Dozens of grey seals are out in the cold Yorkshire sunshine, lolling fat and placid on the foreshore. Waves pound around them onto dark rocks. On the windy Ravenscar cliffs 600ft above, a kestrel soars over the grassy remains of an aborted Victorian health resort. The view along the coast stretches for miles, a gust-blown big dipper of crests and bays. I’m on a clifftop perch, binoculars in one hand and cheese roll in the other, devouring my lunch with wolfish gusto.
Wildlife, history and sustenance well earned. These – along with unbuckled natural scenery charging off to the horizon – are the themes of the Cleveland Way, the 109-mile-long National Trail that celebrates its 50th anniversary in May. I’m spending a week walking its length, beginning in the little market town of Helmsley, ending at the exposed peninsula of Filey Brigg and trailing the North York Moors in my woolly-hatted wake. “Ah, heaven,” sighs the envious shopkeeper in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, where I restock on apples and wine gums partway along the route. It’s heaven, true enough.
Our National Trails are magnets for walkers. Each year, a reported 80,000 of us complete one. When the Cleveland Way opened in 1969 it was only the second of these managed long-distance hiking paths to be created. No less than 15 such trails are now found on the British mainland, ribboning off across the landscape, linking rural rights of way. A sixteenth, the dauntingly lengthy England Coast Path, is set to open in 2020.
This week represents my third trail-in-full, and it feels good to rediscover the basic joys of tracing a slow journey across some of the quietest, shapeliest corners of the map. It’s adventure at a pedestrian pace: long days of rambling thoughts, toppling views and acorn-embossed signposts. I’m sleeping in the kind of places you hope for – pubs where the beer’s well-kept and you’re greeted with a “how do?”, and B&Bs where the jam’s homemade and they croon Buddy Holly songs in the kitchen. My baggage is being transported daily. Some might call that cheating. I call it a balm for 109 miles of walking.
The Cleveland Way has two distinct halves. The first 50 miles or so broadly follow a high escarpment across the moors, while the second part of the route clings doughtily to the element-bashed North Sea shoreline. “You’ll enjoy walking into the coastal headwind,” one moorland hiker tells me, eyes glinting. I don’t, obviously, but the week’s still a ravenous pleasure. The overall route describes an upturned horseshoe shape, meaning you finish up only 30 miles from where you started – but that’s not the point. It’s about where it takes you.
The first hours are gentle, sauntering up among church bells and rookeries to the natural lookout of Sutton Bank. England is outspread below. Over there are the Pennines. Down there’s York. The writer James Herriot called this the finest view in the country but was mistaken, for the simple reason that it’s not even one of the finest views on the Cleveland Way. Two hours later I’m out on the moor proper. Treeless contours, patched in greens and browns, billow out ahead.
The moor is my companion for four days. Think Wuthering Heights with waymarks: age-old droving tracks, isolated tumuli and a sense of vastness. At times it’s glorious, a heart-filling expanse of sunshine and skylarks. At others it’s moody, with clouds ghosting across chill hills and wind whistling through drystone walls. The entire plateau, once woodland, is now blanketed in heather, a habitat for red grouse. The birds are at the centre of a lucrative autumn shooting industry. I’m here in spring, and they’re everywhere. “Go-back, go-back!” they squawk. I disobey, striding on, happy.
On one stretch, the nine blustery, beautiful miles between Clay Bank and Kildale, I pass not a soul. When Kildale’s toasty Glebe Cottage Tearoom arrives, I order heartily. Because that’s the thing about a walk like this – when you yomp all day, you eat and drink with abandon. Roast dinner in Osmotherley, seafood slap-up in Whitby, fry-ups and flapjacks as and when. I sleep well.
The sea arrives, weather-tossed. The coastal half of the walk takes in eastern England’s tallest sea cliffs, great geological heffalumps that require endless ascents and descents. I pull on layers then tear them off minutes later, overheated. Some hours I see no one, although the marks of war and industry stud the coast: old alum works, distant Teesside smokestacks, crumbling pillboxes. In among them, windswept gorse and primroses shine out with buttery brilliance.
The backdrop, a Yorkshire rhapsody of romping headlands and crashing tides, dwarfs the lot. The route teeters on the clifftop for miles at a time. Smugglers’ villages and penny-arcade towns come and go; the path rises and dips through Staithes, Robin Hood’s Bay and Scarborough. For three days I press on into the wind, tired now, passing joggers and dog-walkers. Spaniels scamper across breezy clifftops, woofling with contentment. The views are sensational.
And wildlife? I’ll give you wildlife. Rabbits on the moor edge, deer in the coastal meadows. Nuthatches, siskins and barn owls. Curlews, lapwings and guillemots. Above the moor a merlin, a pale little weapon homing in on some doomed small mammal. On the coast, squadrons of fulmars on Spitfire-straight wings and gangs of kittiwakes screeching their own names. Along the entire trail there is no copse, no rockface, no rise in the land without an avian reward.
I take the final miles slowly. A large carved stone at Filey Brigg marks the trail end. My legs are stiff. A man in a thick jacket is walking out to the cliffs and spots my binoculars. “See anything worth seeing?” he asks, beaming. I process seven days of walking. “Yes,” I begin. I think I’m probably beaming too.