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Danby, Blakey, Westerdale by Mike Kipling

Danby Dale, Blakey and Westerdale

Make no mistake – you have to be up for a challenge to tackle our most strenuous moorland walk, a 16½-mile circuit of the western dales and high moors that takes in the source of the River Esk, starting and finishing in Castleton. You’ll need a long, clear day, so it’s a walk for late spring or summer, and the rewards are considerable, not least the sweeping dale views and iconic heather-covered moorland landscape. The entire route constitutes the first (circular) section of the 37-mile Esk Valley Walk; console yourself that the other three linear sections, between Castleton and Whitby, are far shorter and less onerous.

Walk info

Great for:
more than a stroll, big-sky views, list-tickers, history buffs, nature nuts
16½ miles (26.5km)
8 hours
Castleton Moor station
Grid Ref:
NZ 684 084
OS Map:
Ordnance Survey OL26
Castleton, Lion Inn at Blakey

About this walk

This is the first section of the Esk Valley Walk (EVW1), a 37-mile ‘Regional Route’ from Castleton to Whitby. Put all 4 sections together to complete the route, or walk each section individually for great days out in the Esk Valley – see EVW2, EVW3 and EVW4.

icon-footprintThe valley sections of the walk follow field paths and go through farms, with many gates and several stiles en route. From points 11 to 14, the walk is more challenging and is partly across remote moorland terrain. The route can also be boggy and wet in parts. You should be used to walks of this length and nature, be fully prepared and equipped, and able to navigate in the event of poor weather. Apart from at the Lion Inn, there are no facilities en route.

icon-paw-printPlease keep your dog under control at all times, and always on a short lead near livestock. In the moorland sections of the walk dogs must stay on the public right of way and be kept on a short lead or to heel at all times, and always on a short lead between 1 March and 31 July when birds are nesting on the ground.

Fat Betty and Young Ralph

No, not a Country and Western duo, but the names of two of the North York Moors’ most characterful landmarks, set high on the moor at Rosedale Head. There’s a remarkable number of moorland crosses and standing stones in the National Park, many dating back centuries and marking ancient boundaries or wayfarers’ routes across the moors. Over thirty of them have names, and right on the walk – crossing the road at Rosedale Head – you’ll pass the stumpy, white-painted White Cross, whose origins are uncertain but is better known to locals as Fat Betty.

Just off the walking route, a short diversion to the west – follow the road to the junction – is the much taller cross known as Young Ralph, which is used as the emblem of the North York Moors National Park. The tale here is of a traveller who died lost on the moors – the cross was erected in his memory by a farmer called Ralph, and people are said to leave money in a hollow at the top to help wayfarers who have lost their way.

A sea of heather

Moorland covers a third of the North York Moors National Park and most of the higher ground is covered in a sea of heather. Quite apart from its dramatic beauty – especially when the heather flowers in late summer – the moorland provides a valuable habitat for rare bird species (such as merlin and golden plover), heathland plants – including crowberry and wavy hair grass – and bog plants, notably sphagnum moss and the nodding cottonwool-like heads of common cotton grass.

Gamekeepers manage the heather by burning it when the stems get to about wellie-top height. They burn different patches each year in rotation, over the winter and in early spring when there are no birds nesting on the ground and the soil is generally wet. The following year new green shoots grow from underground stems and seeds. The result is moorland that looks like a patchwork quilt, with some areas of short, young heather for red grouse and sheep to eat and some patches of taller, older heather for grouse and other birds to shelter and nest in.

Life on the upper River Esk

The River Esk starts high up on the Moors at the head of Westerdale. Its source is not a clear bubbling spring but a series of trickling becks, which meet as they flow down to the valley. The river then wends its way east to join the North Sea at Whitby. It’s one of the National Park’s most significant rivers, supplying drinking water for the villages along the Esk valley and for Whitby, and it also provides water for the farms along the valley.

As you walk the Esk’s upper reaches, you’re accompanied by nothing but the sound of running water and the cries of moorland birds. The path passes through the remains of Esklets, which is a remote location for what was once a medieval monastic grange (or sheep farm), owned by the monks at Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley. The buildings were used right until the mid-1940s, but were finally abandoned because of their isolated position. You’ll also pass the waste tips from jet mines, which were worked here until the end of the 19th century.

Pearls of the Esk

The River Esk provides an important home for wildlife, not least a small but significant population of freshwater pearl mussels. The freshwater pearl mussel – which can live for more than 100 years – used to be a common species in Britain, but is now in danger of becoming extinct. The River Esk contains the last such surviving population in Yorkshire and the National Park Authority has set up a project to improve the water quality in the river and help restore the pearl mussel population.