Saturday, 5 January 2013

North York Moors: Moor to Sea Cycle Network

It was August Bank Holiday weekend and Hilary had gone off to cycle the Way of the Roses, 166 miles from Morecambe to Brid, with her elder son.  So, as a change from the Gaping Gill Winch Meet with the CPC, I decided to take the bike and the BoB trailer up to the NY Moors to ride a few stages of the Moor to Sea trails and fit in 1 or 2 nights of wild camping. 

The Moor to Sea Cycle Network was established a few years ago by the NYM National Park and comprises 11 stages of between 8 and 19 miles in length.  It runs along forest tracks, disused railway tracks, minor roads and bridleways, the latter of which can either be an immense pleasure or a gnarly, frustrating bother to ride. 

I set out from Sheffield early on the Saturday morning and as I drove through a heavy rainstorm past York, I began to doubt the wisdom of this project and came close to turning the car round.  Perhaps a weekend at home would be a sensible after all - I had a ton of jobs to do.  But sensible is deadly dull and in any case, the further east I got, the more the weather improved and by the time I reached Pickering, it was bright and sunny. 

Pickering to Langdale End (starting from Thornton-le-Dale)
The start of my Saturday route was the Pickering to Langdale End stage of the Moor to Sea but to cut out 2 miles of back roads, I decided to start from Thornton-Le-Dale.  This is a pleasant village nestling under the southern edge of the Moors and spoilt by having the A170 to Scarborough cut through it.  On the main street is a garage which has a small museum of vintage and classic cars and other motoring memorabilia (and if some of these haven't appeared in Heartbeat, you can call me Pennine Ranger).  An old charabanc was waiting at the bus stop and the spontaneous explosion of one of its tyres provided a few moments of confusion and excitement.

I called in at the cafe on the main road and ordered what turned out to be the most enormous breakfast (and that was after declining the eggs).  The National Park's car park didn't allow overnight parking, which was both a surprise and annoyance, so I asked in the cafe if there was anywhere I could leave the car overnight and was pointed in the direction of the lane up near the cemetery.

I'd had to dismantle the bike and trailer to pack them in the back of the car, so after a load of faffing around reassembling everything, it was getting towards 11 before I actually set off.  I'd barely left the car out of sight before the bike's rear suspension started creaking in the sort of way which says, "you better not ignore me, chap" and looking down, I noticed a lot of sideways play in the bottom pivot.  Towing a trailer full of camping gear perhaps isn't good for a full suss bike.  I spent 15 minutes doing some fettling, relieved that my emergency toolkit had the right sized Allan keys for the job, and set off again.  Take 2...

From almost everywhere round the edge it is a steep pull up onto the moors proper. The road out of the village, past the church, was no exception.  It usually takes me a couple of miles before my heart and lungs get used to the idea that they will have to do some work and I generally prefer to go through this pain barrier out of the public gaze.  Being bank holiday weekend, the lane was full of families milling around.  By the time the road up Thornton Dale had levelled out and I'd started to get my breathing under control, I'd left everyone behind.  Pride is a cruel mistress, as is age, though having two mistresses ought to be every old bloke's dream.  At the top of Thornton Dale is Low Dalby, home to the visitor centre and start of the extensive Dalby Forest bike trails.  Hilary and I had cycled around half of the 23 mile red route on new year's day 2012.

After the breakfast I'd scoffed in the village, the Dalby cafe offered no temptation and in any case, all I really wanted to do was get away from the crowds and up onto the high moors.  I had another stop to re-adjust the main suspension axle, after which I picked up the road leading to Langdale End, past the amusingly named Jerry Noddle and a somewhat incongruous collection of crosses in trees and buildings which belonged to a Coptic Christian retreat.  The NY Moors has, over the centuries, been home to a number of religious orders whose abbeys, most notably Rievaulx and Byland, were destroyed during the reformation.  Ampleforth, is still standing or has been rebuilt.  I'm not sure which and Wikipedia is disappointingly uninformative on the subject.  The Coptic Christians are an interesting bunch and I'm not sure how they ended up here, but of the 18 million of them, only 14 million live in Egypt, which I suppose leaves enough for a few to rock up in an isolated valley, in an often cold and wet, north-east corner of Yorkshire and pursue a monastic lifestyle in the manner of earlier generations.

Langdale End to Whitby (as far as Sneaton Low Moor, then road to Middlewood Farm camp site at Fylingthorpe)

Just before the village of Langdale End, I took the road north, which led into Langdale Forest.  Sorry, I have no pictures of this but just imagine your typical coniferous forest and you'll be right. I was now on the Langdale End to Whitby stage of the Moor to Sea.  The track through Langdale Forest goes past the hamlet of Langdale End but this is different to the eponymous village back down the hill and I imagine confuses the hell out of the Ocado delivery man. 

When I was a boy, we used to drive out to Langdale End sometimes during holidays up in Scarborough, where my grandparents had a big house on the cliff top in the South Bay.  I never knew why we used to go there - I think my Granny must have known someone.  She seemed to know a lot of people. She came from Bishop Wilton, on the Wolds above the Vale of York, and is buried there and there used to be a lot of her side of the family scattered across the East Riding.  She had quite a presence, always liked to make an impression (think Hyacinth Bucket) and enjoyed entertaining and visiting folk. But I'm going off topic...

There had been a car rally in the forest just prior to my visit and there was a sign saying that the tracks were being repaired.  These repairs looked like they'd been done by the local council highways people and took the form of filling up holes in the dirt track with tarmacadam, which looked completely out of place and would most likely break up after a few weeks.  A few other things about the Moor to Sea that were starting to bug me.  The signage, whilst being quite frequent and at all the important junctions, was very hard to spot.  When the branding for the route was designed, someone had decided it was a good idea to use pastel shades of green and blue, presumably to reflect the colours of the heather moorlands and the North Sea.  These discs were mounted on metre high wooden  posts, often with direction arrows carved into at them and painted white.  After a few years in the sun, thee discs and arrows had faded and become almost invisible from more than a few yards away.  Quite a lot of the posts were hidden by undergrowth.

Faded Moor To Sea signpost

The trail through Langdale Forest passes some places on the map with intriguing names such as Little Grain Noddle and the High and Low Woof Howes.  I've already mentioned Little Grain's elder brother, Jerry, and there is also Noddle End Windy Pit.  But windy pits are a whole other topic for another time.  The whole place has a sense of being very, very old.  That howes are old Norse for burial mounds is well known but I'm not sure about the meaning or origins of noddle and Wikipedia has once again been of little assistance.

 After a long but gradual climb, the track breaks out of the trees onto Fylingdales Moor, in sight of the early warning station.  When I was a boy coming up here, this was of course the site of the three "golf balls" that was supposed to give the country a four minute warning of nuclear missile attack from Russia.  I remember taking a picture of these on my Kodak Brownie and when the prints came back from the chemist, the one of the golf balls was missing, along with the negative.  How conspiracy theory is that?  This would be around 1963. 

RAF Fylingdales as it is now

The golf balls have since been replaced by a kind of pyramid affair, which whilst being no less unobtrusive  doesn't have the same iconic feel.  Up on the hill, looking down on the pyramid, is Lilla Cross, or the cross on Lilla Howe, and is said to the the oldest Christian monument on the Moors.  It marks the grave of Lilla, who saved the life of King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 AD.  I've passed it a few times on the Lyke Wake Walk and remember sitting in a tea tent on the moor here in the early hours of a Sunday morning in 1978 (?), completely buggered and with another 15 or so miles of the 54 mile Crosses Walk still to complete.  I love this place on the moors but it always seems to be cold, even on a sunny day, and I was in no mind to make the short detour to stand by Lilla on this occasion.

From Louven Howe, it's pretty much downhill through the forest on Sneaton High Moor to Old May Beck.  I passed a drilling site on the north side of the forest, which I have a feeling might be associated with exploration for potential fracking sites.  At the car park by Falling Foss, I stopped for a protein and carb and sugar fix and looked at the map.  I had made a reservation on a camp site a couple of miles up the road but when I'd rung up she had apologised that there were no hot showers.  Right now, I really wanted to get clean and warm and decided to take the risk and head for the site at Fylingthorpe, which I'd stayed at a few times before.  I would also get me a few miles further on.  This meant cycling a short distance on the A171 Whitby-Scarborough road, which is always busy.  The light levels were down and it was misty, so I switched on the bike and trailer lights, plus the one on my hat and back of my jacket.  I wanted those cars drivers to see me before they ran me off the road.

The descent into Fylingthorpe has a couple of single arrows on the 1:50,000 and with the trailer behind me, the brakes on the bike had to work hard to keep the speed down to something controllable.  The camp site was busy but they found me a patch of grass and I had the Akto up in no time and was lying inside polishing off the snacks I'd not found time to eat during the day.  The shower hit the spot as did the freeze dried.  I didn't know until the next morning that there was a van on the site selling burgers and chips and the like.  Doh!
 It rained heavily from about 8pm that evening throughout the night but had stopped by the time I got up around 7 the next morning.  I'd left the big yellow bag (or BYB) outside the tent and obviously hadn't closed it up well enough, as it had a small pool of water inside it.  It's so much better than a rucksack for packing gear into.  You can just open it up and lob gear into it.  You don't have to worry about packing it for comfort, althogh it is a good idea to leave the waterproofs and bike spares at the top.

Whitby to Ravenscar (from Fylingthorpe)

I was away before 10.  The Whitby to Ravenscar stage runs just behind the camp site.  It's 700' of  climb over 4 miles up to Ravenscar, so it's a reasonable gradient to tackle with the trailer, as it should be, being part of the old Whitby - Scarborough railway.  The views out across the North Sea reminded me of childhood holidays in Scarborough, where my grandparents had a house looking over the South Bay and the happy times watching the boats and more excitingly, the electrical storms as night with great forks of lightening piercing the blackness of the water.

Looking towards Robin Hoods Bay from near Ravenscar on the Moor to Sea

I stopped for a coffee at the NY Moors Information Centre at the top of the track - worthy of mention only because I spent a few moments searching the coffee machine for a slot to insert my 60p in coins before asking the chap behind the counter.  "You give them to me and I give you a cup."  Now is it just me, or is that weird?  I took my coffee outside to avoid further embarrassment.

Ravenscar to Highwood Brow

The next stage of the route follows the road out of the village, the endless one you trudge down at the end of the Lyke Wake Walk, and dives of onto a green lane, which starts out as a pleasant, firm track before turning through 90 degrees to become a morass of deeps ruts and lakes.

Moor to Sea: Green lane between Moorland House and Smugglers Rock Guest House

Granted, there had been a lot of water falling out of the sky the previous night but this had the appearance of having been around for a while and in places smelled like a stagnant ditch.

Moor to Sea: Green lane out of Ravenscar looking south-east

The morass continued for about half a mile and I managed to submerge most of the BoB and BYB a couple of times.  You can plough through water up to a certain depth beyond which the back force from the bow wave brings one to an abrupt stop - and very wet feet.  I just had to hope that I'd made a good job of closing up the BYB before I set off.

Back at the end of the summer, when I did this ride, the Introduction on the Moor to Sea website said,  "The route has been developed to be suitable for family cycling".  I know this because I quoted it in an email I sent to the NY Moors National Park, which I've just looked back at.  And I've just been back to the website and it no longer says this. This is interesting but like a good Scandinavian detective novel, you'll have to hang in there while this plot unfolds (though I'll tell you now that nobody dies).  Suffice to say at this stage, I was starting to feel a bit of a rant coming one.

Things picked up after this section though and I was soon back on good forest trails going through Harwood Dale where, distracted by some walkers warning me to look out for their dog, which was lost in the heather, I missed one of the hard to spot signposts and went a short distance down the wrong track.  It soon became increasingly difficult to cycle, especially with BoB, and the GPS confirmed the cock up.  Of course it meant a push back up the hill. There was another short road push up onto Surgate Brow - I sort of lost the interest in trying to cycle it - before picking up a pretty, tree lined bridleway, following the northern edge of Broxa forest.  At least, it started out pretty but fairly quickly turned into another section of ruts and lakes, this time decorated with pond weed, so also not likely to be just the result of the previous night's rain.

Moor to Sea: bridleway after Surgate Brow, edge of Broxa Forest

Moor to Sea: the same bridleway in Broxa Forest looking in the other direction

Another half kilometre of pushing, paddling, pedalling and grumbling ensued before reaching and crossing the road onto a better forest track and then rejoining the road down to Langdale End.  That's the first Langdale End not the second.  Still no sight of the Ocado van.

There was a short flattish section of road before the contours bunched up to a topological feature known as Highwood Brow.  Before tackling that, I took the opportunity of stopping on a grassy verge and lying back in the sunshine for a few minutes. 

Moor to Sea: Looking across to Wykeham Forest

The bike and I were looking distinctly muddy by now.  I took a photo of my mud spattered legs for the record but in deference to the sensibilities of you, dear reader, I have refrained from including it here.  I basked in the sunshine and considered the contrast between my appearance and the images on the route card for this stage, which showed clean people on shiny bikes that looked like they had just come straight from a Halfords showroom.  I mused over scenes of families setting out for a pleasant Sunday bike ride and the day dissolving into a tense affair as children got their feet wet and their clothes muddy and dark words were uttered about whose stupid idea it was to come here rather than go to the beach at Scarborough, "...LIKE I'D SUGGESTED."

There seemed to be a discrepancy between the advertising and what was on the ground.   On the one hand the marketing appeared to be saying, "look, anyone can do these rides", whilst the terrain suggested that was far from the case. Worse still, nobody appeared to be riding the stages at all. Across the whole weekend, other than around the Dalby trails, I only saw two other pairs of mountain bikers.  This seemed a real pity because actually it's a great concept, which appeared to be spoilt in a few places by lack of upkeep, as if maybe it was put together with some initial capital funding but with no provision for long term sustainability.  It shouldn't be that hard to maintain the bridleways and it would cost very little to get someone to cycle the stages periodically to check the signage, replacing the faded disks and repainting in the arrows on the marker posts.  I was starting to feel a bit of rant coming on.

My reverie over, I got back to the job in hand and pedalled off into the forest.  The track was a car's width and lined by hedges and low hanging trees, which at some point snatched the yellow pennant from the BoB.  I guess I managed half of it before the gradient induced thigh burn became too much and I started pushing.  That was only slightly easier and I was pausing every few steps and holding the bike and trailers on the brakes whilst grabbing a few lungfuls of air.  Eventually, I saw some cars stopped up ahead and topped out.  It was then that I noticed an absence of flag.  "Bother", was what I said (of course).

I stowed the bike and BoB behinds some bushes, padlocked the rear wheel and set off on foot back down the track.  I retraced half the distance without finding it and concerned that I didn't lose the hole bike decided to give up.  Just as I got back tot he top, a group of cyclists were setting off down and I asked them to keep an eye out for it and leave it by the road.  And that was where I found it when I drove back there a few hours later, planted by the M2C marker post, .  In the unlikely event those who found it are reading this: thanks, I owe you one.

There were quite a lot of mountain bikers around Highwood Brow.  I assume they had come up from Dalby, maybe looking for a longer ride.  There was another flooded section, which was at least firm and without ruts.  A woman I'd passed said that it had been like a river there, late the previous night. 

Then as I dropped out of Wykeham forest to a car park marked on the map, whilst there was clear signage for the Tabular Hills Walk,  I could see nothing for the Moor to Sea.  I asked the NY Moors ranger, who was parked there, where the track went off from for the Moor to Sea.  He seemed a bit puzzled at first before getting out his 1:25000 and tried to convince me that I'd actually missed a turn a couple of miles back up the way I'd come.  I didn't think I had but anyway.  He then proceeded to describe an alternative that would get me back on route, starting from a gate hidden in some trees across the road, which in fact was the  Moor to Sea route.  The marker post was actually a few hundred yards beyond the gate, in a place that didn't really need one.  This was another frustrating, boggy section which, he warned me, had been chewed up by trails bikers. 

After Saturday, where the tracks had all been good, I'd encountered 3 lengthy unridable sections.  I was starting to get really annoyed with this.  Today's stages weren't suitable for family riding, the signage was frequently poor or missing where it was most needed and even the Park's rangers didn't seem to know the route.

I finally hit the top end of the Dalby trails and retraced the previous day's route but somehow managed to take a wrong turn and ended up cycling back uphill for about 10 minutes before twigging that something wasn't right.  It did give an enjoyable downhill ride but one I didn't really need.  I fought my way past the crowds at Go-Ape and the smoke filled air from barbecues and pulled in at the biker's cafe.  I ordered a large mug of tea and a posh sounding cheese and ham toasty and sat in the sun.  The toasty took ages to arrive and when it did I stared at it for a while longer, almost too tired to eat.  When I did eventually bite into it, I realised this was exactly what I needed and it was gone in a flash.  I found some chocolate and a chewy bar in the bottom of my day sack and furtively ate those at the table whilst pretending to finish off what was by then an empty mug of tea.

I'd convinced myself that the last 3 miles were all downhill as topographically that made sense.  The reality was that it was flat with some bits of uphill before a final steep descent into the village.  The Cateye was showing a bit over 30 miles for the day and my legs had had enough.  Relieved to find the car where I had left it, I just had to grapple with the mud to dismantle everything and pack it into the back of the car.

Bike and trailer at end of Moor to Sea ride

The stats

Saturday: Pickering to Langdale End (starting from Thornton-le-Dale) + Langdale End to Whitby (as far as Sneaton Low Moor, then road to Middlewood Farm camp site at Fylingthorpe.)  26 miles and 2600' ascent

Sunday: Whitby to Ravenscar (starting from camp site) + Ravenscar to Highwood Brow + Highwood Brow to Pickering (as far as Thornton-le-Dale.  30 miles and 3000' ascent

Sunday was the harder day by far.  Not only was it longer but the boggy sections made the riding tougher going.


A few days after getting home that I sent an email to the N Y Moors National Park, with a series of the comments and suggestions about the Moor to Sea.  I didn't hear anything for about a month and then I got an email promising that a more complete response was to follow, which it did a week later.  And it was a very detailed, considered and positive response, the main points of which are shown below:

1. The section from Moorland House to Smugglers Rock is an unclassified road and although North Yorkshire highways have declined to carry out any repairs, we do have an offer from them of road-planings and so we plan to lay these into the wet holes next year, perhaps not over the whole width, but certainly wide enough to be cycle-able.

2. The bridleway around the scarp edge from Surgate Brow has had a vehicle barrier erected to prevent further damage by 4WDs and we plan to re-profile this to raise the centre, create effective drainage and fill the worst of the holes this autumn.

3. We are aware of the fading discs and are replacing them as necessary. The design was chosen for its muted colours to reflect the landscape including purple heather.

4. The moor to sea route does have its waymarking checked and faults remedied as soon as possible, but the Tabular Hills Walk waymarking has just had a decadal review so as you noticed is in prime condition. We will remind our Voluntary Rangers about the Moor to Sea route.

5. You have raised a very valid point about the unavailability of overnight parking in our car parks for Moor to Sea riders. Checking our Byelaws we can give permission for overnight parking, so having discussed it with our Car Park Manager we have agreed to make information available on the Moor to Sea website so that people can ask for overnight stays.

6. We set up the Moor to Sea cycle-route with partners Scarborough Borough Council, Ryedale District Council, Forestry Commission and North Yorkshire County Council to promote cycling and cycle-routes through our iconic landscapes and purposely developed the pack so that riders can choose how little of how much of the route to tackle. We like to think that some sections offer an easy taster, but then people can chose which ones to add on to make a more challenging ride. We would very much like more people to do as you have done and make overnight trips and I hope this can feature in our future marketing. 

We have just created a new post of Promotion and Tourism Officer and have a new member of staff who is herself a keen cyclist so I am sure we will be making more of the Moor to Sea Cycle-route in future.

I found this to be really encouraging, that came away with a feeling that there were people who wanted to develop and maintain the routes.

If you are the kind of mountain biker who is only into trail centres, it will probably seem a bit tame; there's very little by way of technical challenges.  However, if you want a multi-day ride on mixed on and off road terrain, the Moor to Sea Cycle Network has a lot to offer.  We're starting to plan a 3 day trip up there in the spring, as training for the Scottish ride in May and will definitely be taking in a few more stages.


Anonymous said...

I've found your report regarding the Moor to Sea Cycle Network, most interesting to read. I was looking for something to do for 2013, just to fill a week in.

Tony Bennett said...

I'm sure you'll have a great time Martin. I forgot to say that there is a pack of guide sheets, which include a map and a bit of background info for each of the 11 stages available from the NYMNP online-shop at a cost of £3.50.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tony for that info. I do have the pack of the route cards, that I got last year. At that, I have a route sorted for this year.

Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I found the cycle route on a sheet at Dalby so thoughtmy family could do it. We are regular cyclists and do about 20 mile per ride (mix of tracks and road). I was a bit worried about your blog but you appear to have done big chunks. I intend to limit it to 20 mile stints. Is it more do-able? We intend to do Pickering to Scarborough then up to Whitby and then down to langdale end but was struggling to find somewhere to camp at langdale so may have to continue to dalby. I too worried about the overnight parking etc so you have answered a few queries. Wish us luck!

Tony Bennett said...

I've been over a few of the bad sections again last year, since the original post but nothing appears to have changed since 2012 despite the encouraging feedback I received from NYMNP. I guess it's hardly surprising about trail maintenance being a low priority with cutbacks everywhere. The car park at Thornton-le-Dale still didn't allow overnight parking when we last checked Feb 2013 and neither did the one at Rosedale Abbey in May 2013. Overall, it's probably only 5% of the total M2C network where the trails are poor. If you accept doing a bit of hike a bike and possibly wet feet, it's a good ride. There are some detours you can do on back lanes to avoid the boggy bits. 20 miles a days should easily be possible - we've done a few 30mile days with the trailers starting mid-morning and setting up camp late afternoon. I don't know of any camping around Langdale End and in case you haven't heard, the campsite at Cropton Forest no longer takes tents or touring caravans or motorhomes because they've decided that cabins are more profitable! So that leave a big hole on the map with no camping. The Dalby campsite is excellent - if you don't mind the rooster.

Have a great trip. We're planning a weekend tour round the NE corner of the Moors next. It's not M2C but there looks to be a lot of good off-road stuff to link up.