Six hours in and the rain hasn’t stopped for a minute. Despite my three layers of clothing and a full set of waterproofs, I’m wet to the skin. On the exposed ridge of the North York Moors the wind chill adds to the damp and the relatively low temperature. I’m beginning to lose my coordination and somehow my thinking is no longer clear. The first signs of hypothermia are upon me and I begin to realise the magnitude of the challenge I have set myself.
The North York Moors and the Cleveland Way
Just a short bus ride from my home in York is Helmsley, and the start of the long-distance National Trail ‘The Cleveland Way’. The trail follows a 109 mile (175km) route from the pretty town of Helmsley on the southern edge of the North York Moors all the way to Filey Brigg on the Eastern Coast. National Trails are generally pretty well signposted/marked and therefore make ideal long-distance hikes for those slightly less than confident with a map and compass or, as in my case, hiking alone and wanting the reassurance of being on a known route (and therefore more easily located in an emergency!)
I had chosen to hike the first section of the trail from Helmsley to Kildale. Four days (and three nights) felt like enough for my first experience of multi-day hiking, and Kildale proved an ideal place to end as it helpfully has a mainline railway station to get me home.
First Day on the Trail
The first bus from York to Helmsley doesn’t actually depart until 9:48am so I didn’t arrive at the trailhead until after 11am. An easy ten minute walk out of the town was a great start, although the sky was already looking threatening. Twelve minutes after setting off it began to rain. And it rained. And rained. And rained. Not one to be put off (and I’m a Yorkshire lass anyway) I pushed on through some beautiful scenery all the way to the White Horse at Kilburn. The views between the White Horse and Sutton Bank are sold as ‘the finest views in England’. All I can say is that they’re probably pretty impressive on a good day! As it was, the growing mist and the general dampness made it more atmospheric than traditionally stunning – a trend that continued for much of the next three days.
Passing Sutton Bank and continuing along the ridge, I came to realise the very real risks of what I was doing. By 6pm I was showing the first signs of hypothermia, despite having felt prepared for the weather. It turns out that my waterproofs can’t handle over 6 hours of continuous soaking. The exposed ridge wouldn’t have been my first choice for a campsite, having no shelter from the increasingly cold wind. However, I knew I had to stop and get warm or I would find myself in serious trouble.
It took me 30 minutes to pitch my tent (in perfect conditions I can do it in seven), at least ten of those minutes trying to untie guy lines that threatened to defeat my frozen fingers and foggy brain. However, two hours later I was warm and dry and had managed to light the stove and produce a hot meal and, of course, a couple of cups of tea. Thus began my first ever night of ‘Wild Camping’.
Day Two across the North York Moors
The day began with a wonderful bowl of steaming porridge and a mug of ginger spiced latte (God bless the inventor of decent complete instant coffee!), followed by the somewhat tricky task of striking camp with damp kit and a mist so thick that I could barely see from one end of the tent to the other. However, by 7am I was back on the trail.
The route took me through some incredibly peaceful woodland where the smell of damp leaf mold and petrichor made for an enjoyable hike, despite the continuing drizzle and mist. A quick stop at a farmhouse to fill up on water provided my first encounter with another human being since leaving Helmsley the previous day.
My hike continued through the woodland and then out onto the open moor. There were a few welcome breaks in the rain although the views remained somewhat limited by the swirling mists that filled the valleys. I hit my first summit of the hike before continuing on into the village of Osmotherley. I was feeling pretty tired after 10.5 miles carrying all my camping gear, especially as I hadn’t walked more than about six miles at a stretch for several years. However, I pushed on for a further couple of miles in order to find a place to pitch my tent for the night.
My campsite was selected shortly after arriving on Scarth Wood Moor. By that point, visibility was down to around 30 feet and it didn’t feel particularly safe/sensible to continue across the open moorland. As it was, my pitch would have had an awesome view in clear weather. It did provide me with my first experience of that wonderful literary expression ‘the mist rolled in’ as I literally saw the mist roll across the valley and up onto the moor to envelop me. Possibly even more amazing was seeing it lift, however briefly, as it took on the appearance of pillars of smoke, giving the impression that the whole valley before me was on fire.
An hour after pitching on deserted moorland, around 100 sheep appeared over the horizon. A few came over to investigate my attendance, but seemed rather unimpressed and soon retreated to continue doing whatever it is that sheep do during the night.
Day Three and Seven Summits of the North York Moors
I knew that the third day was going to be the most physically challenging of the section I had chosen to hike. I hit the trail shortly after 6am with the intention of stopping to camp on the escarpment beyond the Wainstones. The views along the whole trail were truly inspiring. So much deserted moorland with uninterrupted views over the surrounding hills and valleys. Frequently I could see the trail from the place I stood all the way to the horizon. I will admit to being a little daunted on the many occasions when I reached a summit only to look ahead and see the way fall into the valley and then steeply ascend to another summit point. There were many moments when I was unsure if I could actually complete the next ascent, but somehow I hit one summit after another (with some real exhilarated feelings) until I finally reached the Wainstones.
The Wainstones are the largest group of sandstone crags in the North York Moors. The wind wails between them through the joints and fissures in the rocks created by centuries of wind, ice, and rain. It’s a fun scramble through the jumbled rocks to the top of Hasty Bank with some routes being more daunting than others. It’s a popular spot with rock climbers tackling the biggest faces of ‘The Needle’ and ‘The Steeple’.
Intending to camp within half a mile of the stones, I was looking forward to a cup of tea and plenty of time to enjoy the view before sunset. However, the best laid plans and all that….it transpired that there wasn’t a single patch of ground suitable for a tent, being almost exclusively covered in the heather that makes the North York Moors famous. Undaunted, I anticipated finding a suitable site not too far ahead and hence continued to hike along the Cleveland Way.
Heather. Heather. More heather. The route took me on a steep descent to the road at Clay Bank and then another daunting ascent to the highest point on the North York Moors. Then followed what, to me at least, was a somewhat bleak and depressing hike across the top of the moorland where heather stretched from horizon to horizon. With absolutely nowhere to make camp, I pushed on for several more miles. I finally found a suitable site (or rather a few feet with grassy tussocks rather than heather) to stop for the night, just in time to see the sun set over Stokesley in the distance. It had turned into a long day covering 6 miles further than I had intended. Sitting watching the sunset with a bowl of pasta and pesto and a mug of hot chocolate certainly made it worth my exhaustion though.
Day Four and The Final Stretch
It was an early start – a VERY early start. I hadn’t had the most comfortable of nights thanks to the incredibly uneven ground that caused my sleeping bag to insist on trying to slide out of the tent altogether. So, a quick breakfast before sunrise was followed by my first dry strike and the continuation of my hike in the semi-darkness. It was about half an hour later that I discovered the joy of such an early start when I was fortunate enough to see an amazing sunrise through the clouds.
Having hiked much further than intended during the previous day, I didn’t have far to walk to reach my destination in Kildale. In fact, I arrived before 8am having spent the final couple of miles singing, completely unselfconsciously, to the sheep and the rabbits and the grouse!
All that remained was to collapse in a heap at the railway station and await my train.
Self-Awareness Increased and Lessons Learned
So, what was the point of the hike? Was I really just ‘being crazy’ as so many people seemed to think? What made me want to head out, completely alone, into a fairly challenging environment, with no prior experience of multi-day hiking or wild camping, and in some pretty disgusting weather?
- I did it for the challenge.
- I did it to prove that I could.
I wasn’t trying to prove it to anyone else – I don’t really care what other people think – but I needed to show myself what I could do. By taking on this challenge, I proved that I can rely on myself. I faced some difficult moments when it would have been tempting to give up. However, out on the moor, that’s not an option. You can’t just stop, miles from anywhere. But I learned that I had it in me to continue even when it was tough, and that I don’t need a ‘knight in shining armour’ to come and rescue me. The most important thing I learned was my independence.
Pushing my limits also showed me that I’m capable of more than I sometimes believe. There were moments when I felt I couldn’t walk any further, or that the ascent was just too challenging, or that my temper was going to disappear over the ridge along with the matches that wouldn’t light. Yet the knowledge that I was alone provided a necessity to tackle those challenging moments. If I wanted a hot meal I was going to have to persist in trying to light the stove. If I wanted to reach the top of that ascent, I was simply going to have to do it. Which brings me to another realisation – hiking is about putting one foot in front of the other. No matter what the terrain, or the weather, or your energy levels, or the weight of your pack, to hike is simply to continue placing one foot in front of the other. In some wonderfully mindful moments, I realised that it was really only the next step that mattered. My 45.5 mile hike was essentially just a series of single footsteps. And one step always feels doable even when the next 2 miles seems impossible to contemplate.
I am lucky to live so close, and with such easy access, to the North York Moors. I can certainly see myself spending a lot more time exploring the area. With an OS map and a compass, there are miles and miles of moorland, thousands of stunning viewpoints, and so many new sights, sounds, and smells to be discovered. And that’s just on the North York Moors. The rest of the United Kingdom awaits…