From Littlebeck – 7.15 miles (11.5km)
Littlebeck is a tiny hamlet situated at the bottom of a deep, beautifully wooded valley and centred upon a ford, from which the lane climbs very steeply on either side. An information board near the ford mentions Thomas Whittaker – the ‘Gnome Man’, who chiselled away in his Littlebeck workshop for almost 50 years, building an international reputation for his craftsmanship. After serving an apprenticeship with Robert Thompson, ‘the Mouseman of Kilburn’, Whittaker moved to Littlebeck, setting up his workshop sometime in the 1940s, choosing a woodland gnome as his trademark. When he died in 1991, the business ended, and his workshop became a private home. According to legend, a gnome is born each time an acorn sprouts, and that gnome will guard that tree throughout its life. So perhaps Thomas is still watching over his invaluable legacy!
Leaving the village, the sylvan beauty of Little Beck Wood soon becomes apparent. The glorious canopy of ash, oak, alder and cherry provides a habitat to a wealth of birds, mammals, insects and plants. In the spring and early summer, bluebell, primrose, red campion and wood anemone are in full flower, with ferns extending across the shadier areas. The rich ground flora sustains a healthy mammal population, including badgers, deer and small rodents. Sightings of birds are commonplace, including the treecreeper, great spotted woodpecker and dipper, and bird boxes provide vital breeding spaces for nuthatches, tits and owls. All fallen trees are left as dead wood, which provides an important food source for insects, lichen and fungi; these, in turn, support the birds and animals higher up the food chain. Careful management of the understorey maintains tree health by thinning the holly and coppicing of hazel.
The trail continues up the valley, rising gradually to reach ‘The Hermitage’ – a folly cave hewn out of an enormous boulder, with room for fifteen or more people inside. The initials ‘GC’ and ‘1790’ inscribed above the doorway refer to George Chubb, the local schoolmaster who commissioned the folly in that year to provide work for local people. Above the folly, there are two ‘wishing chairs’ carved out of stone; you sit in one chair and make a wish, but then you must sit in the other chair for the wish to come true.
Further up the track is the impressive Falling Foss waterfall, which plunges 30 feet (10m) into a deep rocky pool surrounded by overhanging trees. The word ‘Foss’ derives from the old Norse ‘fors’ and means waterfall. Near this beautiful cascade stands Midge Hall, a former gamekeeper’s cottage, which now operates as the Falling Foss Tea Garden. The hall is a welcoming oasis, especially for weary Coast-to-Coast walkers endeavouring to reach the finishing point at Robin Hood’s Bay.
Suitably refreshed, we continue along the beck side to the May Beck car park. The promoted route continues beside May Beck and along the Whinstone Ridge to reach John Bond’s Sheep House – named after a local shepherd who lived there for many years. Although now in ruins, John Bond’s Sheep House was once a large complex sheepfold – a walled enclosure used to gather sheep for sorting at shearing time. Farmers used sheepfolds to separate their flocks from one another after grazing on the open moorland. The shepherd treated the sheep for ticks, trimmed hooves and marked his herd with a coloured dye before releasing them back onto the moor. However, nowadays, farmers carry out most of these tasks more centrally near their farmhouses and move their flocks down from the moors with quad bikes and sheepdogs.
After leaving the wood, we follow part of a medieval trade route known as the Fish Road or Salt Road, which runs from Robin Hood’s Bay to Fylingdale’s Moor. In the eighteenth century, smugglers’ wives carried baskets of fish along this track with smuggled silk wrapped around their waists. Tradition holds they also concealed pig bladders full of gin beneath their petticoats! The trail passes an odd-shaped standing stone, known as Old Wife’s Neck, which resembles a human head and torso when viewed from certain angles.
At the top of the rise, we leave the moor, passing John Cross, an early wayside cross of Christian origin. The name possibly derives from John de Steyngrave, Abbot of Whitby 1245-1258. Unfortunately, only the base stone is original; the stone now inserted into the socket is an old boundary marker. There is an excellent view of the North Sea at Robin Hood’s Bay and Brow Moor near Ravenscar.
The walk returns to the road briefly at New Maybeck Farm. Then, we follow a path along the woodland edge to reach the aptly named Lousy Hill Lane. Thankfully, our return to Littlebeck is downhill!