I test-rode the Moor to Sea cycle route in the North York Moors just before it opened in 2004. I returned in June 2011 to try part of an extension to the route.
It’s hard to know who deserves more credit: the engineers builders who built the original railway line or the national park wardens who have maintained it as a path. Either way, the route of the old Rosedale Railway that once carried iron ore is brilliant to cycle along. Sustrans would be proud of a cycle route as smooth and flat as this even if they’d built it from scratch.
On my Ordnance Survey map published in 1999 the ‘dismantled railway’ is indicated as a footpath. It’s since been upgraded to a bridleway and now, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the railway’s opening, this cycling secret is completely out in the open as the North York Moors national park authority is promoting the route as an extension to its official Moor to Sea cycle route.
The full extension runs from Easby to the visitors centre in the mountain biking mecca of Dalby Forest and takes in 34-miles of serious undulation, all of it along existing public rights of way. I fancied a shorter circular route that gave me a flavour of the old railway along High Blakey Moor and the contrast of a return along the bottom of the Farndale valley. As I was to find out, my route was not without its challenges.
Everything began easily enough. I dropped down just a few metres from the car park and began pedalling on the broad cinder track that follows the route of the railway, through cuttings and on the top of an embankment. My gaze was almost always to the left, the sun spotlighting different details of the valley as it blinked in and out of the shifting clouds. Spectacular views stretched into and across Farndale as far as the 314m-high Bilsdale TV transmitter (which serves North Yorkshire and Co Durham) sticking out of the heather like a needle.
Bloworth Crossing marks the site of the level crossing for the railway at its junction with a former moorland road. The original routes have long gone, of course, but there was still some traffic in the form of resting cyclists. After that came Bransdale Moor – a site of Special Scientific Interest and home to grouse, merlin, curlew and adders – and then, at the top of Ingleby Incline the route suddenly came to a halt. Well, at least, it did for me. This was the point on the old railway where wagons were lowered and raised up the slope on a cable as it was so steep, 1 in 5 in places. The weight of the ore-laden wagons at the top was sufficient to pull up empty wagons from below. Sleepers buried deep within and stacked beside the track give a clue as to the site’s past. All that remains of the drum house which straddled the track at the top are piles of masonry and bricks bearing the manufacturer’s name, Hartley & Co of Castleford, with iron rods sticking out of them. The ruins are as forlorn as the carcass of a beached whale.
Rail workers and their families once lived here in four cottages nicknamed Little Siberia. The weather was anything but Siberian on the day of my visit, though, further enhancing the panorama. Moving from the moor tops to the edge of the Cleveland escarpment was like walking into a different room. A vast plain, as flat as a pancake, extended in front of me stretching north to the cooling towers of Middlesbrough and beyond. The bank’s left flank was cloaked in conifers and, on the far right of the picture, I could make out the distinctive dog-tooth, volcanic profile of Roseberry Topping.
I returned to Bloworth Crossing and then began my descent into Farndale. The signed bridleway leads directly across knee-high heather which made navigation somewhat challenging. Fortunately, though, I only had half-a-mile or so off-piste, the conditions were dry and it was downhill, precipitously in places.
I soon got my bearings courtesy of gully leading to a bridge which, I knew, must ultimately lead back to settlement and then spotted some reassuring mountain bike tracks. Still, it was a relief to reach a farm at the head of the valley and, moreover, the Tarmac road. The place has a wonderfully remote, end of the line-type feel. What a fabulous place to grow up – although it would be a long trip to school every day. As I looked over a field of overgrown grasses, willow herb, chickens and spring lambs all I could hear was gentle bleeting and the wind in the trees.
Further evidence of civilisation came in the form of High Farndale Methodist chapel. Remarkably and unlike most other remote churches, the chapel hasn’t been converted into a home. Notices announces occasional services – for the fishermen of Staithes and the annual shepherd’s festival plus, top of the bill, the chapel’s bicentary weekend. It seems odd that such a lonely church should exist so close to the village of Church Houses which, despite its name, doesn’t have a place of worship.
The village does, however, have a classy-looking pub with beer garden in the form of the Feversham Arms. I resisted the temptation, preferring to defer my reward to the top of the Alpine ascent out of the valley which lay ahead. If you can pedal all the way up – an ascent of 200 metres and a 1-in-5 gradient – then you are extraordinarily fit. I pushed and still needed a rest at a strategically placed bench half way up. I threw my head back, closed my eyes and let the breeze that had accompanied me all day cool my brow better than any air conditioning.
The grit boxes at regular intervals were a reminder of the hard winters that the North York Moors can experience. Last December the 16th century Lion Inn, perched on the summit ridge, was buried in a seven-metre snowdrift resulting in an eight-day lock-in for four staff, one dog and one unlucky (or perhaps lucky, depending how you loook at it) visiting couple.
My journey wasn’t quite over. I had some time left so explored two extra miles of the Moor to Sea extension which took me along the road to the Fat Betty cross and the Young Ralph Cross, the symbol of the North York Moors. Beside and on top of each were little heaps of offerings in the form of sweets, fruit or biscuits saved from hotel or B&B bedrooms. Some sort of wayfarers’ superstition, I guess.
As I finally pedalled back to the car I peered into the next valley – around which the Rosedale railway also snakes. I could make out the stone kilns on the far side looking like pigeon-holes and the remains of mine workings. More to see? Certainly – and possibly to cycle too (see panel) but not today. I was tired and the lure of a lager at the Lion was proving too much.
A brief history of the Rosedale Railway
The Rosedale Railways was opened in 1861 to transport ore from ironstone mines in Rosedale to the North Eastern Railway at Battersby Junction and on to Co Durham and Teesside for processing. Eventually 19 miles long, it was the second highest railway route in England. The rush to exploit the natural resources has been likened to Yorkshire’s Klondike with the population of the area increasing five-fold in the first 15 years after ironstone mining began. The railway closed and the line was taken up in 1929 due to rising costs and the falling value of iron. For more information download the excellent heritage trail leaflet from www.bit.ly/n3IKHQ and for a feature from the Yorkshire Post about the ongoing preservation of the railway see http://www.bit.ly/nQoFLF.
Riding the rest of the railway
As you’ll see if you visit, the Rosedale Railway also extends along both sides of the Rosedale valley which runs parallel to Farndale although no public right of way is marked. Karl Gerhardsen, head of recreation and access of the North York Moors national park authority explains:
“It is possible to cycle along these sections of the railway and we have a concessionary access agreement with the landowners. But it’s very challenging in parts due to subsidence and excessive water coming down onto the old track-bed leaving in one stretch an area of 1m-deep bog over the former line. Last November we did manage to get a contractor’s machine in to restore some of the moorland drains above the line so the ground is already drying out. We anticipate a few years yet before we can go back in to clear the old line but funding constraints may prevent us from making much more progress.”
Distance: 14 miles for the loop plus four miles there and back to the crosses.
Parking: Small free car park just south of the Lion Inn, Blakey, on the Hutton-le-Hole to Castleton road at the junction with a minor road to Church Houses.
Directions: Cross the road, descend a few yards towards Church Houses then turn right to pick up the old railway route. Continue ahead and through a gate at Bloworth Crossing. At the top of Ingleby Incline don’t descend but pass through a green metal gate. Follow a grassy track as it bears right and right again. At a more substantial stoned track turn right and return to Bloworth Crossing. Here continue ahead and cross a stream. Look out for a blue waymarker on the left after about 100 yards. Push and lift your bike across the heather (there is no discernable path) in the direction of the arrow passing between grouse buts. After half a mile just as the gradient increases head towards a gate within a wall which is a few yards from a gully. Keep the stream on your left as you cross a grassy area. Pass to the left of a pair of old stone gateposts and follow a yellow waymarker as the bridleway bears left to cross the stream via a large wooden bridge. Continue in a 1 o’clock direction towards a yellow waymarker about 80 yards away. Pass between two gateposts and, later, a wooden gate. Just before a large barn bear right and descend to the stream as waymarked. Bear right around a field corner, proceed through the trees and cross an old stone bridge. Bear right and up then turn sharp right through a gate along a grassy track (‘Daleside Road’) which is walled on the right. At Elm House Farm the track becomes a Tarmac road which takes you to Church Houses. In the village turn left then immediately left again (and sharply up) to return to the car. To visit the two crosses turn left at the t-junction and follow the road for two miles. Take care: cars travel fast. Fat Betty is marked as ‘White Cross’ on the map and is a right turn off the road just before Young Ralph Cross.
Note: The route is challenging, requires a mountain bike and is not suitable for children.
The Feversham Arms Inn, Church Houses. 01751 433206.
The Lion Inn, Blakey. 01751 417320.
The Daffy Café, High Mill, Church Houses. 01751 430363. Open 9am-5pm Fri-Sun in Feb and May-Sept plus bank holiday Mondays in March and April.