By Mike Priestley
Walk in the Black Forest. Remember it? It was an orchestral hit in the 1960s for Horst Jankowski, and very catchy it was too.
On a record is the best place for a forest walk. Real forests aren’t to my liking. It doesn’t matter whether they’re black and impenetrable or merely brown and gloomy. I prefer to be out of them rather than in. So this walk, which we undertook on a hot and sunny Sunday in mid-May, only dipped a toe into Dalby Forest, that vast spread of conifers in North Yorkshire, near Pickering.
We stayed for most of the time in the open, soaking up the sun and the views as we walked northwards from Thornton-le-Dale, heading towards the trees.
This was a splendid, four-star walk which was inspired by a brief visit last year to this village, which must be the prettiest in the county. On that occasion we’d walked upstream alongside Thornton Beck, heading out into fields where lambs played and their mothers bleated.
So this year, round about the same time, we decided to visit the place again and walk further this time – but to steer clear of the forest proper. I sat down with a map and planned a circular route. We chose a day. And the weather obliged.
Realising that it was going to be a hot one, we set off early. There were barely a dozen cars in the Thornton-le-Dale car park, which was created out of the former Elizabethan walled garden of Thornton Hall.
The main Scarborough-Pickering road through the village was busy, though, with traffic heading for Pickering Game Fair. It took us quite a while to cross and join the beck-side path to walk past the pretty thatched cottage that is the village’s trademark and many more attractive houses until we arrived at the footpath sign just before Thornton Mill, which has been converted into flats.
From here, puzzling about the meaning of a sign about a footpath diversion, we followed the beck upstream, between fields and wooded areas full of sheep and lambs – just like last year – and lively with birdsong.
In one field a young woman with a dog on a lead was struggling to prevent it becoming involved in a scrap with a defensive ram. She dragged her pet away and the ram settled back down to eating the grass, ignoring us as we passed, dogless.
At the hamlet of Ellerburn we crossed the beck and admired the compact Saxon church before continuing upstream on a narrow road past a row of houses. Before long we arrived at the gate to the trout farm and, as directed, joined the fenced-off path that runs beside the drive.
At the far end we emerged into a large, sloping field that glowed with the yellow flowers of gorse bushes. As we strolled along, enjoying the still and warming air, a goose crossed our path maybe a dozen yards ahead. Maybe a dozen gosling followed in a line, and then another goose.
Their destination was a large pond, where they joined two more geese with seven goslings. Very productive wildfowl around here, it seems.
Before long we passed through a stile by a gate and entered a mixed wood. A broad forest track led through it, and towards much denser trees and the dreaded gloom. However, our path turned off just at the point where those began and climbed steeply up the hill.
It was dusty and eroded. We made it to the top with the help of sticks and by grabbing hold of branches, and agreed that we were glad we weren’t doing the walk in the opposite direction.
Near the top of the hill we diverted briefly into a meadow sprinkled with cowslips, part of the Ellerburn Banks Nature Reserve, and admired the fine views across the valley and to the north down into Givendale. After rejoining the path, from a little higher up the hill we were treated to a panorama westward over the broad plain of York. What a wonderful county Yorkshire is!
A walk across Pexton Moor Plantation, where selective felling has allowed new birch trees to flourish, took us to the road that is the start of the Dalby Forest Trail. A busy road this, on a sunny Sunday. We walked in single file, facing the traffic, for a few hundred yards until we came to the footpath sign.
The path here descended gently through light woodland and eventually emerged into a wide, sloping field where sheep and fat lambs grazed on clover. And at the bottom of the path was Ellerburn Church again.
We returned via the beckside path and were rewarded by the sight, within five yards of each other, of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker climbing acrobatically up a tree, a pair of grey wagtails chasing each other over a sandbank, and a wren popping in and out of its nest in a hole in the bank as it brought mouthful after mouthful of insects for its chicks.
And back in now-bustling Thornton-le-Dale, after spotting trout a-plenty in the beck’s clear waters, we found a female mallard who had beaten the geeses’ family record and was escorting a 15-strong family of ducklings downstream!
Step by Step
1 Walk into village from car park, go east alongside main road a few yards, cross by refuge towards almshouses and turn right. Walk up to bridge and go left on to path accompanying Thornton Beck upstream, first to left and then to right..
2 With converted mill ahead, follow footpath sign to right, with beck now on left. At a junction, with a path between hedges going sharp right, go over stile ahead into field and continue with beck, passing to left of barn to emerge via another stile into Ellerburn.
3 Turn left and cross beck towards church, turning right and following narrow road in front of houses. With beck now on right, walk on to joined fenced-off footpath to left of trout-farm drive. At far end of this, continue in same line along field, heading for gate with stile beside it. Follow track through wood.
4 About 20 yards before track swings slightly left, at what looks like a turning circle, go left up clear, eroded, steep path through trees with old wall on left. Follow this path past nature reserve to join track continuing in same line at top and arrive at road. Turn left and walk with care along road to where it turns sharp right.
5 Keep ahead here, following footpath sign to join right-most of three tracks and descend through wood. At triple fork, keep ahead on middle path to arrive at gate into field. Walk down left side of field to come to gate next to Ellerburn Church. Cross beck again, turn right, and retrace steps back to start.
Start: Main car park in Thornton-le-Dale (£2).
Time for five-mile walk: 2½ hours.
Map: OS Outdoors Leisure 27, North York Moors Eastern area.
Going: easy apart from one steep climb/scramble up hill.
Toilets: next to car park.
Refreshments: lots of tearooms and pubs in village.
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