It might seem slightly strange to discover that this was one of the first long-distance paths to be designated a ‘National Trail’, having been bestowed that honour way back in 1969. Only the massive Pennine Way that strides confidently through the very centre of the Britain is older, having been designated a National Trail four years previously.
How curious, you may think, that those good people at the National Trail office should follow up the mighty Pennine Way with what is, by comparison, a rather diminutive, horseshoe-shaped path huddled around one small corner of England. At 107.4 miles (172.9km), its length is less than half of that of the Pennine Way (268 miles/431km). What’s more, the Cleveland Way is confined solely to one country, England, and indeed one county, Yorkshire, whereas the Pennine Way crosses Derbyshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumbria, County Durham and Northumbria before breaching the border into Scotland. The Cleveland Way also climbs to only 454m (1489ft) above sea level at its highest point at Urra Moor, as opposed to 893m at Cross Fell on the Pennine Way; and focuses on only one National Park, the North Yorkshire Moors, where the Pennine Way visits four. And even today, the Cleveland Way is visited by only ten thousand people per year – as opposed to the Pennine Way’s fifteen thousand-plus.
Given all the above, you may find yourself wondering why anybody would choose to walk the Cleveland Way at all. Because if the Pennine Way is a path that proudly strides along the very backbone of England, then the Cleveland Way could be seen, geographically speaking, as nothing more than a stroll around its armpit.
And then you take your first few steps on the path itself – and it all begins to makes sense.
To paraphrase that old footballing cliche, this is a walk of two halves. The first section, from Helmsley to Saltburn, is 57 miles long and can be characterised by some breathtaking yomping through the windswept, heather-smothered expanses of the North York Moors National Park – though this rather crude characterisation hides a wealth of subtle variations, including farmland, woodland, meadow and bog. Study the landscape closely and you’ll see that this is a land of rarity, the home of several varieties of seldom-seen orchids and even scarcer wildlife. Take the tiny alcathoe bat, for example, which has been positively identified in only two places in the UK – one of which is on the moors; or the montagu harrier, of which there are believed to be only four breeding pairs in the UK, yet which nested in these parts recently. Nor must we forget the ultra-elusive pine marten, first spotted in England after more than a century only in 2015 and filmed on the North York Moors as recently as 2017.
Seeing any of these rarities on your trek will be something of a miracle, of course, but take a step back to drink in the scenery as a whole and you’ll find it just as rewarding. Within a dozen miles of the start of the trail you come to Sutton Bank, a place that famed Yorkshire vet and author James Herriot – a man who clearly knew a bit about the ‘great outdoors’ – described as having “the finest view in England”. Another writer who had also earned a bit of a reputation for his writings on nature, the poet William Wordsworth, was so moved by the same view that he paused to write a sonnet there – even though he was getting married later that day, and so probably had other things on his mind at the time. And throughout that first half of the walk the path brings you to some spectacular panoramas over the nearby fells and valleys – and at times it’s truly breathtaking.
The second half of the Cleveland Way takes you along the blustery shores of Yorkshire as make your way from Saltburn to Filey – a distance of just over 50 miles. It’s an endlessly spellbinding stroll along the shoreline, punctuated every few miles by cosy little fishing villages as well as larger towns, such as Whitby and Scarborough, that survive and thrive largely on the proceeds of the tourist industry. It’s a fascinating walk and one that will leave you not knowing which way to turn: whether to look down at feet to explore the rockpools, seek out jet (this stretch of coastline is the only place in country where you can find this black lignite stone), or hunt for fossils in the Jurassic geology of Robin Hoods Bay and Ravenscar; or should you instead look out to sea to spot seals, porpoises and even whales; not forgetting, of course, to gaze to the heavens every now and again to see the birdlife circling around, with the cliffs around Filey believed to be the home of the British mainland’s largest seabird colony.
Such treats are not gained without some effort, however, and many veterans of the Cleveland Way think this latter half of the trail is the harder of the two as you negotiate the sizeable undulations of Yorkshire’s east coast, including, most dramatically of all, the cliff at Boulby – at 210m (690ft), the highest point on England’s east coast.
It may surprise you to discover that, for all these natural riches, the North York Moors are largely a man-made landscape. Archaeological discoveries such as pottery and crude stone tools tell us that man has been here since the Mesolithic period (8000BC), when Britain was still joined to Europe. By the Bronze Age the trees were being cleared by the settlers, allowing the heather to flourish, while during the Iron Age (from 600BC) the local inhabitants were reshaping the land for their own purposes, with the national park home to three prominent hill forts at Roulston Scar near Sutton Bank, Boltby Scar and atop Live Moor – all right on the trail. Even later, the Romans built signal stations along the coast at Filey, Scarborough and Ravenscar, and in the intervening two millennia since that time man has built castles (Helmsley, Scarborough), and abbeys (Rievaulx and Whitby), alum quarries (such as those near Ravenscar) and ironstone mines (near Skinningrove) – the ruins and remains of which add so much beauty and interest to the trail. In fact, the park as a whole has over 12,000 archaeological sites and features, of which 700 are scheduled ancient monuments, and quite a few of them lie right on the national trail. Small wonder, then, that the area has become a magnet for walkers, with other long-distance trails passing through the park including the Lyke Wake Walk and the Coast to Coast path – both of which sometimes share the same path as the Cleveland Way.
So yes, it may be smaller, younger and less famous than the Pennine Way; but boy, this path packs a lot into its 107.5 miles. So perhaps I shouldn’t be asking why anyone would want to walk the Cleveland Way; instead, maybe, it’s time I started asking the exact opposite: Why wouldn’t you want to?