04 September 2009

Scarborough-Whitby: Britain's best railtrail? Count on it

The 25-mile Scarborough to Whitby railtrail (all pictures), part of National Cycle Route 1, is one of the best cycle experiences in Britain, yet it’s curiously overlooked.

It’s longer, more scenic, more varied, and more convenient than the much more feted Camel Trail for instance. But we know the world sometimes works like that: Avebury vs Stonehenge, Shackleton vs Apollo 13, Monro vs Sinatra.

Anyway, it’s fabulous: a real must-do. You get superb coastal views, woodsy intimacy, a hint of heather-coated moorland, characterful pubs and friendly tea shops, a thrilling viaduct, and sturdy town splendour at both ends.

You might see sheepdogs hard at work too, and compare them to your own dog that expects a choc drop just for fetching a stick, and wonder which is more intelligent.

The ride profile is M-shaped, centred on Robin Hood’s Bay, a vertically-laned Cornish fishing village miraculously teleported to the north Yorkshire coast. Whichever way you go, therefore, you end up with a long coast downhill. South to Scarborough that’s about ten miles of mostly-freewheeling.

With rail access at both ends, you can do it one way easily. (Going by train between Whitby and Scarborough is possible but very roundabout and takes 5-6 hours though.) Or you can do it there and back in a day: a full 50-mile day, but a glorious one.

This is a route with a leisurely 1960s feel, where you can take your time. No wonder so many period telly dramas are made here – TV crews are famous for taking their time too.

The surface is cindertrack, a bit of tarmac, or pebbly chalk – fine on a hybrid, doable on a laden tourer or sturdy road bike.

The people that run the pubs and teashops smilingly welcome cyclists blundering in spattered with mud and dripping all over the place after being caught by a thunderstorm, as we were, no doubt because they’ve had a lot of practice at it.

Fish and chip fans recognise Whitby as the world’s best place to see a long queue outside a restaurant. The Magpie Cafe is the most celebrated place to eat, and you can spend a happy hour chatting to backpackers from round the world and local families from up the road and progressing about eight foot.

There are lots of other fish and chip places too, takeaway and eat-in, and you can tell the best ones because they have the longest lines waiting to be served. You’ll need patience, but if you’ve come from Scarborough up that long initial incline with little scenery for the first ten miles, you’ll know about patience.

And the most entertaining thing about Whitby is the Goths. You see them wandering about, couples in Victorian cloaks and long skirts and top hats and long dyed black hair and vampire makeup and Specsavers glasses. You think they’re publicising some future am-dram performance and have run out of leaflets. Nope: they’re here in homage to Count Dracula, because this is Bram Stoker country.

I'm not sure that the Count was quite so keen on tragus piercings and labrets - perhaps he was a bit squeamish - but the spirit of Dracula lives on in Whitby town centre: we had a narrow escape with one car, whose driver clearly had no use for a mirror.


  1. I rode it a few years ago with a couple of friends, one of whom went on to become a distinguished writer on cycling topics.

    I agree it's a lovely route, though for me it was a bit spoiled by what I think is a rather poor surface. It's perfectly cycleable, and would be fine for a mile or two, but after 20 miles it got distinctly wearing and I was glad when I got to the end and back onto tarmac. (I was riding a Dawes Galaxy touring bike.)

    1. I rode most of this route seven years ago with my wife and two young sons - I thought it was a fantastic cycle path which could be ridden by any cyclist, whatever their age, experience or type of bike. I returned this summer, and like Nigel, I was riding my Dawes Galaxy. I have to agree completely with his comments - in some sections, particularly south of Ravenscar, the path has deteriorated badly to become a cycle track which really needs a mountain bike for real enjoyment.
      We came upon a middle aged man who had recently bought an electric bike who skidded off the path and had badly cut his knee. It would be a shame if one of Britain's premiere traffic - free cycle routes became too difficult for all cyclists to enjoy, whatever their level of equipment or ability. Urgent maintenance is definitely needed.

  2. I cycled this in July 2012 as part of a fully loaded cycle camping ride from Ipswich to Edinburgh. Just about doable on a loaded tourer (26'' Wheels) some pushing where the ground was churned up by horses after Ravenscar with ruts from where the sleepers from the old railway are visible. Fantastic views well worth effort. Very bumpy going down to Robin Hood Bay.

  3. Great post - I love the Cinder Track. It really is a gem of a ride. Linked to you from my blog... http://thelangsett.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/the-cinder-track.html