Sammy and I lived in Wiltshire for a while, and at one point we were located very near to the white horse at Westbury. There are sixteen of these enormous horses carved into hillsides around the country, mainly in the south of England (including eight in Wiltshire alone), so they are a sight that we were used to spotting when we were out and about. On our recent trip to Rievaulx we noticed the OS map indicated a nearby white horse hill figure and decided that we should plan a route that would take us there, and also the nearby Byland Abbey ruins (which would give us a great reason to flex our shiny new English Heritage membership cards for the first time).
Our starting point was the carpark beneath the hill figure, which has a flight of steep stone steps leading up to the hilltop. The views here are a contrast between the outstanding panorama of the North Yorkshire countryside – which in this direction at least is extraordinarily flat, meaning the views extend for miles over the fields towards York to the south, and the hills of Nidderdale on the western horizon – and the extremely underwhelming gravel patch that constituted the Kilburn white horse beneath our feet. Being right on top I didn’t expect to have a great perspective of it, but until we reached the information plaque, I couldn’t even convince Sammy that we were in fact looking at the horse. I wasn’t entirely sure myself. Safe in the knowledge that we would later be walking a good distance from the horse and should therefore be able to appreciate it in all its glory, we continued onwards along the Cleveland Way on a path that traces the top of Sutton Bank and circles around the Yorkshire Gliding Club. Here the long distance views of the flat land to our left continued, interspersed with silent gliders soaring above.
Reaching the end of the gliding club, we dashed across the A170 into the grounds of the Sutton Bank National Park Centre. This area has numerous trails and bike tracks weaving their way through woodland and along the Sutton bank escarpment with views of Gormire Lake below, and on as fine a day as we were enjoying, it was quite busy. We experienced two extremes of reactions to Herbie during the time we passed through the centre. Firstly, as we stopped to have a quick snack and give him some water, a friendly passing walker politely asked if she could stroke him, and proceeded to fawn over him for a few minutes while we answered the usual questions about his breed and age (miscellaneous and two). Shortly after this, I’m convinced we encountered a genuine medieval witch. Aside from her haggard Gothic attire, she was mumbling some kind of curse under her breath as our paths began to cross. Upon seeing her I was, as usual, preparing to say the customary ‘good morning’ as we passed, but instead her eyes remained fixed on the dog, as she backed away from him towards a tree, pointing the sharp end of an umbrella (in the absence of a broomstick, I assume) in a jabbing motion towards him. Although he was completely oblivious to it all, I reeled him in on his lead closer to me and hurried us past, keeping my eye on her as she continued to stare at the three of us pacing away from her.
Relieved not to have been turned into frogs or boiled in a cauldron, we continued along the densely populated paths until we reached the point we would depart the Cleveland Way and join a path taking us past racehorse stables, where we would cross back over the A170 towards the gliding club, before turning off again and heading through dense woodland towards Scotch Corner Chapel. This little war memorial chapel built in the 50s is nestled in woodland overlooking the farmland of the vale below, but as there were two families and one extremely excitable dog occupying its grounds on our arrival, I’m afraid we didn’t stay long enough to learn much more about it than that.
Following the increasingly steep path down past the threateningly named Hell Hole, we reached the road that links Oldstead to Byland. Here we had the choice of taking the road and a few flat footpaths through fields, or head up towards Mount Snever Observatory and along woodland trails. There was a waterfall marked on the map which enticed Sammy into choosing the latter direction, and although the waterfall was nowhere to be seen and we refused to climb the steep path towards the disused observatory, the decision to take the undulating forest walk was most rewarding, if a great deal more tiring.
With an incline before us and lethargy creeping in we stopped to refuel, before hauling ourselves to the top and realising we should have turned off down an overgrown trail next to where we had just eaten. It wouldn’t be one of our walks if we hadn’t gone wrong somewhere along the way, and even though this mishap led to a hill being climbed unnecessarily, it wasn’t as catastrophic as our journey down Issues Road in Holme, for example.
The overgrown path was both delightful and painful in equal measures. I found the untrodden undergrowth most enjoyable, as it felt like a tame version of an exotic forest hiking trail – just without the fear of cougars, snakes or lost tribes pouncing on us, and with the safe knowledge that an English Heritage attraction was only a kilometre or so away. The pain came from the fact that due to the heat I was for the first time this year sporting shorts rather than trousers, and seemed to graze every nettle in the vicinity, forcing me to keep stopping to rub myself in dock leaves.
At length we emerged from the jungle – sorry, woods – near to the ruined gatehouse of the abbey, crossed into its grounds and smugly laughed off the five-pound-odd entry fee, as we proudly withdrew our prized membership cards and strolled in with no pocket damage. Apart from the five-pound-odd I ended up spending on Coca-Cola and Victorian style lemonade.
Unlike the nearby Rievaulx Abbey, Byland has no visitor centre, and only a modest museum with a distinct lack of information signage as you walk around (all information was available in the guide book, but that’s how they get ya). It appeared to be comparable in size to its neighbour, and looking at the high alter area, you do get a sense of the former grandeur of the place. It is in a far greater state of ruin than Rievaulx however, and the surrounding buildings are now little more than small walls.
The mooch around the abbey provided a lovely, picturesque pitstop along our walk, and even the moronic picnicking family who thought it a good idea to continually belt a football at the surviving walls of a twelfth century piece of our nation’s history didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the place. With the knowledge that we were still only two thirds of our way around the route, we needed to plough on, so we left the abbey and began trekking through fields, finally catching a better view of the white horse, and once again playing dodge the sheep shit. After passing through Oldstead Grange Farm and Herbie having the traumatic experience of being greeted by (no exaggeration) twenty farm cats, we would soon find out that neither cat nor sheep were not going to be our true four legged foes on this walk. It was going to be a beast much larger, heavier and dangerous than leaping lambs or flighty felines. Enter, the bull.
Our path was to take us through a large field which sloped 40m from its highest point on our right down to its lowest point on our left. When we began to clamber over the style the expanse between our position and the gate at the other side was empty, but just as I was about to place my foot down, a cow burst through the top of the field and sprinted – yes, the big bovine beast was sprinting – from the top of the hill to the bottom, followed by another, then another, then another two, and then the bull, charging like a… well, like a big bloody bull, in a wake a flinging mud and grass, until they all rested at the bottom of the field to feed from a trough. Seizing their moment of distraction, we tiptoed into the field. As we sneaked slowly forward, wondering whether to make a dash for the exit some 200m away, around they turned, one by one, until all were facing us, staring at our frozen frames. Forward they crept, inching closer, eyes fixed on ours. The bull pushed its way to the front like an American president at a NATO summit, and feeling completely exposed we turned to run for the style we had just crossed, hurling ourselves back over to the safety of the other side of the fence.
After a tense five minute standoff I’m not ashamed to say that we decided to quit while we were behind. This was Yorkshire, not Pamplona. We skirted down the edge of the field on the safe side of the fence until we reached a road that led safely through the village of Kilburn. Rather than take our chances with any more animal intimidation, we stayed on the road for the majority of the walk back towards the carpark, taking a diversion along some trails through the forest that led us nicely back to the foot of the white horse hill, and the familiar bovine free sanctuary of the car.