From its source high in the hills, the River Esk weaves its way through the North York Moors National Park, emptying into the North Sea at Whitby. The river carves the Esk Valley, one of the most sumptuous in the country. It’s a landscape of vast, vibrant, heather-clad moorland, narrow wooded gorges and sweeping dales.
Winding its way alongside the river, from source to sea, is the Esk Valley Walk, a 37-mile (60 km) long-distance trail through this magnificent countryside. Starting in the village of Castleton, you venture into Danby Dale and ascend the moors to where the Esk rises at the head of Westerdale, before looping back to Castleton. From there, you follow the valley all the way to where the river joins the sea, amongst Whitby’s unique and historic grandeur.
Highlights along the Walk include: Young Ralph Cross, an emblem of the North York Moors on the vast high ground above Castleton; Danby, a pretty village that’s home to the Moors National Park Centre; Danby Beacon, a fantastic high viewpoint marked by a wonderful modern beacon; Beggar’s Bridge, just one of the Esk’s charming river crossings but certainly the most romantic; Grosmont, a former iron mining village and now the beating heart of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway; and Whitby, an ever-popular seaside town boasting a stupendous abbey and vibrant port.
Accompanying the region’s natural beauty is its industrial heritage. In the 1830s, the dawn of the railway age brought industry to the region, with horse drawn carts between Whitby and Grosmont replaced by steam in 1847. Victorian Ironstone, mined in the surrounding hills, was transported on the Esk Valley Railway, which was fully operational by the 1860s. Today, the region’s industry has quietened but the railways remain as a reminder of this time.
Aside from the initial moorland stage, the Walk shadows the Esk Valley Railway all the way to Whitby and just about every village en route has a station on the line. Meanwhile steam trains chuntering along the North Yorkshire Moors Railway between Grosmont and Whitby are a common, but no less impressive sight.
In this Collection, I have divided the Walk into four stages, matching the suggested itinerary of the North York Moors National Park. Stage 1, which climbs onto the high moors to seek out the Esk’s source, is substantially longer at 18.4 miles (29.6 km), entails a fair amount of ascent and in low visibility could pose a few navigational challenges. However, the stage can be split in two with a stay at the marvellously situated and remote Lion Inn, making it perfectly achievable for all.
The other three stages are of similar character, as they follow the Esk on its journey towards the sea. They are between 6 and 9 miles (9.9 and 14.5 km) long and are full of accommodation options, places to eat and drink and the route regularly passes stations on the railway. This gives you many permutations as to how to approach the Walk. There’s nothing to stop you doing the whole thing in reverse, starting from Whitby, or using the railway to pick off sections one at a time.
The wealth of amenities, coupled with the fact that the route is fully waymarked (look out for the leaping salmon icon) means that the Walk can be enjoyed by walkers of all levels of experience. A day pack with the usual essentials, like water, snacks, sun cream and waterproofs will be sufficient. Sturdy boots are recommended as the Walk can be boggy in places.
The vast moorlands are simply wonderful in late summer and early autumn, when they’re awash with seas of purple heather. This is arguably the best time to complete the hike. You will need daylight hours on your side for the long first stage, so in winter it would be worth booking a stay at the Lion Inn. Facilities en route are likely to be reduced in winter — or closed altogether — so it’s worth enquiring ahead before setting out.
The best way to access the Walk is probably via the Esk Valley Line from the large town of Middlesbrough, which has direct train links to the major cities of the North. Direct trains also depart from Newcastle Upon Tyne for Whitby. Alternatively, motorists can access the Walk via the A171. You can then use the Esk Valley Line to get you back to your car at the end of the Walk.
The first stage is something of a baptism of fire, easily the most strenuous on the Walk. It’s an 18.4-mile (29.6 km) circuit, up through Danby Dale, onto the high …
After a strenuous first stage, the remaining hikes are relatively easy going. You venture east, visiting the pretty moorland village of Danby and the National Park Centre, before ascending moorland …
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The penultimate stage is characterised by the riverside settlements it explores. Ancient stepping stone and packhorse crossings in Lealholm, Glaisdale and Egton Bridge hark back to a more primitive era …
The final stage is a gentle 8.5-mile (13.7 km) walk alongside the River Esk to where it meets the sea at Whitby. The sounds and smells of steam trains chuntering …