Weekend Breaks: The North Yorkshire Moors Railway

By M@ Last edited 21 months ago

Last Updated 13 September 2022

Weekend Breaks: The North Yorkshire Moors Railway
A steam train, black and red, in full steam
Image courtesy NYMR

North Yorkshire has it all. Sandy beaches, windswept moors, historic towns and the best tea. It also has one of the country's grandest heritage railways. The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is a full day out, and an excellent centrepiece for a short (or long) break in God's Own Country. We got a ticket to ride...

What is the North Yorkshire Moors Railway?

Pickering station, with green and cream weatherboarded station buildings on a platform
The revitalised track snakes across the moors for 24 miles from Pickering to Whitby. Image by the author

A railway, across the North Yorkshire Moors. Obviously. But it's so much more. This is a heritage railway, closed in the 60s during the Beeching cuts, but rescued by enthusiasts a decade later. The revitalised track snakes across the moors for 24 miles from Pickering to Whitby. It's just a bit longer than the Jubilee line, but there the similarities end. Let a vintage steam locomotive pull you through some of the most stunning scenery in England.

What's the experience like?

A curving rail track with a steam locomotive and diesel engine in the distance
Like a scene from Thomas the Tank Engine, a diesel engine looks on jealously while its steam compatriot chugs off. Image courtesy of NYMR

If you've only ever experienced modern commuter trains, then you're in for a barrage of unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells. From the huff-a-chuff of the locomotive to the guard's whistle and the slamming of carriage doors — the aural experience alone will be alien to younger generations.

Then there's the scenery. It's hard not to compare the NYMR to the Hogwarts Express, as you do the locomotion through the strange, bleak beauty of North Yorkshire. The land climbs steeply from the railway valley as your train dances a tango with the River Esk.

The stations are also amazing. Pickering is a full-on heritage experience with pretty signage, an antique clock, a heritage centre and a beautifully appointed cafe. Oh, and there's a gift shop if you want to take home a NYMR teddy bear or tea towel. Look out for heritage features such as the WH Smith newsagent stand (with a headline about the Hindenburg), the serpentine benches and the ceramic tile route map.

A closed, green newsagent's stand with the name WH Smith and Son on top. It is on a train platform

What will I see from the train window?

A steam engine with several brown carriages steams through green countryside
Image courtesy of NYMR

Pheasants. LOTS of pheasants. We're not kidding. We must have seen hundreds of them during our journey. The colourful birds are so common that we'd put them forward as a possible mascot for the NYMR, should they ever want something more eye-catching than the current typographic logo.

Indeed, the whole route is replete with wildlife. We counted 22 different species, including two types of deer, rabbits, buzzards and cormorants.

The bits that humans created are also a joy to take in. You'll see every scale of endeavour, from dry-stone walls up to the monumental Larpool Viaduct near Whitby. The intermediate stations — Levisham, Grosmont, Goathland — are all picturebook halts from another age. Goathland even doubled as Hogsmeade in the first Harry Potter film, further reinforcing the feeling that you're heading to wizarding school. Check out the webcams of the stations for some steamy live action.

And keep an eye out for RAF Fylingdales. Its otherworldly golf balls, which once dominated the moors, are long gone, but the remaining trapezoid radar station is like something from a sci-fi film, squatting there out on the moor.

What are the route options?

A view of moors through a train carriage window
Up hill, but mostly along dale. Image by the author.

To see the whole railway, pick up Seaside Special tickets, which will take you all the way to Whitby and back, with enough stop-off time to explore this beguiling coastal town. Note that the steam locomotive takes you only as far as Goathland, where a noisy and noisome diesel unit takes over.

Moors Explorer tickets, meanwhile, give you the opportunity to hop off at the smaller stops on the moors for a wander around this unique landscape. Check the railway's itinerary page for various options, to explore the way that suits you.

How do I get there?

A train guard in orange high vis blows a whistle and waves a flag. A second guard in a hat and facemask stands behind
Preparing to leave Pickering. Image by the author

Pickering doesn't have a regular railway station. The only trains that come and go are on the NYMR. To get there by public transport, you'll need to get a bus (or cycle) from nearby Malton, itself a short train ride from York. If you're driving, the railway has its own car park (with fee) and overspill (free but a bit of a walk). Be sure to have a Plan B for parking, though, as these quickly fill up.

Alternatively, you can start from Whitby. That does have other train services (to Middlesborough and Newcastle), though they're slow and infrequent. You're better off getting the train to Scarborough (via York if coming from London), then hopping on the X93 bus, which is half-hourly in the summer and is itself a beautiful journey.

A few peculiarities

The interior of a ye olde train carriage, with maroon and wood seating
A typical carriage. Image by author.

The staff and volunteers of the NYMR do an amazing job of running this vintage machinery to timetable, but some slippage is always a possibility on a railway where the points are operated manually. Our own return journey was delayed at Whitby for 20 minutes without any announcement. Once we did board, however, the staff were falling over themselves to apologise and make sure we were all happy.

One peculiarity of the service, which isn't so much a grumble as a puzzle, is that every seat seems to carry two reservation numbers, with stickers on the windows contradicting those on the back of each seat. It adds a little frisson as to whether you're in the correct bay or not. We can only conclude that it's a mischievous wheeze to get passengers talking to one another!

Overall, though, it only adds to the charm and idiosyncrasy of this truly special railway gem.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway runs April through October. Ticket prices vary depending on itinerary. Londonist took a ride on a complimentary ticket.