One of England's wildest and most spectacular landscapes is full of hidden treats, writes Daniel Scott.
It is a light, warm summer evening when I see my first badger, shuffling through the undergrowth in an English wood. The young male surfaces soon after we arrive at a wooden hide in the midst of Cropton Forest, in the North York Moors National Park. He's been enticed out of his underground sett by some peanut butter-smeared titbits distributed by local Badger Trust volunteer, Jane Payne, and seems oblivious of our presence behind a viewing window.
We watch him as he follows a nutty trail to within a whisper of where we sit. He is surely one of nature's cutest creatures.
At about 80centimetres long he is smaller than I imagined. But his body is stocky and his front paws have thick claws to help him forage for food.
"Their favourite food is earthworms," Payne says. "But they're omnivorous and will eat almost anything. This sett has lots of different entrances and chambers and it's been here for possibly 300 years."
Badgers are protected now but, historically, were cruelly hunted for sport. This involved digging them out of their setts, setting dogs on them and watching them fight for their lives. Humans are still the creatures' biggest enemy, with up to 50,000 a year killed by cars in Britain.
We stay in the hide for two hours, witnessing three males and two females, from a family of 12 that inhabits this sett, make forays through the forest. Then, as we are about to leave, a three-month-old cub noses out of a hole. In the hide there is a collective "aw" as its shiny black snout and tiny white-tipped ears appear, with a hand-sized bundle of fur following behind. Its appearance is brief but nobody watching will forget those moments of early exploration in a baby badger's life.
My badger encounter is the highlight of three summer days spent exploring the North York Moors National Park. The park, which stretches out to the north-east of the ancient city of York, encompasses some of England's wildest and most spectacular landscapes. Rising up in a towering escarpment in the west, its central feature is a 1400-square-kilometre expanse of heather moorland that culminates in the east in a coastline of lofty cliffs plummeting into the North Sea. All around the park, deep dales cut into high moors, their dense forests, fields and time-stood-still hamlets providing a vivid contrast with the bleak plateau above.
Our base is the Feversham Arms Hotel in the village of Helmsley, on the fringes of the park. The boutique property, set in a former coaching inn, bookends our day trips onto the moors beautifully. Days begin with tea delivered to our rooms, and a hearty English breakfast, and end with a swim in the heated pool followed by an exquisite dinner of local game, lamb or shellfish and farmhouse cheeses.
On our first morning, we drive the short distance to the Sutton Bank National Park Centre and strike out from here on foot. First, we follow the escarpment edge to the Kilburn White Horse. Engraved into the cliff-top by villagers in 1857, it is the largest of England's many white horses, is visible from 20 kilometres away and enjoys expansive views.
There are more panoramic vistas as we walk part of the Cleveland Way, a 176-kilometre trail threading all the way to the North Sea. The most striking feature below is glinting Lake Gormire, formed during the last Ice Age.
It wasn't long after this that the moors first attracted human habitation. Later, during the Iron Age, they became strategically important vantage points, with hill forts being erected. The Romans also kept a watchful eye on this wild and dangerous frontier, building forts and signal stations. Then, during medieval times, great abbeys, such as Rievaulx, a Cistercian monastery set in a wooded valley close to Helmsley, were laid out. As you travel across the moors, the most eye-catching purpose-built elements are dry stone walls, creating a fishing net of fields across the landscape. It is an ancient art that uses the positioning of stones, rather than cement, to provide stability and strength.
Another human construction that looks as if it has always been part of the scenery is the North York Moors Railway. The line runs through the eastern section of the park, with steam trains beginning their journey in the rural town of Pickering and ending at the seaside town of Whitby, stopping at several sleepy stations along the way.
On our return journey we get out at Levisham. The lung-busting climb to the top of Levisham Moor rewards us with superb views of the railway cutting through the valley and over the Hole of Horcum, a huge natural amphitheatre hollowed out of the limestone hills.
There is one major piece of the North York Moors jigsaw left to discover: the coastline. On our final day, we drive east to Ravenscar, a small settlement that totters on a windswept headland above the North Sea. In the 1860s, grand plans for a resort were drawn up but, happily, they didn't eventuate, leaving this dramatic coastline largely to the seabirds.
From Ravenscar we pick up the Cleveland Way again and forge north on foot along the cliff-tops, with the moors on one side and Robin Hood's Bay on the other. At the far end, the village of Robin Hood's Bay, once the haunt of smugglers, tumbles down a ravine in a tangle of lanes and red-roofed cottages. We still have an afternoon of rock-pool exploring and beach fossicking and the return walk to Ravenscar ahead of us. For now, though, we bask in the sun and reflect on three unforgettable days.
The writer was a guest of Yorkshire Tourist Board, National Express East Coast and The Feversham Arms.
National Express East Coast has frequent rail services from London's Kings Cross station to Yorkshire. See nationalexpresseastcoast.com.
Vroom Vroom Vroom offers four-day car hire from York for $658.20, see vroomvroomvroom.com.au.
The Feversham Arms in Helmsley has midweek specials from £85 ($174) a person, including breakfast and a three-course dinner. Phone +441439770766, see fevershamarmshotel.com.