I am staring at a metal monster, but rather than snarling, a low, gentle hiss unfurls from its underbelly. I catch my dad beaming like a child. “S’a beauty int’it tha’,” says a man to his friend. My parents, my daughter and I are surrounded by at least a hundred people doing the same thing, gazing at the locomotives brought in to celebrate the North Yorkshire Moors Railway’s 50th Anniversary Steam Gala.
Just moments ago, I was sitting in the cushioned comfort of a first-class carriage watching heathered moors, mining cottages, stations and clusters of trainspotters roll past. I stuck my head out of the window and saw locomotive No. 55189 Caledonian Railway 2P in its glory as we traversed a light bend.
It is a beautiful, bright autumn day – the sky is the pure blue you get at this time of the year and the leaves of the Esk Valley are rusting at the edges, but the air still feels fair.
I meet some friendly folk on this journey: a cheery volunteer called David whose London accent prompts me to ask what he’s doing up in Yorkshire. He explains that his mother died recently. “So, I took a few months off to stay with my uncle in Pickering and be part of something special.”
Behind the bar, a chap called Matt proudly tells me, in a Yorkshire accent, that his parents met on the railway. “If it wasn’t for this line, I wouldn’t exist,” he explains. He started volunteering for the festival in 2010, aged just 14, and now works for Transpennine.
“I love trains,” he says. “All my family work on this railway.”
There were over 1,000 volunteers supporting this year’s North Yorkshire Moors Railway (NYMR) festival; one of hundreds taking place in all parts of Yorkshire over autumn (23 September to 22 December) – the different counties of Yorkshire combine to make the UK’s largest historic county with a population larger than Scotland.
It is also, in my view, the best historic county in the country: it is where grew up, and I have returned to Yorkshire after several years of living in London. Access to three national parks (the Dales, Moors and parts of the Peak District), creative cities, a captivating coastline and a strong identity bring Yorkshire into its own, especially in the run-up to winter.
There is an atmosphere that only autumn can create – a hazy quality to the air, a smoky tang in the nostrils from wood burners and farms, a desire to make the most of the changing landscapes before the long, dark Yorkshire nights take hold. It also has a wide range of accommodation, from cosy inns to swanky spa hotels, ideal for when there is a nip in the air.
The 2.9 million people who stayed overnight in Yorkshire between October and December last year seem to agree with me – not that much less than the three million who stayed over summer, according to VisitEngland.
Over the past couple of years, an average of 81 per cent of hotel rooms were filled over summer with only a minor drop to 80 per cent in autumn – before a fall to 66 per cent in winter, based on data from UKHospitality and CoStar). Anecdotally, room rates fall after summer.
Autumn is a fantastic time to stargaze in the Yorkshire Dales (it has one of the world’s 21 Dark Sky Reserves), as it is not too cold, but the skies are much clearer at this time of year. Although the official Dark Skies Festival takes place in February, local businesses make the most of this season by hosting events such as the Canoeing, Star Gazing and Pizza Night at How Stean Gorge (18 November) or the Full Moon Walk at Malham Cove (25 November).
As I live in Harrogate, I can easily stop in at Yorkshire’s many events. Next on my list is the Ilkley Literature Festival (6–22 October), which also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Ilkley has everything you could want from a Yorkshire market town: a folk song “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’at”, a Bettys tearoom, a 1930s lido that allows you to bring your dog at the end of the season, and pubs to kick off walking routes, such as the 50-mile Stanza Stones trail with poems by Simon Armitage, the festival’s poet laureate, carved into rocks.
The literature festival is the second oldest in the UK after Cheltenham and has attracted writers including Dame Jaqueline Wilson, Jeanette Winterson and Monica Ali to host events this year. Festival director Erica Morris expects around 15,000 attendees – mostly Yorkshire folk – and she puts the event’s success down to its location 30 minutes’ drive from Leeds and Bradford and on the edge of both the Yorkshire Dales and the Pennines (Brontë Country).
“The scenery around our town is just spectacular and I think that that landscape is deeply embedded in our language and literature,” she tells me.
“We seem to breed writers who are not afraid of getting into the wilds or the bones of the outdoors and the countryside, but also we have these incredible industrial towns and the stories that come out of them, from Keith Waterhouse onwards,” she adds.
Back over in the North York Moors, the World Jam Festival has just taken place in what has to be one of the foodiest pockets of England, Helmsley.
This little market town and the nearby village of Harome have award-winning restaurants, including two with a Michelin Star: The Star Inn at Harome and the Black Swan at Oldstead, both of which also offer accommodation.
Hosted by Anna Lupton who owns the nearby Carr House Farm B&B, the jam festival was held on 1 October.
“This is a light-hearted thing, but also it helps local businesses,” says Anna.
“Autumn is when you make jam – it’s the pickling time of year, and we have some really good places around that people can visit as well so they can make a weekend of it.”
On the topic of epicurean delights, there is a selection of food and drink festivals coming up, from the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway’s five-mile-long beer and music festival (12–13 October) to the Yorkshire Dales Cheese Festival (6–9 October) – perhaps Hugh Jackman will swing by for some more Wensleydale Stonebeck (the actor was recently spotted taking a holiday in the Dales).
On the quirkier end of the festival scale, the Whitby Goth Weekend (27–29 October) and Hulloween Steampunk Festival (20 October) are fast approaching. Whether you don your black lace or not, there is plenty to do in and around the Dracula-famed seaside town of Whitby, from fish and chips at The Magpie Cafe to scaling the Abbey steps.
Talks, walks and parades will also be drawing crowds in full regalia to the East Riding’s former City of Culture, Hull. Then there’s the Yorkshire Yarn Fest near York (26 November), Illuminate the Gardens over in Sheffield (3–5 November), and an ‘Ice Carnival’ in Bradford (18–19 November) for family fun. Make space in your calendar, too, for Robin Hood’s Bay Victorian Weekend (2–3 December) where festive fun will get you in the mood for Christmas.
As for the steam gala festivities, our journey is almost finished. We arrive at Goathland and stop at the tea rooms for a bacon bap and Riggwelter Beer. The couple next to us have been visiting for the Staithes Festival but didn’t know about the steam gala until that morning. They’re festival-hopping, I thought to myself. What a wonderful idea.
York and Leeds railway stations are served by several operators. Both cities are well connected for the coast, major towns and other cities across the four counties of Yorkshire.
The Crescent Inn in Ilkley has doubles from £125 per night, bistrotpierre.co.uk
Carr House Farm B&B in Helmsley has doubles for £100 per night, carrhousefarm.co.uk
The Sportsman’s Arms near Pateley Bridge has doubles from £140 per night, sportsmans-arms.co.uk