A Drive Across the Desolate North York Moors

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If you’re visiting Yorkshire, a drive along the North York Moors is a must. And it’s not just us saying this; Continental Tyres found in a recent survey that the North York Moors is the third best road trip in the UK! (1)

On this page we’ll tell you about our stay in the city of York and the drive through the moors up to Whitby on the east coast. It’s not the sort of place you want a red warning light flashing on your dash. But that’s exactly what happened…

Let’s hit the road and find out why our old motorhome wasn’t entirely happy driving across this desolate wilderness…

view out of campervan windscreen on the A169 road across the North York Moors

Camping in the centre of York

Before we start off on the road trip itself, let’s tell you about base camp…

We’re country folk and the idea of staying on a campsite slap bang in the middle of a busy city full of other tourists doesn’t sound like our idea of heaven. But we were in for a pleasant surprise…

The Rowntree Club Site is within a ten-minute walk of York city centre and close to the River Ouse. It was easy to find using Google Maps and has all the facilities you’ll ever need.

It’s one of those campsites where you book in at reception then drive around to find whatever pitch you like. This means that if you then leave your pitch and don’t mark it with one of those ‘reserved’ signs, your pitch could well be taken by someone else by the time you get back.

Just something to bear in mind if you’re popping out in your van for the day.

What to see in York

We explored the centre of York over two days and some of the highlights were…

  • A spooky ghost tour of the city – well worth it if you like that sort of thing
  • A visit to the castle museum – this is a must!
  • An amble through ‘The Shambles’ and ‘Little Shambles’ – famous parts of the city with narrow streets lined with medieval buildings
  • Enjoying a beer in the house where Guy Fawkes was born
  • Soaking up the atmosphere of Evensong at York Minster

Hobo Trudi’s research tells us that The Shambles is an old term for a meat market. During its varied history, this area was once filled with slaughter houses and butcheries. The meat hooks with shelves below them are still there.

Many of the buildings are medieval, although the original shop fronts have been altered throughout the centuries. The tiny lanes running from The Shambles are called Snickleways.

York itself originates from a permanent Roman town. Outside York Minster, quite anonymously amidst the splendour is a Roman column. Find it on the city side of the building, across the road.

Saxons and Vikings also called York home, albeit by different names. However, the main period of strengthening and development was during the Medieval era. Naturally the Georgians and Victorians added their own architectural fingerprint – which is always one of painstaking beauty. The modern era has not sullied too much of it!

One more thing to mention before we get onto the actual road trip across the North York Moors…

Flooding in York

Near to the campsite reception, you’ll see a plaque that marks the water depth when the River Ouse flooded back in 2000.

We can tell you this for certain, 4 feet of water would ruin your motorhome! There were other major floods in 2010, 2015 and again in 2018.

With the river being just across the road from the site, there’s nothing to stop the water flooding onto the campsite, resulting in a full evacuation. Imagine that in the middle of the night!

Luckily enough, we had good weather throughout our visit in 2019 and heard that improvements to flood defences were about to commence. We understand these are still on-going and are expected to complete in October 2022. (2)

The drive across the North York Moors

So, onto the road trip itself…

We set off on a bright February morning – this being a Valentine’s adventure – heading north-east out of York along the A64. Then, just after Malton, we took a left turn onto the A169. (Zoom in on the map below).

This is where the road trip properly begins.

By the time you venture just north of Pickering you enter the desolation of the moors. And how we loved it! Not another soul in sight.

There’s something in the human spirit that yearns for these untainted wild places. As Roberts MacFarlane quotes in his best selling book Mountains of the Mind

All the most exciting charts and maps have places on them that are marked ‘Unexplored’

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons

It’s one of the main reasons many of us motorhomers try wild camping – to get back to nature and claim a secret part of the world just for ourselves, if only for one night.

But, unlike the British explorers of old who would leave their mark – a type of imperialist graffiti to tell the world they had been there – us van-lifers should leave no trace. And you wouldn’t want to taint the wilderness of these moors anyway.

The desolation – a palpable presence – imbues the air of the North York Moors with the mystery of ‘The Other’. It becomes your travelling companion as you venture across these unmarked places.

Motorhome driving on the North York Moors

If you’re wondering about the state of the roads and whether they are suitable for motorhome driving, the A169 makes for a pleasant meander through the wilderness.

Apart from one hairpin bend (called the Hole of Horcum) it’s pretty easy going. This is the main route across the moors and follows close to the North York Moors Railway.

We couldn’t resist pulling over and soaking up the wilderness of this place. Nothing but moorland for miles and miles…

VW Cree motorhome parked up on the North York Moors close to the A169

If you have the time, we suggest you head east into Goathland and board the steam train for a spectacular scenic ride.

Indeed, if you have confidence in negotiating the smaller roads – and your van is up to the task – Goathland, and the roads heading further north-westward, make for a lovely detour.

We had to leave by the same route we drove in because the other way out of the village (heading north-east and back on to the A169) was signposted as a 33% incline. That’s just too much for our old VW van, as we’d already found out before…

RELATED CONTENT: Read what happened when we ran out of puff in Derbyshire

Whitby Abbey

Once you’re back on the main road you’ll soon reach the seaside town of Whitby.

It was here that we noticed a red warning light flashing on our dash. The temperature gauge suggested we were overheating but no steam was rising from the engine. Strange…

Hobo Trudi wanted to go home! But, in the end, all we needed to do was top up the coolant level which had gotten a bit low.

In our early days of vanlife, we didn’t carry coolant, so on this occasion water had to suffice. Nowadays, we make sure we carry a spare bottle of the right coolant for our van, just in case.

With the warning light back off, we parked in the ‘Abbey Headland’ car park (which is part tarmac, part grassy field). One motorhome here was struggling off the damp ground. We suspected they had camped overnight, and why not? People have inhabited this headland for 3,000 years.

Unfortunately, the ruins of the 13th century Abbey were closed but we still got some great photos. Just looking at it sends a shiver down the spine and it’s easy to see – and feel – the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Whitby Abbey in silhouette

The town of Whitby

With the ruins closed, we wandered down the steps from the abbey toward the harbour and the town.

The lighthouse on the pier was open to visitors. However, people were queued right out the door and on up the spiral stairs! Obviously those coming down the spiral were having to negotiate the narrow part of the steps. Rather than stay to watch the inevitable accident, we put the lighthouse on our ‘must see’ list for next time.

After a leisurely stroll around the town, soaking up the atmosphere, we had a meal – the customary and famous fish and chips – before making our way back to the van. 

After leaving Whitby, we joined the A171 toward Scarborough.

Other attractions and places to see in the North York Moors

If we’d have known it at the time we would have headed out to Robin Hood’s Bay along the B1447 where there is a beautiful campsite looking out to sea.

Indeed, this would make for a great base to explore the whole North York Moors area and coastline if you don’t fancy staying in the centre of York like we did.

Or we would have headed west along the A171 and popped into The Moors National Park Centre at Danby. Something else for us to do next time we’re here.

But on this visit, after leaving Whitby, we drove south past Scarborough then west along the A64 again, continuing the round trip back to York. We hit heavy traffic well before the city, which was quite a jolt back to reality.

See, the North York Moors and the town of Whitby had transported us to an ‘other-worldly’ place. A place we wanted to stay for much, much longer.

Like the mountains, the moors have an allure that calls you back. Perhaps it’s because they mirror the aloneness that resides in us all, if only we’re brave enough to confront our own deep mysteries, what George Eliot called, “the unmapped country within us”.

Check out our other favourite road trips in the UK

If you liked this road trip story please remember to check out the other favourites from our ‘Top 10 Road Trips’ list. There are stories covering some of the best road trips and scenic drives we’ve taken in our old VW van throughout England, Scotland, and Wales.


(1) Continental Tyres road trip survey, reported in The Independent newspaper https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/uk/uk-top-road-trips-poll-b1885306.html

(2) Info about Rowntree campsite regarding flood defence improvements https://www.caravanclub.co.uk/club-sites/england/yorkshire/north-yorkshire/york-rowntree-park-caravan-club-site/

For more on York visit the York Tourist Information

And likewise, here’s the Whitby Tourist Information site.

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