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A festive trip to Sutton Bank (and why it’s worth visiting with kids all year round)

sutton bank visitor centre walk

There’s a point in the festive season when it’s a good idea to down Christmas tools and head outdoors. While nothing will stop the to-do list from growing or the school WhatsApp messages from multiplying, a day away from it all is sometimes all you need to get some perspective and recharge your batteries so you might remember to recharge the actual batteries ahead of Christmas day. 

That’s why we found ourselves heading out to Sutton Bank on a wet December weekend, armed with a boot full of wet weather gear and plenty of snacks (mince pies included). The plan was to do the White Horse Walk, a 1.5 mile circular route that we’ve done and enjoyed before. But as we wove our way up Sutton Bank, the clouds descended, the windscreen wipers went wild and the White Horse was nowhere to be seen. By the time we parked up at the Sutton Bank Visitor Centre car park, we couldn’t be sure what was more bleak: the weather or the kids’ moods. They’re hardy Northerners who prefer winter to summer, but even they were struggling to see the bright side of braving the elements.

sutton bank visitor centre walk

We paid for parking with some trepidation, wondering whether we’d be back in the car and heading home within five minutes. But no sooner had they spotted the outdoor play area than things started looking up. It’s a lovely little area outside the centre that’s free to visit, with plenty of things to balance on, climb up and explore, from treehouses to a (very muddy) mud kitchen. We found plenty of free things to do inside the warmth of the Visitor Centre, too, from bird watching to colouring. The kids loved looking at bark and fir cones through the microscopes at the Nature Lab exhibition, and digging in the sandbox to make their own landscapes too.

The Merry Mouse Trail – As it was still chucking it down outside, we decided to postpone the White Horse walk for a sunnier day and do the Merry Mouse Trail instead. This short festive trail around the Visitor Centre is £5 per child and the promise of a prize at the end was a great way to get everyone outside again. Our eldest did the map reading while the other two looked for the clues and filled in the booklet. There are eight to find, and we were pleased that the route took us to ‘The Finest View in England’. Even on the cloudiest day, it’s not hard to see why James Herriot (of All Creatures Great and Small fame) dubbed this particular corner of the North York Moors the most beautiful place in the whole country. Selfies taken, heather danced around, birds spotted and trail complete, we handed in our form and collected our prize (which was more substantial than we’d expected, and well worth the cost of the trail). The trail runs until Friday 5th January if you fancy doing it yourselves.

Food & drink – Somehow everyone had worked up an appetite, so we followed the scent of coffee and soup to the centre’s Park Life Cafe. We grabbed a table near the fire and warmed up with a tasty and good-value lunch. For a relatively small cafe, there’s a good selection of snacks and light meals, from baked potatoes to burgers and breakfast favourites. Our girls gave their cheese toasties the thumbs-up, and our son polished off his plant-based burger in no time. The homemade lemonade was so good that they tried to recreate it when we got home.

sutton bank visitor centre
sutton bank cafe

Cycling at Sutton Bank – Sutton Bank isn’t just for walkers. There’s a variety of cycle trails that give you access to bridleways, roads and tracks across the Moors. We’re planning to attempt the 3-mile family-friendly Cliff track next year when the weather’s better, but there are more challenging ones for more experienced cyclists too. Find all the trails on the North York Moors website. There are also two purpose-built cycling tracks at the Visitor Centre: a pump track and family-friendly cycle trail. If you don’t want to take your own bikes up there, you can hire them from Sutton Bank Bikes.

sutton bank cycling

Dark Skies Festival – Sutton Bank is an International Dark Sky Reserve, and even has its own Star Hub. You can book various stargazing events throughout the year, and there are always plenty of events at Sutton Bank during the Dark Skies Festival. Keep an eye on our website – and the North York Moors website – for all the details of the next festival.

A quick trip to Helmsley – Having explored the visitor centre, done the trail, played in the play area and tucked into a tasty lunch, it was home time. With the pretty town of Helmsley just ten minutes away, we couldn’t resist popping in on the way back. With twinkling window displays, Christmas trees galore and the sweet smell of mulled wine in the air, it was a lovely time of year to visit and tick a couple of things off the Christmas list too.

Feathers Helmsley

What could have been a total turkey of a family day out turned into a Christmas treat that the elements couldn’t dampen. It’s proof of those annoying parental mantras that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, and that time outdoors together is always a good idea. Take snacks, prepare to change your plans and don’t worry if the sun doesn’t shine. It’s the perfect excuse to go again another day.

Trip essentials

Address – Sutton Bank National Park Centre, Sutton Bank, Thirsk YO7 2EH

Parking – Parking charges apply; pay at the machine by card

Admission price – Free 

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