Black Hambleton Loop

The weather has been astonishing when George Renwick (The Governor) sends me a note, “Black Hambleton Loop, it’s about seven miles, are you in?”

Well, who could resist an offer like that so I’m parking up at Square Corner past Chequers near Osmotherley on the North York Moors? There’s a small but adequate free parking area with no facilities and our trusty crew is milling about readying themselves for what looks like a very pleasant evening walk. 



After a brief period of ribald remarks and mickey taking, we’re all ready and begin to walk towards Hawnby on the road. The weather has been hot and the road has melted in parts revealing the black tar that normally binds the small stone chippings but now floats them. It also allows the heady smell of hot tar which is both irritating to the nostrils but also pleasant in a strange sort of way. It also triggers memories of my early working years when the county was called The North Riding of Yorkshire and I was an apprentice towards the end of my indenture period so allowed to work unsupervised. 


Over 50 years ago I started an apprenticeship with the North Riding County Council and one of my duties was to maintain the tar sprayers or repair the tractors or other plant associated with road or verge maintenance. During the summer I’d be called to every corner of this beautiful county and the smell takes me back to Central Depot in Northallerton where the Bedford CA van would be prepared with the tools and spares to deal with the call-out and more besides. 

This model of van had sliding doors that could be fastened back so that it could be driven with them open. Sometimes the loop that would hold the door open would not be secured and the driver would often be holding on to the windscreen frame with their right hand whilst steering the van with the left. If the brakes were applied, even gently, the door would come sliding forward like the blade of a guillotine and the back of the hand and fingers would be almost unusable for the next few days. Seat belts were a new device and looked upon as more of a hindrance than a life-saving feature so were rarely worn. They’d been mandatory fittings from 1968 but it wouldn’t become compulsory to wear them until 1983 and according to statistics at the time that would mean another 15,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries would occur until then. All of that was a mystery to us of course and we’d drive about on hot summer days with both of the sliding doors tied back to allow maximum air into the hot cab. Whilst the downside was the possibility of falling out with dire consequences, the upside was the cool breeze and changing smells that would drift into the vehicle as I drove along the beautiful byroads of our magnificent county. 

There were some disadvantages too. The main one was that driving without a seatbelt coupled with an open door was a potent combination that a teenager would fail to recognise as dangerous. Falling out was high risk and the consequences dire; even at slow speeds a ton of van and tools without a driver could take out a bus queue or half a school with ease but shamefully, we still drove the things without a thought. Another disadvantage was that at fifty miles per hour with the doors open it was nearly impossible to light a cigarette (there were no cigarette lighters fitted to vans then). If we did stop to light up and then accelerate back up to speed, a whole cigarette would last no more than fifteen seconds so the irony was that if we were killing ourselves by smoking the door would be shut so the rest of society was safe!

In April and May, there’d be blossom from the blackthorn, hawthorn, cherries, various fruit trees in the orchards and the glorious lilac. The lilac was above all else, it filled the air and I was addicted to it, if there was a lilac bush near the job I’d drift along to breathe the sweet smell and go back for a top-up from time to time throughout the day.  In a later change to my life after some seriously late nights studying and new qualifications, I moved from plant-fitting to computer science so my life changed and I loved it. I was at a conference in Prague followed by a visiting professorship at Ostrava University in what was then Czechoslovakia. That wonderful lilac smell was omnipresent and still transports me back to the walk through the woods in Ostrava feeling nervous but looking forward to teaching the profs about the network we’d supplied. (I’ll put a link to that tale at the bottom of this page). But that will be in a new life a few years from now…

In June there’d be warmer days and the doors of the van would be tied back semi-permanently and only closed when there was summer rain. By now the verge-cutters would be out and the smell of newly mown grass would be everywhere. It made some of the roads a little safer because you could see further without the overgrown vegetation drooping into the road and blocking your view, especially at junctions. The decision to stop doing it was taken on financial grounds but the ecological benefits were astronomical leaving these wonderful wild oases to the bugs, small beasties and birds and forming a natural border between road and hedgerow; now that wildflowers are reappearing either through seeding or natural return, they look good too. 

July and August were high points in the grass-cutting and road maintenance calendar so I’d be at Thwaite Bridge in the Dales on Monday and Whitby on Tuesday and all points in between for the rest of the week. The open doors of the van would expose my nostrils to sea air followed by silage or hay-timing and I’m remembering all of this from a small pool of tar almost imperceptible between the tiny stones of grit but with a smell so pungent it draws my eyes to the road surface in an effort to identify and avoid it because the sticky crude molasses, once on your boots or clothes, is very nearly impossible to remove.


There’s a shout from Tracker George, “Right, here”. He’s ex-army so there’s an element of command in his tone but no one is offended and we all enjoy the banter that’s often attracted to his ‘order’. He’s a good map reader and that combined with Outdooractive on my phone keeps us safe.

Yorkshire Banksy Art


We’re heading into the valley now with Black Hambleton way above us. It stands at 1300 feet (400m) above sea level and we’re about 800 feet (250m) so we’re looking at a nice piece of ‘up’ that’ll raise heart rate and respiration without leaving us breathless.



We see the derelict cottages as we make our way towards the wooden bridge at Dale Head. There may be a story behind these sorry-looking farm buildings and house and I’d be interested if you knew it but we’re left with the ghosts of previous occupants floating through the rooms and maintaining an ironic life in the desperately sad ruins that are being taken back into the moor as the seasons and weather take their toll.



Beyond the buildings we reach Dale Head Bridge where Bowderis Beck meets Wheat Beck and combine to move the water, babbling over smooth stones of indeterminate age, along the bottom of the dale.

We take a short comfort break, Louise would be proud, she always maintains, “If you’re not peeing then you’re not drinking enough”, I think we’ve drunk enough today Lou!



On we go parallel to Wheat Beck and now on the up. The views down the dale are spectacular and if a reference point is needed then on a night like tonight with superb visibility then Billsdale Mast is exactly that.

Our route is obvious as the track is well-trod and easy. The last time we walked this track it was deep in mud and treacherous, that was late winter, today is mid-summer and the sun is still above the horizon. Evening walks are accented by the angle of the sun in the same way as our early morning ones but the atmosphere is different. We still have long shadows though and that gives a wonderful three ‘D’ effect to the beautiful dale and is even present in the photographs.



At the top of Locker Bank adjacent to Locker Wood we take a break. Bananas and other energy foods are produced and lots of drinks as we take our rest on the soft (well softer than heather) grass.



Tracker George announces that we’ve had twenty minutes which is his way of saying we’re on the move again across the top of Black Hambleton where it is just wild moor for another twenty minutes as the dales and vales are hidden by heather, gorse and the horizon.

At White Gill Head the Vale of Mowbray makes an appearance and the Pennines are trying to show through the haze in the distance and the trees, walls, hedges and farmhouses cast long shadows by the swiftly waning sun; there’s that three ‘D’ again and we all stop to stare.



We’re on the Cleveland Way now on the Hambleton Street Track taking in the changing vista over the vale as the sun sends its final rays. It’s all downhill for us now with a backdrop over Osmotherley and an easy descent to Square Corner.



This walk is less than seven miles and whilst the first half will get your heart rate up, it’s not difficult.

Thanks George Renwick, George Preston, Dave Bowman, Dave Rider and Peter Hymer another lovely walk and at a different time of day making it even better.

Enjoy the snaps…G..x

If you fancy a longer read then you can access the Czechoslovakia adventure here: Czechoslovakia


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