Sunday, 5 July 2015

Exploring Sutton Bank From Thirsk

When heading out for a long walk through the countryside, I find that it is always better - if you can - to be able to avoid retracing your steps, and so I - as far as possible - try to plan my routes to run from one point to another separate point; taking in the changes in the general scenery as the landscape evolves across the course of the day. 

As a philosophy, this can be particularly worthwhile when heading from an area with one particular geology to another with an entirely completely different character and feel, but sticking only to good point-to-point routes is an approach that sometimes leaves you unable to reach some of the more spectacular sites.

Sutton Bank is such a case in point, being one of the sites in the North York Moors most worthy of a visit, whilst remaining one of the trickier places to explore using only the combination of feet and public transport (part of the routes of all these trips I'm afraid in order to keep it interesting). Instead the only viable means of attack is from Thirsk train station, from which with the aid of a car or taxi, it would be a simple 7 mile drive up to Sutton Bank on the main road.

With this being the best approach on offer, it is hard to argue that anything other than a car is the most logical way to explore Sutton Bank - benefiting from both added speed and from the lack of climb. However, whilst the use of petrol-power can guarantee an easy passage to a comfortable visitor centre, it lacks the same satisfaction, and indeed the enjoyment, that comes from exploring this site on foot.

What began originally as something of a necessity - using public transport, i.e. taking a train out and then travelling on foot up into the hills and then back to the same or a different train station - has become something of a principle upon which I plan to base all future exploration of the area.

By starting in the base of a valley and away from the primary point of interest - a train line’s native habitat - and then walking up to the point of interest (generally a point on much higher ground), the gradual looming of the destination occurs in a manner that is far more dramatic than when carried out at thirty, forty or maybe even fifty miles per hour (often before a quick walk and a quick rush home).

Instead, by travelling at the relative pace of a snail, the true majesty and the true contrast within the countryside below becomes able to be fully appreciated, whilst the whole spectacle gains an additional dimension as the full range of possible aspects are taken in. This sits directly in contrast to the rather singular aspects created by the tourist boards and their carefully laid out paths that are designed to offer the maximum bang for your step-by-step buck.

While these tourist boards do their best to bring as much of the spectacle and make as much of it as accessible from as small a distance of path as possible (with much success), the whole result ends up with something of an artificial feel when compared against a longer winding route that must take into account the true state of the area. Indeed it also removes the whole planning aspect of finding the best line of attack - often through tough and rugged terrain - and of taking in sites that otherwise might be deemed of insufficient importance along the way.

Instead, t
he placement of train lines means that stations generally release you at the base of the hills, while any points of interest within a National Park such as the North York Moors will generally be located at the very top of the hills that can only be partially reached via roads that attack rather than endure the most challenging geology in the area.

As a case in point, Sutton Bank is a classic example, with the road involving an aggressive climb up the side of a very steep incline, to miraculously spit a visitor out at a visitor centre, from which they can walk out with relative ease along the flat paths that follow the edge of the ridge in both directions.

While this aggressive drive up is obviously steep, it fails to fully translate across to any visitor just how spectacular the change in geology is from one area to another just a few metres away, and yet a few hundred feet below, in another direction.

So on this day, and for this visit to Sutton Bank I find myself starting away on the far side of Thirsk at the point most suited for the placement of the East Coast mainline from Eastern Scotland down to London in the south of England.

From here it is a winding route up to Sutton Bank, avoiding the main roads as much as possible on the way up and sticking to as many footpaths as I can find, until I reach the spectacular Lake Gormire. Then from here there is a path going directly up onto Sutton Bank, which can be explored, before heading back along the ridge and then returning to Thirsk via Boltby and Felixkirk.

On the main road, the route up and back would be a simple 14 mile drive that I'm sure wouldn't take much more than 20-30 minutes in total, but on foot this will be a full day’s walking taking in just under 1,000ft of ascent across the full day, with the views ever step of the way more than compensating for the lack of speed.

Heading Out

I am lucky enough on this trip to be able to enjoy a relatively late start to the day and so head out to my local train station (Eaglescliffe) to catch the 10am Grand Central train that if I permitted it, would take me all the way down from the North East of England to Kings Cross Station in London, just under three hours later.

However, I have no intention of going so far today and so armed with a Young Person’s Railcard, I'm pleased to find out that the 70 mile round trip on the train costs me only £5.10 (a bargain when all things are considered); although I found myself slightly out of place on a train full of day trippers heading down to York who are all considerably better dressed than myself.

Despite my lack of suitable attire, the next thirty minutes passes without my being ejected from the train as a hoodlum or a scandalously dressed vagabond accused of travelling from bunk house to bunk house, and so I am able to leave the train unmolested as I step off the train on the wrong side of Thirsk and begin my initial walk into Thirsk town centre. From here I pass over the A19 and through to the start of a footpath that will allow me to begin in earnest.

The actual town of Thirsk remains an interesting point along the East Coast mainline, in that the town, despite being relatively well known is relatively small, with a population less than a third of the size of nearby, and less well known, Northallerton.

Much of this seems to stem from the town's association with James Herriot (or at least the real James Herriot - aka James Wight), the famous vet and author who had a practice within the town and who then retired to the town of Thirlby, which I will be passing close by later on this walk.

More to the point for me, this is the town of the James Herriot I read about as a kid and who inspired my interest in the Yorkshire countryside and who nearly inspired me to become a vet, until I properly thought it through as a choice between cleaning rabbits teeth and sticking my hand up cow's backsides.

As an actual town, the centre is undoubtedly a little aged, but retaining the typical North Yorkshire style of having a wide market (formerly to cater for animals on market day and now used to cater for the volume of cars parked in the town centre) in a style that maintains my view of North Yorkshire market towns as pleasant (if slightly limited) town centres.

Not being a shopper my primary interest is in aesthetics and so to me these places are nice enough to visit and admirably fulfil their role of being pretty and close to countryside, although before long, I have passed through into the newer and much less attractive outskirts of the town that increasingly blight northern towns.

Fortunately I do not have to endure these suburbs for too long, although I pause slightly outside one or two very nicely set out gardens, and instead find myself left to enjoy the still limited merits of the main road out of town which I am now very keen to get off and into the true countryside.

Before I can do this though I must first cross a bridge over the A19, but with this done, my turn off to the right quickly arrives and so while the cars hurry on towards Sutton Bank I am able to pull off down a very quiet track and start to enjoy the seclusion of the local countryside.

Into the Countryside

For the first time since arriving in Thirsk, I now find myself in the sort of scenery that I left my house to see and while there is nothing particularly spectacular going on here, the scene is now definitely rural; with this track leading up to a small cluster of homes and farm houses.

Quiet Track Heading Out From Thirsk
Heading on past small groups of houses, the route eventually carries me beyond civilisation and between open fields, which I continue to walk past for some time along a rutted path that is has been forced to endure the repeated passage of farm vehicles that have made their mark during recent rains - with these marks having crystallised in the warmer weather that has followed.

In time the fields move from holding crops to housing animals and then as a road comes into sight I pass a caravan site on my left which despite being well hidden behind a tall hedge still acts as a small blight on my otherwise very pleasant passage.

With this unwelcome sight now behind me, I turn right at the join with the road and start to walk along this quiet road for a short while, following it until it can take me along, round and to the pretty little village of Balk, which once again acts as host to yet another small caravan park (I'm not angry, just disappointed).

At Balk I can now join up with the Balk Beck, which I follow back in the direction of the main road, which by now lies a fair distance to my left, and head through a mass of nettles alongside the stream (or Beck as I suppose I should call it).

These nettles leaves me with one of those situations where you have little choice but to be stung (chose to wear shorts... oops), but while I don’t believe that it is possible to build up resistance to stinging nettles, I have realised that if I do get slightly stung on my way through, I just need to accept it and by not focusing on it or worrying about it, the pain will actually quickly disappears from my notice.

And so it proves, and so it is that with me as the hero of this tale leaving this dreadful peril left in my wake, I continue along the edge of some farmland following the Beck, with the now numerous holiday homes sat just the other side - presumably to take in the stream passing by and to glimpse the views of Sutton Bank in the distance - or just to wind me up as I walk past.

Pulling away from these holiday homes and heading directly towards the main road and Sutton Bank, I pass through a cluster of cows and very quickly my passage becomes a moment of intense interest for two calves which seem to consider me both fascinating and confusing; although they seem quite unsure as to whether I am friend or foe until I head on and leave them behind.

Cows Take An Interest In My Passage Through Their Field
Up till this point the scarcity of suitable footpaths has forced me somewhat off course like a shipwrecked mariner, but I now can make up for my lack of an internal combustion engine, with a relatively short but pleasant trip back along the road I had left behind and into the village of Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe; a pretty little village perched just below Sutton Bank.

Once back on the road, I fortunately do not have to follow it for long and although the stretch that I do end up following through Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe is nevertheless pretty with some lovely gardens on show, it is nice to be quickly back off the road heading down a long farm drive.

After a steady climb up this drive that is edged by trees, looking out over fields with sheep on the left and horses on the right, the drive pulls sharply to the left, while the path continues on up into the trees above.

Here I pull off the road and up the path and upon reaching the tree line and out of the sun, I take the opportunity for a spot of rest and recuperation, but I'm soon back on my feet and climbing back onto a bank that I briefly walk along before dropping down into a sheep field. Once again I gain height with a second climb up to a pretty little pond, before again dropping down ahead of a final ascent up to Lake Gormire.

Lake Gormire

Despite my knowledge of this route, the ascent here always proves much more gentle than expected (a much steeper climb is yet to come) and it isn't long before I'm looking out over the remarkable Lake Gormire. Usually this is an incredibly quiet spot, with access to the lake limited to locals and people either travelling long distances on foot or to foolish visitors to Sutton Bank that have decided to drop down from the top in the knowledge that they will pay for it on the way back up.

However, today there is even greater evidence of foolishness about, with a group of foolhardy swimmers inhabiting the lake. Despite the warm weather of the day, the lake still looks rather murky and cold; although the swimmers are still making the most of it and are merrily out in the middle of the lake, seemingly enjoying the punishment they are inflicting upon themselves.

Arriving At Lake Gormire
There are many myths and legends surrounding this lake, mostly focused on its unusual shape and formation, with the lake once thought to be both bottomless and a gateway to hell by locals with clearly over stimulated imaginations (or suffering from a diet high in sugar and stimulants). However and fortunately for the swimmers out there today, the lake has since been proven to both have a bottom and to have a certain absence of demons and other hellish creatures, which I'm sure acts as a relief to everyone both here today and living in the local area.

More to our relief, science has actually proven that the lake wasn't even created by the devil riding over the cliff on a horse after all (who would have thought it), but instead was formed by far more tedious means back in the days when ice sheets were advancing over Teesside down the Eskdale towards Whitby 25,000 years ago (definitely more boring I admit).

11,500 years ago, this ice melted causing erosions and landslides and during these landslips, Lake Gormire is thought to have been formed by a receding ice sheet which cut out a deep hollow that was subsequently blocked by landslips, trapping water within the lake that stands today.

Since then, the lake has been able to be replenished by water draining naturally off the hillside, which (again positively for the swimmers) means that the water is naturally filtered through the rocks and as a result is very clear and clean despite its murky appearance.

The result of all this activity is a very deep and spectacular lake in a spot where it otherwise wouldn't be expected; backed by spectacular cliffs, up to which I am about to climb. With such a location, the lake remains very quiet with most of the potential visitors deterred by the difficulties in reaching or returning from this spot.

By the side of this lake I take the opportunity to stop for a spot of lunch and unburden my already nearly empty pack and eat away at the limited supply of food sourced on the way through Thirsk (mostly biscuits and chocolate I'm afraid), before taking a few swigs of the rather tasty Mango and Papaya juice I also managed to pick up (fancy eh?).

Having already consumed a litre of Lucazade on the way up, the levels of the sugar within my system are at this point reaching bursting point and so in order to hold back my building nervous ticks I'm soon back on my feet and leisurely strolling round the lake ready to begin the daddy of all climbs up the hill.

This climb can only really be described as 'a pretty brutal ascent', almost straight up the cliff and only allowing enough winding to make it possible for a walker to leave their climbing ropes and crampons at home.

However, the views on the way up are very rewarding as the path hugs the edge of the ridge, and where the path levels out the path through the trees proves very pretty, even when the path does not offer views out over the surrounding countryside.

Climbing Up To Sutton Bank
View Out Near the Top of the Climb
Many steep and tiring steps later, the path reaches a point where it narrows, between a steep slope up on one side and a large drop on the other side, which is the marker for a final ascent up, to be spat out at the top and then collapse on a handily placed bench. Here I am able to rest and recover a bit from what has amounted to the lion’s share of today’s climbing activity.

Sutton Bank

Having been enjoying the peace and quiet of the lake below, a contrast becomes immediately obvious up here as a group of rapidly moving cyclists pass behind me and as a family group heads out for the day in front of me.

I now find myself in tourist country and although I plan to come back and take what would be the left-turn I will first turn right and wander along to the viewing platform on offer. This allows me to take in the best of the tourist activity on offer, but I won’t be going so far as to head round to the visitor centre, wanting to avoid all the Muggles out in force for a quick waddle and coffee combo.

The walk out along Sutton Bank from the far side of the visitor centre is undoubtedly both pretty and impressive, whilst also allowing for a close up view of the gliders that are parked up here, but I find the mass of cars and tourists a little belittling to the grand adventure I am out on today and so I instead head back from the viewing platform to the bench I so recently vacated.

From here I continue on and head away from the more popular spots frequented by visitors to Sutton Bank and instead head out along a ridge that if traversed in its entirety, is far more dramatic and spectacular as it winds its way along the top of the cliffs.

Ever since popping up at the bench, I have been walking along the Cleveland Way; a 110 mile (177km) route that I have now walked most of, and that I frequently end up on while walking out and about on the North York Moors; with the path being always very clear and easy to follow.

Today I shall be following it round to Sneck Yate Bank, but the first phase of this route takes in the view out over the plains below and allows for some fantastic views back down upon Lake Gormire from the cliffs above.

View Down to Lake Gormire
View Out Across Ridge
With the sharp drop down from the cliffs close on my left and with the sheer height of the ridge offering great views out across the countryside below, this stretch takes in the best scenery across the whole of today’s walk, with the panoramic nature of the views adding to the spectacle.

Along the Cleveland Way

Leaving the cliffs behind, I continue to follow the ridge now passing just above the village of Thirlby where the author behind James Herriot lived from his late 30s; with the countryside in this area providing a part of the backdrop for his books.

I had been a massive fan of these books as a kid and at one point was very keen on becoming a vet until I though more about what it actually involved (mostly involving hands, cows bottoms and upward motions), so this is a nice moment as Thirlby passes by and a nice box to tick on my list of things to do.

Heading on, the path now takes me away from the stark cliffs surrounding Sutton Bank and instead into a more wooded country with steep, but sloping edges rather than the sharp drops of a few miles back.

Looking Back From the More Wooded and Sloping Country I Now Find Myself In
As I press on, the steep slopes gently start to level out and I continue on past the view on my left and the fields on my right as I turn towards Sneck Yate Bank where I decide to take a rest by some old farm buildings.

The Old Farm Buildings

Here I find myself in an idyllic spot, and I start to imagine what I might do if I owned these farm buildings and converted them into a house where I could set myself up with a squadron of goats and chickens with which to sit and, as one, take in the magnificence of the views on offer.

Sat Contemplating the Old Farm Buildings
As they stand today though, the old Farm Buildings will not serve as a suitable home for me tonight, so with the weather having been gradually worsening as they day has progressed - despite it being late July I might add - it is probably best to take in the last of the views on offer and then head on back to Thirsk.

View From Sneck Yate Bank
On another day, I might continue round on the Cleveland Way and then head on along an old drover’s road towards Osmotherley, but instead my route takes me onto the road and off the Cleveland Way, with the road now descending at an alarming rate.

I have heard of cyclists climbing up here, and I have walked up here myself, but both them and I are in all honesty really rather foolish as in a matter of minutes, I've lost much of the height that I gained through all my struggles earlier in the day.

From here on, my walk sticks exclusively to roads, but one thing I have learned about North Yorkshire is that many of the quieter roads are no more busy than many of the most active footpaths and yet still remain able to offer some very interesting walking, albeit on a much wider and better maintained route.

Indeed one of the biggest mistakes I made upon moving up was to be too focused upon finding footpaths and being too dismissive of the potential offered by roads in giving me passage through hard to access areas.


Coming up very quickly after a few winds first to the left, then to the right and then back to the left is the village of Boltby, which is one of the prettiest villages in this area. As I pass through I stop to admire the gardens and pause just on the other side of the village to watch the horses roll around in the fields below, with Sutton Bank providing a backdrop to the whole magnificent scene.

Upon leaving the village, a left turn would take me directly to James Herriot's old village of Thirlby, but instead I head on down a rural lane that cuts through the valley and on past a rather large stately home on the right.

Heading on, the path starts to drop down, heading towards Felixkirk, and the weather finally turns as the drizzle begins to fall down upon my head.

Following a succession of tight bends, I eventually find myself spat out of the hedges that have surrounded me since Boltby and start to look out over plains towards Thirsk.

By this point the brief rains have subsided and as I admire the view, a gate house for what looks to have once been a great manor house comes into view, with some lovely gardens out front.

The Manor Gatehouse
With the aid of a bit of researching, this has proven to be the entrance to the Mount St John estate, which was built on the site of an 11th century priory, that was demolished in 1720 when the manor house was built.

The house behind this gatehouse is set in about 141 acres of parkland, with formal and walled gardens that while private are supposed to be very impressive, with the vast vegetable gardens supplying the Provenance Inn chain (I just have to take their word for all this). 

Thinking that I had a good candidate here for my new home, I did more digging on my phone as I passed by and found that the house last appeared to be on sale for a price in excess of £3m, which sadly lay a tad out of my price range (by a sum in the region of £3m, or pretty much exactly £3m).

Slightly disappointed (thought not quite unexpectedly, if I'm honest with you) and knowing that I would not for the foreseeable future be delayed here by any purchase negotiations, I began to head down the hill and into Felixkirk.

Dropping Down Into Felixkirk

For all the right reasons, Felixkirk marks something of a low point on this walk, with this pretty little village being the last point of interest before the long trudge back to Thirsk train station.

Still, it is good to go out with a bang and the church at Felixkirk, which dates back to the 11th century, (but which was substantially rebuilt in 1860) is undoubtedly very pretty.

The Church at Felixkirk
Ahead is now a comparatively mundane trek back to civilisation where I will once again cross the A19 and head back into Thirsk, but for now at least, the sun is out and the rainwater currently lying on the road is steaming under the heat of the sun, so I've got the shades back on under the glare of the summer rays (it's every season today!).

The Road to Thirsk
Last Look Back To Sutton Bank
Now it is just a case of plodding on through the remaining miles, noting a thunderstorm that is growing in the distance on this quite ridiculous summer day.

I'd only recently had a front row seat of a thunderstorm, while being stood just below one of the very highest points on the North York Moors, watching the lightning strike the distant hills and so thunderstorms are on my mind, so whilst I'm fine at this height I am still keen to avoid the heavy rains that will come with the storm.

Back in Thirsk

With this in mind I maintain a good pace into Thirst, where all the shops are closed with it being a Sunday; which is a bit of a disappointment as I can’t top up on food to reward myself for the day’s efforts. Instead I head across town and shortly before reaching the station, the storm I’d been watching finally arrives and unleashes a torrent of rain down upon my head that almost drowns me in its slightly-exaggerated intensity.

Having reached the station, my good karma earned by helping some tourists just before entering Thirsk, hasn't paid off and the cosy indoor waiting areas are locked and closed, leaving me out in the pouring rain.

With the nearby pub also closed, I accept my fate and settle down in the large porch of the ticket office, which is at least large enough to keep me dry. As I wait here, I'm soon joined by a similarly drenched three-legged cat who proceeds to meow an awful lot and who provides good company while I wait for my train to arrive and take me home (and who I do my best to dry with a quick cuddle before being treated to a meowing symphony).

An hour later the train has arrived and while I'm stood up on the way home, I'm at least able to lean back onto the heater and can once again find myself warm, if a little uncomfortable after a long day.

Before long though the train pulls into my local station and I head home a conquering hero, having survived all that the elements have been able to throw at me today and ready for another walk next weekend.