I set off for Ravenscar in the morning, having spent the night in the ultra-quaint English seaside village of Robin Hood’s Bay. I had arrived the previous afternoon at low tide, and wandered amongst the pools and eddys on the expansive beach. In the morning the tide was high and the beach was entirely underwater, and I was eager to set off on my amble along along the Cleveland Way and this amazing stretch of English countryside.
Ravenscar is a 600 foot cliff on the edge of the North Sea, two miles southeast of Robin Hood’s Bay and about midway between my starting point of Whitby and endpoint of Scarborough. This portion of the Cleveland Way is a a lovely piece of the National Trail system in England. I didn’t even really need a map – I simply had to trek 20 miles keeping the North Sea on my left. But let me just say the British Ordnance Survey maps are wonderful and I was sure to stop at Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road in London ahead of time to purchase the OS maps that covered my planned route. Most of this particular journey is spent high on the clifftop, among farms with flocks of sheep, tranquil woods, and the occasional lighthouse. However, I began that second day’s walking at sea level in Robin Hood’s Bay, making Ravenscar the ultimate climb of the journey, but was rewarded with one of the loveliest views of the trip.
Before the morning ascent, my first order of business was breakfast. The beauty of English trekking is the English breakfast commonly served at even the smallest B&Bs. The relative close spacing of villages that include the presence of inns and abundance of pubs provides rest and nourishment for the intrepid trekker. No need to carry food, and I needed only my wallet and a small rucksack with a change of clothes, OS maps and rain slicker. Traveling so light is wonderful. Unfortunately my little Robin Hood’s Bay inn didn’t offer breakfast, but I was saved less than a mile in to my day by the Quarterdeck, the restaurant at a the Boggle Hole YHA, a lovely youth hostel where I negotiated an appropriate price for a full English breakfast. They were so kind I plan to stay there when I return some day, and I recommend everyone else does, too.
The freedom of travel in Britain comes from three main factors. First, the relative density of England’s footpaths is impressive, with numerous choices. Remarkably, the majority of most of these treks traverse private property. For an American who fears getting shot for trespassing, climbing fences and crossing farm fields on private property takes some getting used to.
Second, I took the train from to Whitby and back to London from Scarborough. I can’t think of a 20-mile stretch of footpath in the Midwest (perhaps the entire United States) with rail access on both ends. This is not only a novelty for the transportation geek in me, but an awesome way to get around. And to think, the Brits complain about their rail service! I bought a four-day Britrail pass for just $188. I rode a two-car train on a single track down the Wye River valley, disembarked in Whitby, had a lovely stroll down Church Street, climbed 199 steps to the ruins of Whitby Abbey and was on my way. Stunningly easy. Past treks I’ve taken were accessible by train in Dover and Gloucester, for example. Between rail and bus, a magnificent chunk of English footpaths are accessible without a car.
Third, as I noted, population density is great enough that there is a pub every few feet, all of them (of course!) wonderful and quaint. My favorite travel writer Bill Bryson marvels at how green Britain has remained despite being home to 80 million people. It isn’t just how beautiful a tiny little industrial island has remained over time, but the freedom of movement that this density of population and transportation network allows, whether you are strolling in a city or ambling across the countryside. Be it urban or rural, England is very enjoyable on foot.
After walking that first day from Whitby and finding a room at the Ingleby House (45 pounds), I wandered the streets of Robin Hood’s Bay, most of which consist of narrow alleyways or simply sidewalks and stairs. It dawned on me how lucky I was to be there slightly off-season and also midweek, thus avoiding throngs of pensioners and day trippers. Even so, I was the youngest person in town by a couple decades.
It was low tide, so I wandered far out on to the beach with my fellow beach combers, searching for shells and examining the exposed seaweed and newly-formed patterns on the sand that would be erased again in a few short hours. The sea is important to British history, and as my path wandered along the North Sea coastline, at every turn I was met with sweeping views, sounds, briny smells and sea breezes to excite the senses. The thing is, the sea isn’t a mere abstraction put there for tourists, as the walk is dotted by lighthouses, monuments to sailors lives lost, infrastructure to rescue fishermen from churning waters far below (read about “rocket posts” here), and relic military installations designed to defend German advances in World War II. All of these are reminders of the lives made and lost by the sea. I stood high on a clifftop and watched a trawler approach a buoy marking a lobster cage to check on their haul, and imagined centuries of mariners heading out to sea.
My reward for completing the first day’s journey? A pint. The most scenic pint of my life. After a lovely seven mile stroll from Whitby, I had earned it. Sitting at a picnic table on the spacious lawn of the Victoria Hotel, I removed my boots, sipped my pint of Whitby Red, checked out my new seashells, and pondered Ravenscar looming in the distance that I was to ascend in the morning. Ah, but the cares of tomorrow must wait till this day is done, so I sat and enjoyed the view, which Bill Bryson would describe as “deeply fetching.”
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