Walking: Rievaulx Abbey and Moor – Invasion of the Sheep

When I was at school studying GCSE Geography, I remember a technique for measuring distance on a map by using a piece of string to trace along the feature in question – a river or path, for instance – then unravelling the string and comparing it to the scale on the edge of the map. I wish I had done this for our first trip to the North York Moors, as our intended 12-ish mile walk ended up being 16 miles, and that was after significantly cutting it short once we had realised the carpark on which we were parked had barriers and would most likely trap us in at 6pm. More on this later, but needless to say, lessons were not learned from our trip to Wessenden.

Our day began at Rievaulx Abbey. We decided to tie this walk in with visiting an attraction and thought we would get to the abbey nice and early before the crowds arrived. Not only did we achieve this, but we were the first on the carpark and also fifteen minutes early for the opening, so spent our time wondering if we would be okay to leave the car there all day while we hiked around the hills, and if they would allow us to take Herbie through the visitor centre and around the grounds. They were accommodating on both fronts, which helped to relieve the mild heart attack suffered when they told me the entrance fee. The abbey is under the control of English Heritage so I’m sure the door charge is put to good use, but on our return home later that day we found that we could use our Tesco Clubcard vouchers towards annual membership, and as such will not have to pay entrance to any of their attractions for the next twelve months.

Walking Rievaulx Abbey Window
Rievaulx Abbey Window

Founded in 1132, the abbey was the first Cistercian abbey in the north of England, and it prospered until everyone’s favourite beheader Henry VII dissolved it over four hundred years later, stripping it of assets and rendering it uninhabitable, like he so often did. Today it’s a popular tourist spot, with a smart looking visitor centre, cafe, and museum. Had we not had a long walk planned, we could have stayed there a lot longer than the 45 minutes we spent wandering around the ruins, watching Herbie dash around the crumbing walls that were once home to medieval monastic prayer and such.

We left the abbey and gobbled down a quick sandwich (tuna and jalapeno being my current favourite walking grub) and headed into the charming Rievaulx village. The locals were friendly and all wished us a good morning or commented on Herbie’s snazzy chequered harness, and the postman stopped to wind down his window to make a quip about Sammy’s walking poles.

“You’ve forgot your skis!” he said, probably not for the first time in his life. Sammy, bless her, looked down at her feet to check. She claims she thought he said something about dropping keys, but we all know the truth.

When we reached the church we left the village along a byway that led to Bow Bridge, before turning onto the lower of two paths through fields alongside the river Rye. The next few miles would be dominated by sheep, lambs, and the vast quantities of excrement they produce. With two of the young animals in our path, we had to break into a slightly panicked jog to escape the pursuit of a protective mother who wouldn’t cease until we were an appropriate distance from her offspring. Even Sammy’s protestations about being vegan couldn’t help us.

We had a steep climb through a field towards Hag Wood, before eventually joining up with a farm track, which in turn led us sharply back down the hill towards Shaken Bridge. From here we entered some woodland teeming with bluebells, joining a path that would have us snake our way through Newgate Plantation, bringing us to Newgate Park. Talking of snakes, we thought saw one. Well, Sammy did. Herbie and I both happily marched past the little fella and apparently only just missed him. It’s not something you often come across in England, so I took a quick snap of it and on the way home did some googling to find out what species it was. It turned out to be a slow-worm, which is neither snake nor a worm (and I’m unsure about its speed). It’s apparently a limbless lizard (which to me means it’s a fecking snake but hey ho), and a protected species, so good job we didn’t squish it.

Bluebells Shaken Bridge Ryedale Rievaulx
It’s that Bluebell time of year

Newgate Park is marked on the OS map as having both a viewpoint and picnic area, so we were aiming to make it there before resting for lunch. The viewpoint had a quaint wooden observation post donated by a local who loved the area, which gave a wide view over the surrounding hills. The picnic area however was nowhere to be found. We searched for a few minutes, taking a few overgrown paths and tracks hoping to bump into a table, before hunger got the better of us and we slumped onto the floor to eat in a grass covered parking space. By picnic area I believe they meant ‘place to park up and eat in your car’, which in no way constitutes a picnic area, but picnic we did nonetheless.

We left Newgate Park and entered Rievaulx Moor. When planning the route I had hoped that this track at a height of 270m above sea level would continue to give us views over the surrounding hills, but the trees of the adjacent plantation were a great deal taller than I’d imagined, which meant the only open land was to our right – the moor. I like moors, honestly I do. The immense panorama of absolute nothingness captivates me. Up to a point. But when the wind picks up, and the scenery stays the same, and the track appears to have no visible end… it does become rather bleak. So after a short while we abandoned the track and slipped down a steep gulley through the plantation and joined up with the logging road below. It was around this time that I started to wonder about the distance we had left to travel, as we were only around half way through the route, and a quick check on the abbey’s website told us we had two and a half hours until it closed. If they shut the carpark barrier we would be stuck, and memories of our mad dash to get off Mersea Island before high tide a few months before began to creep into our minds.

There was a significant need to stop and work out how we could get back quicker, but with few marked tracks through the moorland and a huge expanse of twisted vegetation between us and the car, our options were limited. We dispensed with the longer planned route that would have taken us around the moor and through more plantations, and opted to hit the four mile or so road that left the logging area and cut straight through farmland into the town of Helmsley. This road steadily declined over the miles and gave us some respite from the steep climbs and descents we had been accustomed to, while still providing not unpleasant views of farms and plantations. Tiredness was by this point beginning to creep in, as we had already walked much further than we thought we were going to and still had some distance to go. When we reached Helmsley we took a brief break to use the facilities at the Cleveland Way carpark, so called because it marks the beginning of the national trail that leads 109 miles around the perimeter of the North York Moors National Park to the coastal town of Filey. Luckily we were only required to do the first two and a half miles, although this wasn’t exactly a stroll in the park after the fourteen or so we had already done.

The path gives you a glimpse Helmsley Castle – a visit for another day – and through more sheep filled fields. Two lambs leaped playfully ahead of us, before sneaking under the gate into the adjoining field. As we too passed through the gate, Herbie began to growl at the younglings until their mother appeared behind us and shouted (if my Sheepish translation is correct) rather loudly for the wayward lambs to return to their home for their tea, and they immediately turned around and bolted straight towards us, causing Herbie to scamper and whimper behind our legs.

Sheep Helmsley Cleveland Way
Now what have I told you two about talking to strangers?

Fields gave way to woodland, with undulating banks and steps to be climbed and descended, until the final downslope to the road that leads to the pretty Rievaulx Bridge and ultimately back to the abbey. The staff were packing up for the day in the visitor centre and theirs were the only cars left in the carpark, but we had made it before the barrier dropped, and any concerns we may have had about being locked in were alleviated. The first to arrive and the last to leave, like the true English Heritage party animals we are.

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