre on St. Leonards, near Bootham Bar. Avail yourself of a detailed city map and ask about walking tours that will, in the space of several hours, orient you to this historic city.

Walk the narrow, cobblestoned streets with appealing names such as The Shambles, Stonegate, and Goodramgate past timbered buildings whose upper stories lean out, almost forming a bridge over the streets. While interesting shops abound, the National Trust Shop on Goodramgate, Little Bettys (teashop) on Stonegate and Betty’s Cafe &Tearooms on St. Helen’s Square are ones to target.

York’s magnificent cathedral is known simply as The Minster, a huge structure that towers above the skyline and dwarfs everything else around it. It was begun in 1220 and you can quickly appreciate why it took over 250 years to complete. Entering through the Great West Door, you see the vast nave stretching out in front of you and fluted pillars rising to flying buttresses reaching high above. There are more than 100 stained-glass windows and the huge east window is almost the size of a tennis court. Guided tours leave at regular intervals. Nearby the Treasurer’s House (NT), a 17th/18th-century townhouse on the site of the former residence of the Treasurers of York Minster, has a fine collection of beautiful furniture.

The Jorvik Viking Centre, Coppergate, is set below ground amidst the most complete Viking dig in England. Electric cars take you on a Disneyland ride backwards through history to a re-created Viking village-complete with sounds and smells of Viking Jorvik. Then they move you forward to the dig itself and a display of the artifacts that have been recovered.

Enjoy another trip back in time at York’s outstanding Castle Museum. One section of the museum is a reconstructed Victorian cobbled street, with houses, shops, jail, and a hansom cab in recognition of inventor Joseph Hansom who was born in Mickelgate. Opposite the museum you can climb to the ramparts of Clifford’s Tower, a stubby, 13th-century keep set high on a mound. From its ramparts you have a panoramic view of York. (Tel: 01904-646940.)

Located beyond York’s walls, just a short walk from the magnificent Victorian railway station, is the National Railway Museum, on Leeman Road, crammed with famous steam locomotives including the world’s fastest (202 mph), Mallard, and a wealth of railway items.

Depart York on the A64 Scarborough road for the fast drive to Castle Howard, which is well signposted to your left just 4 miles from Malton. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, a member of the Howard family, Castle Howard was built between 1699 and 1726-one glimpse of this majestic building and you understand why it took 27 years to complete. Its immense façade reflects in a broad lake and it is surrounded by a vast parkland and approached down a long, tree-lined avenue. It isn’t really a castle at all but one of England’s grandest homes, as impressive inside as out, full of fine furniture and paintings. This grand setting is better known to many visitors as “Brideshead” from the television dramatization of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It is still owned by the Howard family.

From nearby Malton take the A169 through Pickering and across the vast expanse of the North York moors to Robin Hood’s Bay, the most picturesque of villages situated beneath a cliff top, a maze of huddled houses clinging to the precipitous cliff. Park in the large car park above the village and follow the long, steep street down to the shoreline, peeping into little alleyways and following narrow byways until you emerge at the slipway. Pieces of Robin Hood’s Bay have been washed away, and in an attempt to minimize further damage to this little fishing village, much of the cliff has been reinforced by a large sea wall.

The ruins of Whitby Abbey face the cold North Sea and the old seaside town of Whitby, built on either side of the River Esk. It’s a lovely sight: majestic ruins high on a bleak, windy headland; rows of cottages climbing up the hillsides; and, gazing over the scene, a statue of the town’s most famous mariner, Captain Cook. Cook circled the world twice, explored the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, and charted Newfoundland and the North American Pacific coast before being killed by natives in Hawaii. His home on Grape Lane is a small museum. Near Cook’s statue is a whalebone arch commemorating this photogenic old town’s importance as a whaling port. The whaling ships are a thing of the distant past: now just a few fishing boats bob in this large, sheltered harbor. Explore the area of the town that lies below the abbey, for this is the quaintest, most historic portion of Whitby. During the summer the town is filled with holidaymakers.

Leave Whitby on the A169, Pickering road, and follow signs to the right for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, a road that winds you to Grosmont, the terminus of a glorious, 18-mile steam railway that runs to and from Pickering. The railway opened in 1863 with horse-drawn carriages-steam engines came 11 years later. The line was closed by British Rail in 1965 and reopened by train enthusiasts. The railway shed is full of steam locomotives of all colors. You can see engines being prepared for their daily shift and watch restoration from the viewing gallery. (Tel: 01751-72508,  fax: 01751-76970.)

From nearby Egton a narrow road leads you up from a lush valley and onto acres of gently rolling moorland, with a mass of purple heather stretching into the distance, a dramatically empty, isolated spot. It then drops you into another green valley where stone walls separate a patchwork of fields around the tiny village of Rosedale Abbey. Go straight across the crossroads, up the steep bank, and across another stretch of vast moorland. Keep to your right at the fork in the road, and you arrive in the most picturesque village on the North York Moors, Hutton-le-Hole. A tumbling stream cuts through the village and children play on close-cropped grassy banks between the sturdy stone houses. At the heart of the village lies Ryedale Folk Museum where paths lead from a museum of domestic bygones through a collection of ancient Yorkshire buildings (from simple cottages to an elaborate cruck-framed house) rescued from demise and restored on this site.

Farther on from Hutton-le-Hole you join the A170, which brings you to Helmsley, a pretty market town beneath the southern rim of the moors. Around the market square (market day Friday) are interesting shops and the lovely Black Swan hotel. At the edge of town sits a ruined castle enclosed by Norman earthworks.

About 4 miles beyond Helmsley (take the B1257 towards Stokesley) lie the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey (pronounced “Ree-voh”), the delicate and beautiful remnants of York’s first Cistercian abbey, standing quietly beside a picturesque group of thatched cottages. The abbey fell into debt and declined until Henry VIII ordered its dissolution. Today it is a graceful, ghostly ruin, often shrouded in mist. Follow the narrow lane beside the cottages, turn right over the little humpbacked bridge, proceed through Scrawton, and turn right on the A170 (Thirsk road) for a short distance to a left-hand turn that zigzags you down Sutton Bank. On a clear day park in the car park at the top and enjoy the sky-wide view of the Vale of York before descending down the Hambleton Hills escarpment.

A delightful side trip can by taken by turning left at the bottom of the escarpment and following the narrow lane that brings you to Kilburn, a village known for its fine oak furniture. Quality oak furniture found all over the world can easily be traced back here to the workshop of Robert Thompson. He died in 1955, but craftsmen he trained still use his carved signature, a small church mouse, signifying “poor as a church mouse” to identify their work. It is fun to tour the workshops and watch skilled craftsmen quietly hand-carving beautiful oaken objects with a wavy, adzed surface.

Returning to the main road, you soon come to Thirsk, its very pleasant cobbled market square overlooked by shops (market day Monday). Here you can visit the Herriot Centre, onetime veterinary surgery of James Herriot, quiet local vet-turned-author.

From Thirsk the A61 traverses rich farmland, crosses the A1 and meanders you through Ripon to the market square (market day Thursday) where you follow well-marked signs for Fountains Abbey.

Cistercian monks arrived in sheltered Fountains Abbey (NT) in 1132, at about the same time they came to Rievaulx, but, unlike Rievaulx, this abbey prospered, so that by the end of the 13th century it had acquired vast estates and the abbey was home to over 500 monks. However, its prosperity did not save it from the axe of Henry VIII who sold the monastery, leaving the abbey to fall into majestic ruin. Considering that for hundreds of years it was used as a quarry for precut stone, the complex is remarkably intact. Wander over the closely cropped grass to the soaring walls of the church. Examine the few remaining floor tiles, gaze at the flying buttresses soaring high above, wander through the cloisters, and wonder at the glory that was Fountains Abbey so many years ago. Walking paths abound: a particularly pretty path leads you across grassy meadows to the adjacent National Trust property of Studley Royal, an 18th-century deer park and water garden.

Turn west (B6265) through Pateley Bridge and climb higher and higher onto bleak moorlands through Greenhow and down the fellside through fields trimmed with white stone walls to Hebden and into Grassington, a neat village of narrow streets and cobbled squares full of shops and cafés. It’s this itinerary’s introduction to the Dales National Park which is very crowded in summer, so you may want to park at the National Park Information Centre (useful for maps and information) and walk into town.

To experience some magnificent scenery, take a breathtaking circular drive from Grassington and back again through Littondale, over the fells to Malham Cove, and back to the B6160 on the outskirts of town. Leave Grassington on the B6265, cross the River Wharfe, and turn right onto the B6160, which leads you up Wharfedale towards Kettlewell. Just after passing the huge crags that hang above Kilnsey, turn left up a narrow lane for Arncliffe. The road meanders deep into Littondale, a narrow, steep-sided, very pretty dale. At the cluster of cottages that make up Arncliffe turn left for Malham and follow the narrow road as it zigzags you up the side of the dale. As the road reaches the top, there is a spectacular view back into Littondale. The high, bleak moorland suddenly ends and to your left lie immense curving cliffs that drop 240 feet into a green valley. This is Malham Cove, one of Yorkshire’s most celebrated natural features. Huddled in the valley below lies the village of Malham. Country lanes take you through Kirby Malham, Airton, Winterburn, Hetton, and Threshfield to rejoin the B6160, which takes you back into Wharfedale.

Retrace your steps and head north to Kettlewell, a pretty village at the foot of Great Whernside. In the 8th century this was an Anglican settlement, then after the Norman Conquest formed part of the estates of the powerful Percy family. A small road leads you to the right over Great Whernside and into quiet Coverdale through Woodale, Horsehouse, and Carlton, little villages that shelter in this pretty valley with the moors looming above. Horses are a feature of Middleham for there are many famous racing stables in this attractive town of gray-stone houses beneath the ruins of Middleham Castle.

Cross the River Ure and follow the A6108 into Leyburn then turn left on the A648 and right on country lanes through Redmire to the crumbling ruins of Bolton Castle, which stands grim and square, dwarfing the adjacent village, overlooking distant Wensleydale. You can tour several restored rooms. The castle’s most famous visitor was Mary, Queen of Scots, who was held prisoner here for six months in 1568.

Minor roads take you up Wharfedale through Carperby (detour into Aysgarth if you would like to walk to Aysgarth Falls, a series of spectacular waterfalls where the River Ure cascades down a rocky gorge) and Woodhall to the picturesque Dales village of Askrigg. Cross the river to Bainbridge and take the A648 into Hawes, a bustling village whose narrow streets abound with interesting shops, good pubs, and cafés. You can visit the Wensleydale Creamery to watch cheese being produced. After exploring, leave town in the direction of Muker. As the road climbs from the valley go right, following signs for Muker via Buttertubs. This is one of the highest mountain passes in England (1,682 feet), rising steeply from Wensleydale, crossing dramatic high moorlands, and depositing you in narrower, wilder Swaledale. The road gets its name “Buttertubs” from the deep,  limestone pits some distance from the road near the summit.

At the T-junction follow the road to the right and cross the little bridge into Muker, the most charming of Swaledale’s little villages-just the place to stop for a refreshing cuppa.

As you travel down Swaledale, there’s a feeling of remoteness: sturdy, gray-stone barns dot the stone-walled fields that checker the valley floor and rise to the green fells. Gunnerside, Norse for “Gunner’s pasture,” where a Viking chieftain herded his cattle long ago, is now an appealing village.

Through Low Row, Feetham, and Healaugh the enchantment of being in a narrow, secluded valley continues till at  Reeth the landscape opens up and the feeling of being in a wild and lonely place is gone. You continue on to Richmond through pretty countryside.

Richmond sits at the foot of Swaledale, a network of cobbled alleys and streets stretching from its cobbled square. At its center sits an ancient church with shops set into its walls. Overhanging the River Swale, Richmond Castle was built by Norman lords within 20 years of the Norman Conquest. Over the years only a few Scottish raiders tested the defenses of this guardian of North Yorkshire. Sweeping views across dales down to the Vale of York can be enjoyed from the top of its 11th-century ruins.

The nearby A1 will quickly guide you north into Scotland or return you south towards York.


* (NT) means that the property listed is under the care of the National Trust.

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