After a gloriously wind-pummelled plod across the moor – two steps forward, one sideways – amid a monochrome of brown, I was unprepared for the view as we edged down the southern ledge of Ainthorpe Rigg. The mosses, lichens and grasses here combined into extraordinary shades of green – too many to count – morphing into a luminescent mass of bubbling vegetation. Had I waited until sunset, it would not have surprised me if they'd glowed in the dark.
These goo-like flanks flowed gently into the superbly named valley of Little Fryup in the North York Moors National Park, which, along with the Queen, celebrates its diamond jubilee this year. Designated in 1952, the moors became Britain's sixth national park. The anniversary is being marked by exhibitions drawing on the moor's unexpectedly vibrant and substantial community of artists.
The greens of Little Fryup find echoes in the colours of the semi-abstract paintings of Peter M Hicks, one of six artists featured in the first exhibition, Inspired Landscape, opening next weekend at The Moors National Park Centre in Danby. Hicks paints in watercolours and pastels at a studio in the same town, overlooking Ainthorpe Rigg.
Hicks warms to what he calls "the sylvan light of the moors" and frequently takes his easel into the park's heartlands. "The moors are very accessible. The hills aren't as severe as the Yorkshire Dales, and you can see a lot in just four or five miles," he says.
That much is true. Ainthorpe Rigg felt remote, even though the moors themselves are just 20 miles from York. Crossing the River Esk, which curls backwards and forwards here, as if building up its strength for a last hurrah towards the North Sea, we walked across the track of the Middlesbrough to Whitby railway, reckoned locally to be a gem of branch-line travel.
A sleepy lane led through the hamlet of Ainthorpe. Past the Fox and Hounds pub, the lane is accompanied by a raised flagstone path, known locally as a trod. The moors are dotted with these tracks that echo ancient drovers' paths or routes taken by monks. Some dribble out inexplicably, marooned by heather.
Our path broke away along an exposed and rough sandstone bridleway, arrowing gently to the top of Ainthorpe Rigg, a huge, classically distinctive ridgeline. We plodded past a large monolith, one of 1,500 boundary stones and crosses on the moors. Squawking red grouse erupted out of the heather to join the bobbing, fluttering stonechats and skylarks.
My companion was Matt Fitzpatrick, a ranger for the national park. Despite the horizontal rain in our faces, Matt was purring at the raw beauty. "It can sound silly, but on the moors you get a sense of just how big the sky is. And when you get a stormy day, with clouds building up, you somehow get more depth to the sky."
For all their glory and mystery, the moors are thoroughly shaped by man: the arrival of our Neolithic ancestors triggered a frenzy of tree chopping and grazing. Moorland took hold and has been reinforced by grouse shooting, which crops the moors to encourage the birds to breed in sufficient numbers for the surplus to be shot.
We descended from Ainthorpe Rigg into the sea of green. The landscape seemed suddenly stretched and larger, dominated by a succession of blurred, rolling raised flanks of moorland. In the foreground of this quiet drama, stood the strikingly smooth, aptly named, Round Hill.
I was reminded of something Peter Hicks had said in his studio: "I like my paintings to have an ease about them, not too tight, to suggest form and invite the viewer to complete it. If the painting dots all the 'i's and crosses all the 't's then it blots the viewer out." He could have been talking about this view.
Along a quiet lane, we passed tiny, isolated farms. Behind the cowsheds, meadows reached upwards, gently lapping the hills, grazed by Scottish Blackface sheep and squared off by drystone walls that gave way to a chequerboard of gorse, heather and bracken. Later, we passed the semi-fragmented ruins of Danby Castle. Less a fortification than a statement of grandeur, the castle's banqueting hall hosts the Danby Court Leet, one of the few remaining manorial courts in the UK. It determines grazing rights.
Our last stop was Duck Bridge, a miniature restored 14th-century humpbacked bridge that somehow remained open until as recently as the 1990s, when emergency call-outs from entombed motorists, perfectly wedged between the narrow walls and perched on the apex of the hump, triggered its closure.
Evocative names abound: skipping back across the railway, it was time to try out the Woolly Sheep Café at the moors centre. The cakes were mouthwatering but, disappointingly, no one has yet exploited the obvious marketing cafe opportunities presented by the valleys of Little Fryup, or its neighbouring valley, Great Fryup.
Step by step directions
Start/finish The Moors National Park Centre, Danby.
Distance Four miles/ 7 km
Time Two and half hours
OS Map OL 26 North York Moors Western Area
Directions From the visitor centre, follow waymarkers across the field, the river Esk and the railway. Turn right along the lane through Ainthorpe. At the crossroads, turn left up Brook Lane. After the tennis courts, take the waymarked bridlepath right on to Ainthorpe Rigg. Follow the ridge line past two standing stones. Where the path splits, keep straight ahead, downhill, into Little Fryup valley. At the road, bear left past Danby Castle and Duck Bridge. Follow the footpath sign to the visitor centre.
Mark Rowe travelled to York by train with CrossCountry (crosscountrytrains.co.uk). York is also served by East Coast, East MIdlands Trains, First TransPennine Express, Grand Central and Northern Rail. Bus 31 runs from York to Helmsley.
The writer stayed at the Black Swan in Helmsley (01439 770466; blackswan-helmsley.co.uk), which offers doubles from £189 half board.
See northyorkmoors.org.uk. The "Inspired Landscape" exhibition runs at The Moors National Park Centre in Danby (01439 772737) 13 May-17 July, 10am-5pm daily.