National Character Area 25

North Yorkshire Moors and Cleveland - Description

The North Yorkshire Moors and Cleveland today

The North York Moors and Cleveland Hills are a very clearly demarcated block of high land in the north-east of Yorkshire and neighbouring Cleveland. The central moorland plateau is formed from Middle Jurassic sandstones and mudstones, with softer Lower Jurassic rocks being eroded in the west to form the western scarp above the Tees Valley and Vale of Mowbray. Here a curiously shaped, conical outlier of Lower Jurassic rocks, Roseberry Topping, is a distinctive and well-known landmark.

To the north-east the upland block meets the North Sea, resulting in dramatic coastal cliffs. The Cleveland Hills are the highest area, merging into the Hambleton Hills in the south-west – which in turn drop sharply down to the Vale of York. Along the southern margin the change in underlying rock is reflected in the distinct topography of the Tabular Hills, which dip gently to the south and east with a marked change in slope where the land drops down to the Vale of Pickering.

The expansive sweep of unenclosed heather moorland has been created by centuries of stock husbandry and other land management practices, and is a notable feature of the NCA. From these moorlands panoramic views in all directions give a strong feeling of wide open space, solitude and relative wildness and remoteness.

This feeling is enhanced by the relatively few roads and lack of settlements on the moorland plateau. This open moorland contrasts strongly with the more enclosed dales, with their scattered farmsteads and patterns of drystone walls enclosing small pastures. The moorland is the watershed: the dales that run south are broad and sweeping in their upper reaches, but narrow and steep sided where they cut through the limestone and calcareous sandstones of the Tabular Hills. The tributaries of the Esk in the northern dales are smaller and contained by hard shoulders of rock, while the Esk itself runs east to west through a wide upland valley.

The upland block extends eastwards to one of the highest stretches of cliff along England’s North Sea coast. The proximity of the sea to the high moors and sheltered dales adds greatly to the diversity, drama and character of the landscape. Small fishing villages are tucked into sheltered locations where narrow valleys meet the coast, for example at Staithes and Robin Hood’s Bay.

This dramatic coastline is widely known as the Dinosaur Coast, famous for its classic geological exposures and rich fossil resources. The unstable sea cliffs of the coastline support a range of vegetation from pioneer plant communities typical of the changing habitat to woodland where it is more resistant to erosion. Whitby jet can still be found on the shoreline, and the cliffs have had a history of quarrying for alum and other minerals.

The high moorland plateaux are largely treeless, but there are extensive coniferous plantations in the south-east, providing valuable habitat for nightjar and goshawk, and in the west and south-west. On the steep sides of narrow dales there are broadleaved woodlands, often of ancient origin, but in places replanted with productive timber species. The south-west of the area contains a nationally important concentration of ancient woodland sites and veteran trees.

The moorland represents the largest continuous expanse of upland heather moorland in England and supports internationally important areas of northern Atlantic wet heaths and European dry heaths, and blanket bog habitats. These habitats are dominated by ling heather and a range of other species, notably the bog mosses in wetter areas. Much of the moorland is managed for grouse and is of international significance for birds such as golden plover and merlin it also supports other moorland birds such as curlew.

Bracken is a significant feature on the higher land, forming a fringe to the moorlands and marking the transition from moor to valley pastures. Often there are strong colour contrasts – most notably the purple of the heather in late summer, the russet of the bracken through the winter months, the greens of the enclosed pastures in spring and early summer, and the darker conifers all year round. All these complement the grey or sandy colours of the walls, farms and hamlets, all built from local sandstone or limestone, creating a strong visual unity.

The valleys contain grasslands of varying degrees of agricultural improvement, to support the rearing of sheep and cattle. Some species-rich lowland meadows remain where agricultural management is less intensive, and wetlands occur where drainage is impeded or at upwellings and seepages of lime-rich groundwater on valley sides. Farndale is renowned for its extensive wild daffodils. Fields are bounded by drystone walls or in some lower valleys by hedges, often with hedgerow trees. Some older parklands notably Duncombe Park, contain a large number of magnificent veteran trees with their associated wildlife interest, supporting bat populations in the area. The southern fringe of the area holds isolated remnants of species-rich limestone grassland and calcareous fens. These grassland areas along with associated areas of shrub and woodland provide valuable habitat for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly and pearl-bordered fritillary.

In the south and east, where the soils are deeper and more fertile, there are extensive areas of arable cropping, with larger fields often bounded by fences. Sensitive management under Environmental Stewardship increases the importance of these areas for farmland birds such as tree sparrow and lapwing, and for rare arable flora. The arable landscape extends along the coastal strip, creating striking visual contrast where the farmed landscape meets the high cliff edge.

There is much evidence of early human activity in these uplands, for example in field systems, and in burial sites such as barrows and cairns. Particularly striking are the early Christian carved stone crosses that still stand out on remote moorland tracks. Walls, farms and villages are built of local stone, but roofed with red pantiles, which is unusual in upland areas, and thus very distinctive of this area.

Tucked in a twisting wooded valley is Rievaulx Abbey, the ruins of a 12th-century Cistercian monastery which has inspired many artists and poets. Medieval Whitby Abbey and Scarborough Castle are iconic features of the coast which have dominated their communities for centuries. More recently the railway line that winds its way through Newtondale between Pickering and Whitby has been preserved for recreational use. Large structures have a notable impact on the landscape, especially the chimney of the potash works at Boulby, the towering pyramid of the Ministry of Defence installation at Fylingdales, and the transmission mast at Bilsdale.

The landscape through time

This upland area is underlain by rocks of Jurassic age which rise sharply from the adjacent lowland regions. The oldest bedrock consists predominantly of sandstones and mudstones, found in valley bottoms, and also creates the precipitous cliffs along the coast from Kettleness to Scarborough. Seams of iron ore within the Jurassic sandstones and mudstones once provided a source of ironstone, which was extracted and used in the iron industry in the Esk Valley from the Middle Ages. More recently potash and associated halite salts have been extracted from the Permian rocks at great depth at the Boulby mine.

The fossiliferous limestone and calcareous sandstones of the Upper Jurassic have created the distinct form and character of the Tabular Hills in the south and the Hambleton Hills in the south-west. The limestone has been worked for building materials, and numerous active and disused quarries are found here. These rocks resisted glacial action to form scarps, for example at Sutton Bank and traversing the moors from west to east. The central moorlands are of Middle Jurassic sandstones which give rise to impervious, infertile sandy soils, overlain by peat in places.

During the Tertiary Period, a process known as cambering occurred in the Helmsley area, resulting in a number of rock fissures. These features are known locally as the Windy Pits and provide shelter for swarming bats.

The Cleveland Dyke, a hard, crystalline intrusive rock formed from molten magma 58 million years ago, cuts across the NCA from west to east. Its qualities make it useful for road and railway building, and remains of quarries can be traced in a line from Great Ayton in the west to Goathland Moor in the east. Glacial deposits of till and sandy gravels give rise to a more undulating landform in the north and along the coastal strip. Glacial action created the dramatic Western Scarp while outflow channels cut deep valleys such as the narrow gorges of Newtondale and Forge Valley, and the narrow valleys running south through the Tabular Hills.

The North York Moors retain a rich archaeological heritage revealed through burial sites, field systems, settlements and boundaries, which are especially evident on the heather-clad uplands and quarry sites on coastal cliffs. Once wooded, these uplands were cleared in pre-historic times and then grazed. Mesolithic occupation sites are known on the central moorland and neolithic long barrows along the valley edges. The moors are also rich in bronze-age barrows, cairns and stone circles. Evidence of iron-age and Romano-British settlement is concentrated in the south and east, with several earthworks including Roulston Scar, the largest iron-age hill fort in northern England.

The present strong pattern of nucleated settlements developed between the 9th and 13th centuries. Carved stone crosses still remain from these early days of Christianity in Britain and form striking landmarks along the moorland tracks. A royal forest, centred upon Pickering, stretched far to the west and north with small villages within it. Planned linear and green settlements, with tofts behind the dwellings stretching to back lanes, are characteristic.

Major change came with the arrival of monasteries in the 12th century: Rievaulx and Byland abbeys were the most dominant, controlling extensive areas of moorland and establishing outlying granges. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and 40s, prominent local families took over the monastic estates. Country houses and designed landscapes with ornamental trees were established, for instance at Rievaulx and Duncombe Park. Market towns developed at Helmsley, Pickering and Kirkbymoorside.

Common grazing lands were divided and enclosed in the late 18th and 19th centuries under local agreements and Parliamentary Acts, the former preserving the strip-field pattern, with clusters of common-field enclosures in the south and east. Larger, more regular enclosures are concentrated on the moorland fringes, mostly associated with arable farming in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Common grazing continued on unenclosed moorland, and management for grouse shooting was introduced here from the late 19th century. More arable-based husbandry, combined with root crops, was practised on the deeper soils of the south and east and along the northern escarpment of the Howardian Hills from the later 18th century.

Scarborough, a small medieval port, developed after the discovery of mineral springs in the early 17th century, and expanded from the late 18th century, while the port at Whitby is notable for its 18th-century architecture. Seaside resorts also developed in the late 19th century around Whitby and the port of Saltburn. The maritime heritage of the area is focused around Captain James Cook, who served his apprenticeship in the local merchant navy fleet of the 18th century.

From medieval times small-scale industrial workings exploiting the mineral resources of stone, coal and ironstone were economically significant, and spoil heaps, bell pits and disused railways are all still visible on the moors, coastal cliffs and hillsides. Jet has been extracted since the Bronze Age, reaching its peak as a major industry in the 19th century, and has very strong cultural associations in this area, with Whitby in particular. Alum, used in tanning and dyeing, was a major industry of the area and was extracted from open quarries from the 17th century, altering the local landform, especially along the coast.

The area retains a high proportion of ancient woodland. In the early-to-mid 20th century extensive coniferous plantations altered the character of the landscape, especially in the west and south-east. More recently there has been an increase in new broadleaved woodland.

Many of the drystone walls and hedges are now managed under agri-environment schemes, which have also achieved improved enhancement of moorland habitats. While there has been limited development in the area, intrusion from road traffic has increased, and the extent of dark skies has decreased since 1993.