Scarborough, I was told on childhood seaside holidays to the Yorkshire coast, is a “two coats place”, whereas Bridlington – 17 miles further south and in the lee of Flamborough Head – is “a one coat place”. While I may have slightly mis-remembered, this no-nonsense approach to a Yorkshire seaside holiday still holds true today.
North Yorkshire’s coastal towns and villages may sport the odd hipster coffee shop and vegan chippy, but there is no Tate Gallery satellite or antiques quarter to draw visitors. Instead, they rely on the old-fashioned charms of great sands and jolly beach huts, blustery cliffside walks with spectacular views and Enid Blyton-style family attractions. Of course, this being Yorkshire – and as I’m Yorkshire-born I can say this – there is also the downright peculiar.
Take the resort that never was. In the late 19th century, a property speculation company decided to build a rival to Scarborough in the village of Peak on a wild headland 11 miles to the north. Peak House was extended and turned into a hotel, plots were sold and a golf course was built before the creators admitted the folly of the move and abandoned the village, by now renamed Ravenscar, in 1913. I recently viewed the ambitious plans – over very good lemon drizzle cake – in the Ravenscar Tearooms. While the views from the hotel are breathtaking, it’s a long, steep walk down a narrow ravine to the rocky shore. The pebble beach isn’t a patch on Scarborough’s sands, but is evidently much-loved by a colony of seals, which often haul themselves out for a spot of sunbathing.
Scarborough’s South Bay seafront, by comparison, is deliciously seaside-y, with gaudy gift shops, simple thrills and endless eating opportunities. I began grinning from the moment I read the menu outside the Golden Grid restaurant – fish comes in medium, large and whopper sizes – and my happiness was made complete by the Harbour Bar ice-cream parlour next door, with its 1950s diner décor. Knickerbocker Glory? Yes, please! My childhood haunt, the Coney Island amusement arcade, still raised my heart-rate with its flashing lights and mirrored panels. And I spent far too long browsing the shelves of John Bull confectioners (established 1911) – a sugar heaven of liquorice torpedoes, cinder toffee and neon-pink rock.
The town has a more sedate side: Scarborough Castle with its headland views (english-heritage.org.uk/scarborough); the oriental-themed Peasholm Park, with pagoda and dragon-shaped pedalos; and the often overlooked Italian Gardens. At the town’s Victorian spa complex, I gazed down at the chequered floor of its open-air Sun Court (just that name made me want to drift around in Jackie-O sunglasses and white turban) where, each July, the Spa Orchestra entertains, as it has done since 1912.
If Scarborough is brash and giggly, nearby Filey is her better-behaved elder sister. Its small collection of takeaways and gift shops, plus one amusement arcade, are tidily arranged at the northern end of a glorious beach, with the promontory of Filey Brigg a mile north. On this visit I dawdled in the pin-neat Crescent Gardens with their navy-and-gold lamp-posts and bandstand and as a result missed the £9.50 afternoon tea in Angela’s Tearooms and the last of her popular vanilla slices. But at 4.30pm, business was brisk in Inghams fish restaurant, with its life-size yellow-coated fisherman at the door, and treacle sponge for afters.
To the north of the county, Whitby has all Scarborough’s boisterousness but it is tempered with a workaday earthiness. Tall, narrow houses rise steeply either side of the fish quay and River Esk estuary, with the beach tucked to the west; 18th-century explorer Captain James Cook learned his trade here, his lodgings now a museum. But, shallow person that I am, I was more excited by the leather corsets and taffeta skirts in the town’s goth clothing shops (an 1890 holiday in Whitby famously provided Bram Stoker with inspiration for Dracula, in turn making the town a draw for followers of the subculture, leading to the creation of the Whitby Goth Weekend). Try the Great Goth in Silver Street, then pop across the road to the pretty courtyard of Rusty Shears for tea (there are more than 30 varieties) and cake.
There are 199 steps up to the majestic medieval ruins of Whitby Abbey (english-heritage.org.uk/whitby) which dominate the eastern headland, but the views are worth it: inland to the moors and up the coast to the shale and mudstone cliffs at Kettleness. The hamlet of Kettleness lies down a single-track road between fields plump with cows and dazzling-yellow rape. The road stops at Kettleness Farm, where the only way forward is the Cleveland Way footpath, which runs to Runswick and on to the fishing village of Staithes, where cottages cling to a toe-hold like a precarious pyramid of Ferrero Rocher.
Robin Hood’s Bay (known locally as Baytown) lies to the south of Whitby, then comes the arguably more pretty Staithes, with its cliffs screaming with kittiwakes, piles of lobster cages and colourful boats with flirty names like ‘Gypsy Rose’ and ‘Sweet Promise’. It was here, as I sat perched on the wobbly cobbles outside Dotty’s Tearoom – with its vintage china and humongous freshly-baked scones – at the end of my journey that I felt warm and content enough to remove my two coats. The beaches of the south might get all the love, but those of North Yorkshire have the soul.
20 things to do in North Yorkshire this summer
1. The mellow moors
If your only experience of moorland to date has been the looming uplands of the Pennines or the bare hump of Dartmoor, then the Cleveland Way beckons. This 109-mile horseshoe-shaped national trail cuts across some of the most alluring sections of the North York Moors National Park. Its start/end points – the historic market town of Helmsley and coastal Filey – are linked via Rievaulx Abbey, the Kilburn White Horse, Mount Grace Priory House and Gardens, Gisborough Priory, Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle. The route follows ancient drovers’ paths and coastal trails used by pilgrims (yes, saints as well as vampires came this way), and while the boulder fields and rocky coves are impressive, it’s the swathes of waving heather – which blooms mid to late summer – that make the Way so special.
2. Crafty in nature
Thirteen walking trails, six cycling routes and four bike paths open up this magnificent forest at Thornton-le-Dale near Pickering, where glaciation has left a unique “rigg and dale” landscape in the south, while the northern section sits on an upland plateau. During summer, Dalby Forest is an open-air exhibition space for art and crafts by celebrated sculptors, stained glass-makers, photographers, musicians and other performers.
3. The romance of rail
The 18-mile North Yorkshire Moors Railway, connecting Grosmont with Pickering, is once again offering Pullman coach lunches, afternoon teas and evening dining on board. Opened in 1836 and built by George Stephenson, the heritage line passes through beautiful countryside and operates a range of lovingly restored and maintained diesel and steam locomotives; on non-dining services you can choose between hop on/off and scheduled return journeys. Passengers can combine the ride with a stay in a former station house or adapted carriage. Hop on/off adult ticket from £30. Pullman evening meal, £149 for a table for two (journey lasts 2hrs 45mins).
4. High notes
Most towns and cities compete to show how thrusting and contemporary they are, but Harrogate has turned traditionalism and good taste into a winning brand. Local resident Gareth Southgate has said how much he enjoys a “Fat Rascal” scone (which has glacé cherry eyes and almonds for a mouth) at the famous Bettys Café Tea Rooms on Parliament Street. Afternoon tea in the Imperial and Belmont Rooms is as lavish as you’d expect. The 27th International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival soars airily into Harrogate on August 8 (gsfestivals.org). If you can’t make the shows, the Royal Hall hosts an open day on September 1. Designed as a Kursaal or “Cure Hall” in the great continental tradition, this beautiful Edwardian theatre provided mental, “ambulatory” and spiritual stimulation to complement the bodily cleansing provided by the sulphur well at the Royal Pump Room. These are now a museum, but the Victorian Turkish Baths are very much open – though, even here, it’s “Yorkshire tea” rather than strong powdery coffee on offer.
5. Lock and load
What could be more enjoyable – or educational – than a contemplative cruise along the Leeds & Liverpool canal? A week-long voyage from lovely Skipton takes you through tranquil woodlands and picturesque villages such as Kildwick, past landmarks including the National Trust-run Riddlesden Hall and Unesco-listed Saltaire, and down the engineering marvel that is the Bingley Five Rise Locks. By the time you get back to Skipton, you’ll have 60 miles and 58 locks under your belt and have seen more of hidden Yorkshire – and at the right speed for calm observation and reflection – than any car or coach journey would ever allow.
From £965 per week; blueotterboats.com
6. A (not so) brief stint
Hardcore hikers with a completist streak love to take on the 268-mile Pennine Way, which straddles the backbone of northern England. For those after a stint of semi-serious walking with memorable natural sights and pleasurable downtime, try the 74-mile section between Skipton and Appleby in Westmorland instead. En route you’ll see the limestone landscapes of Malham, climb photogenic Pen-y-ghent and Great Shunner Fell, and pass – or drop in to – the highest pub in England at the 17th-century Tan Hill Inn.
7. Moreish Malton
This quaint market town of Malton sits on the north bank of the River Derwent – the historic boundary between the North and East Ridings of Yorkshire. Its location in the sun-blessed arable heartland, and close to the sea, has made it into a regional foodie capital, with a monthly food market, cookery school, traditional food shops and artisan producers. Malton Food Lovers Festival takes place over the Bank Holiday weekend of August 28-30, while a new Malton to Pickering cycle route is scheduled to open this summer. There’s also a Marathon Du Malton planned for September 19. It’s been dubbed “Britain’s Tastiest 10k”, so you can try to burn off at least some of the calories while you’re here.
8. Say cheese!
North Yorkshire cheese-making dates from around 1150, when Cistercian monks from France settled in the Dales. While Wensleydale is the most famous of the cheesemaking valleys, there are creameries across the region and you could plot a cheese-themed drive here – just as you might do a sherry tour in southern Spain. The Wensleydale Creamery has an award-winning family-friendly tour, with Wallace and Gromit clips to keep the kids happy. If you want to do a hands-on session, Simon Lacey of Laceys Cheese – based at Reeth – teaches six-hour courses from £99pp.
9. Be more Bridgerton
Britain has dozens of stately homes, but only a handful are household names. When Castle Howard starred in Brideshead Revisited in the 1980s, it cast the collective memory back to interwar England. Completed in 1810-11, it was the obvious location for hit Netflix series Bridgerton, which makes ample use of the handsome exteriors and opulent interiors every time Daphne and Simon retreat to “Clyvedon Castle”. A selection of self-guided (from £22) and guided (from £35) tours are available, and the recently opened Regency Exhibition runs until October 31.
10. Star attraction
In December 2020, both the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales national parks were designated as International Dark Sky Reserves, joining an elite club of only 18 such sites. Festivals and events are organised to celebrate this special status but, frankly, the best way to indulge in dark skies is to book an overnight stay and look up – perhaps combining your visit with a talk by a local astronomer. The Yorkshire Dales National Park has designated four areas as Dark Sky Discovery Sites, while the North York Moors National Park has created a list of dark skies-friendly accommodation.
11. Llama karma
Bolivia, Peru, Atacama, Pateley Bridge… if you’ve never walked with a llama or alpaca, then you don’t know the joys of a close-up confrontation with these gorgeous toothsome camelids. Nidderdale Llamas has an experienced team of guides and welcomes families with children aged seven and above to come and meet their llamas and alpacas, while adults and kids aged 10 and above can go for a trek with the animals. There’s wildlife spotting as you go, and a stop in a wooded area for drinks; plus a homemade picnic back at the farm (from £60pp).
12. Run yourself ragged
Go on, you know you’ve been thinking about it all through lockdown. Now’s the time to step up to the plate – or the millstone grit escarpment, rather – and take on the iconic North Yorkshire challenge of walking – or running – the Three Peaks Challenge. Most walkers complete the 24.5 mile circuit of the peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough in under 12 hours. You can do a self-organised trek, join a group or – if you really want to suffer – join this year’s competitive race scheduled for October 9. It’s £70 to join a group run.
13. Whale of a time
Whitby was once a whaling centre, but, today, minke whales visit the Yorkshire coast every year between July and September. Sperm and fin whales have also been spotted and, last summer, two humpbacks were even spotted breaching off Flamborough Head. It’s of course impossible to predict exactly what will be seen on a full-day tour, but lots of seabirds (including Arctic skua, puffin, fulmar and gannet) are routinely spotted, and bottle-nosed and white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises accompany boat trips year-round. Yorkshire Coast Nature runs regular trips out of Staithes throughout the summer, with expert guides on board (from £90pp).
14. North (bicycle) Riding
The 2014 Tour de France and 2015-19 Tours de Yorkshire put North Yorkshire’s lovely lanes and undulating hills on the road-racers’ map. Specialist operator Cycle England offers packages combining bike hire, transport and accommodation for keen cyclists who want to take on the county’s best routes – including the newly developed North York Moors Cycle Route, Way of the Roses, and Yorkshire Dales Cycleway.
15. Le pub grub
The county currently has seven Michelin-starred restaurants – more than any area outside London. Five of them are in North Yorkshire. There’s a notable pub theme running throughout Michelin’s North Yorkshire favourites, so you can expect culinary flair without the formality. Book early to get a table at the Black Swan at Oldstead; Michelin-starred Roots in York; the Angel Inn at Hetton; the Star Inn at picturesque Harome; and Palladian-style Grantley Hall in Ripon.
16. Family-friendly off-roading
Off-road cycling is exhilarating as well as safe – and in the North York Moors national park you get that top-of-the-world sensation. At Sutton Bank, east of Thirsk, there are five main trails (from three to 17.5 miles) to satisfy a range of ability levels, plus a new all-weather 1.6-mile figure-of-eight route. Thanks to a wider track on the latter, families can ride side-by-side, and hand-crank bikers are welcome. For those after an adrenaline fix, there’s a 1,082ft pump track for mountain bikers.
17. Go Viking
From Roman Eboracum to Viking Jorvik and its role as a regional trading hub and top-flight ecclesiastical seat, York has long been at the centre of the north’s historical action. A new walking trail has been devised to underline the city’s European heritage through buildings, businesses, stories and belongings that link York to no fewer than 19 countries on the continent. Historically significant highlights along the way include the Ouse and Foss, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall and National Railway Museum, but these are intermingled with quirkier stops such as Friends Meeting House, where Torah scrolls of Czech origin were rescued during the Second World War.
18. Sunday service
Since mid-May, DalesRail has recommenced its Sunday-only services between Blackpool and Carlisle via the much-loved Settle to Carlisle line. The 3hr 20min journey takes in the verdant Ribble Valley, Yorkshire Dales, and Eden Valley, passing Poulton-le-Fylde, Bamber Bridge, Blackburn, Whalley and Clitheroe. If you prefer to combine a rail trip with a walk, there’s a set of downloadable walks from Settle and Ribblehead out to the countryside.
19. Floral flashback
Dotted across Yorkshire are more than a hundred Wildlife Trust reserves. A special patch of ancient flora is Leyburn Old Glebe, a hay meadow owned by a local church before being taken over by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in 1983. Never ploughed or re-seeded, it is now managed as a traditional hay meadow and displays the kind of botanical diversity that would have been typical of the Dales before the advent of intensive farming. Over 80 plants have been recorded in recent surveys, including salad burnet, wild thyme, fairy flax, cowslips, agrimony and a range of orchids – the nationally scarce burnt-tip is a rare treat. The reserve is on a south-facing, gently inclined bank above the River Ure, with views over the Dales to Penhill and to the ridge above Coverdale, which rises towards Great Whernside.
20. An English country garden
It’s hard to believe the monks who founded Fountains Abbey were after a simpler life. Today, the National Trust-managed abbey ruins, Georgian water garden, medieval deer park, Elizabethan Hall and Gothic church dazzle for their splendour as well as their setting. Unesco-listed Studley Royal Water Garden, designed by father and son John and William Aislabie, is considered a superb example of the English natural landscape garden style that was popularised by Capability Brown and emulated across Europe during the 18th century. Pack a picnic.
Entry £17 adults, £8.50 children. nationaltrust.org.uk
For more ideas on where to stay, see Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in North Yorkshire