North York Moors national park at 70 – from steam trains to spas, there’s so much to love

To mark the park’s birthday, we take a look at its best attractions, beyond its fabulously wild moors and valleys

Aside from its vast expanse of heather, undulating hills and ancient woodlands, there’s so much to love about the North York Moors national park, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this month. It’s where sheep really do roam on village greens, and you can pass through serene valleys on a heritage train. The skies are so clear here that the region provides some of the best stargazing in the country. From ancient archaeological sites and abbeys to some of England’s finest views, here are its top attractions.

Rievaulx Abbey

abbey ruins in sunshine
Rievaulx Abbey - Yorkshire Photograph: Jo Denison

The influential 12th-century abbot Saint Aelred described the site of Rievaulx Abbey: “everywhere peace, everywhere serenity”. And when you visit these impressive Cistercian abbey ruins you’ll probably agree. In autumn, the surrounding moors are a spectacle of golden foliage, and the low-lying sun casts bewitching shadows through the abbey’s towering arches. In summer, it’s a gorgeous place to enjoy a cuppa accompanied by Rye Valley views. The scenic three-mile walk to Helmsley is great, too.

Helmsley

Hunters of Helmsley in Helmsley’s market square.
Hunters of Helmsley in Helmsley’s market square. Photograph: Christina Bollen/Alamy

Helmsley is the national park’s only market town and has plenty of beauty and charm. Visit the indie shops and boutiques that surround the neo-gothic Feversham memorial that rises from the busy market square and head to family-run deli Hunters of Helmsley and 15th century pub The Black Swan (and its tearooms) for Yorkshire specialties and heartwarming grub. The Helmsley Brewing Co sells great craft ales and classic Yorkshire bitters while the ice-cream at Ryeburn of Helmsley lives up to the hype. The 12th-century ruin of Helmsley Castle is an imposing motte-and-bailey fortress and offers gorgeous views over the town and neighbouring Duncombe Park, with its historic house and beautiful parklands. Behind it is the curious Helmsley Walled Garden, a beautiful flower-filled spot that featured in the 2020 film of The Secret Garden and is run by community volunteers.

Sutton Bank, the ‘finest view in England’

Sutton Bank.
Sutton Bank. Photograph: VBI

The moors boast many stunning views but one of the best is from Sutton Bank. Gormire Lake and the vales of York and Mowbray can all be seen from the escarpment edge and you may see gliders from nearby Yorkshire Gliding Club riding the thermals high above. Since this is an official Dark Sky Discovery Site, there are stargazing “sky parties” here between October and April. Sutton Bank Bikes offer bike hire and scenic cycle trails.

The North Yorkshire Moors railway

North Yorkshire Moors railway.
North Yorkshire Moors railway. Photograph: Graham Staples/NYMR

Opened in 1836 to provide a link between Pickering and Whitby, the railway was closed in 1965 but reopened in 1973 as one of the area’s top attractions. Don’t miss the chance to hop off at Levisham station, which has been carefully restored to reflect how it looked in 1912. There’s even accommodation in a “camping coach,” a former train carriage, has been transformed into a cosy three-bedroom bolthole, complete with kids’ bunkbeds and a fully equipped kitchen (2023 prices tbc). Pickering, Goathland and Levisham stations host events year-round, from photography workshops that teach visitors how to capture the best images of the locomotives, to a festive family experience on the Santa Express.

The Hole of Horcum

Dawn mist in the Hole of Horcum.
Dawn mist in the Hole of Horcum. Photograph: Gavin Dronfield/Alamy

The Hole of Horcum, a huge natural amphitheatre dubbed the Devil’s Punchbowl, is an amazing sight. And if you believe the legends, this half-mile-wide hollow was the work of Wade the Giant, who scooped the earth out of the landscape. One way to reach it is via a scenic walk over the Levisham Estate moors, which is also home to several bronze age burial sites. Stop at the Skelton Tower ruins for views over Newtondale and the North Yorkshire Moors railway line. It’s also a good spot for a picnic.

Yorkshire spa retreat

treatment room
Yorkshire spa retreat. Photograph: Nima PR

For an outdoor dip there are few lidos that can match the charity-run Helmsley open air swimming pool, surrounded by beautiful moorland. But for something more upmarket, with pampering included, the newly opened Yorkshire spa retreat is a few miles down the road in Nawton. It has five-star lodges from £559 for three nights, and the indoor-outdoor spa includes a salt chamber, a wild swim pond, and stress-busting treatments including a “Yorkshire wellbeing massage”.

Lucy McGuire

The GuardianTramp

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