Kirkham Priory Circular Walk or Run: Riverside, Woodland & Ruins

Photo of author
By Stuart
Goulden

Avid runner. 10x marathons. Daily 10kms. Award-winning journalist when not moving (about me)

Another English Heritage site ticked off my Northern bucket list!

The ruins of Kirkstall Priory can be found in between York and Malton, North Yorkshire, along the banks of the River Derwent.

I decided to run/walk it at sunrise. In part for the epic views offered by running in the morning, and gap in the weather, but also to avoid the A64 traffic which can be notoriously tricky on a Summer Bank Holiday with holidaymakers headed to the coast.

The 7km Kirkham Priory circular route takes place in the former estate of the priory, covering woodland, riverside, and road terrain. Most of the prioryโ€™s estates were clustered within a 25-mile radius of its gates, and included grazing for sheep, arable, fisheries, mills and woodland. Kirkham is nestled in the undulating countryside of the Howardian Hills (AONB), an area of outstanding natural beauty.

English Heritage Kirkham Priory entrance - view from the car park before it opens
English Heritage Kirkham Priory entrance – view from the car park before it opens

I took lots of photos on this awe run so you can retrace my steps and enjoy the ruins of Kirkham Priory for yourself.

What to expect on the 7km Kirkham Priory circular walk route

  • Route distance: 7km loop
  • Terrain: Woodland, Riverside paths, Country lanes
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Busyness: Quiet
  • Time: 90 mins walking; 30-40 mins running
  • Footwear: Hiking boots or trail shoes

Kirkham Priory is nestled on the banks of the River Derwent, North Yorkshire, and surrounded by farmland and woodland. This gentle route encompasses all three, with the occasional road and railway line crossing. Most of the paths are well trodden and kept.

Public footpath sign along the Kirkham Priory trail walk - towards the River Derwant and Howsham Hall
Public footpath sign along the Kirkham Priory trail walk – towards the River Derwant and Howsham Hall

The only incline of note is found the first phase of the walk through the woods. If I was able to run it, you’ll be able to walk it. I imagine the route it gets quite muddy in patches in Autumn & Winter, so bring appropriate footwear.

The route starts and finishes in the free Kirkham Priory car park, meaning you can culminate in a tour of the spectacular ruins and enjoy a picnic in its grounds.

English Heritage Kirkham Priory refectory and undercroft
English Heritage Kirkham Priory refectory and undercroft

It’s quite a quirky, peaceful route with plenty of photo opportunities, Insta-worthy views of Kirkham Priory from multiple angles, and a very friendly station crossing attendant!

A field full of sheep basking in a beautiful North Yorkshire sunrise over the Howardian Hills
A field full of sheep basking in a beautiful North Yorkshire sunrise over the Howardian Hills

Kirkham Priory ruins are under the custodianship of English Heritage and make for a stunning backdrop and destination to your hike. English Heritage members can visit for free.

Kirkham Priory bridge with a rope swing across the river
Kirkham Priory bridge with a rope swing across the river

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Car Parking at Kirkham Priory

Kirkham Priory has free parking for about 50 vehicles immediately outside the entrance.

When I visited (at 6am) there was a campervan who had parked overnight.

Sat Nav postcode for Kirkham Priory car park, North Yorkshire: YO60 7JS

Kirkham Priory free car park - with a campervan camping overnight against a majestic sunrise
Kirkham Priory free car park – with a campervan camping overnight against a majestic sunrise

Kirkham Priory Opening Hours

Kirkham Priory’s opening hours vary throughout the year. At the time of writing:

  • 1 April to 30 Jun (Weds-Sun & Bank Holidays): 10am to 5pm
  • 1 July to 31 August (Daily): 10am to 5pm
  • 1 September to 29 October (Weds-Sun): 10am to 5pm
  • 30 October to 5 November (Weds-Sun): 10am to 4pm
  • 6 November to 31 March: Closed

A Short History of Kirkham Priory

The Priory was founded 900 years ago and home to a community of Augustinian canons for 400 years.

At its heart was a grand church with a large number of other buildings arranged around a cloister court, where canons would study and write.

English Heritage Kirkham Priory history - cloister exterior wall
English Heritage Kirkham Priory history – cloister exterior wall

The priory was essentially part-religious, part-altruistic community. Its members would recite the daily prayers but also follow the example of the Apostles by preaching, teaching, and the administration of the sacraments, or by giving hospitality to pilgrims and travellers, and tending the sick.

Other buildings included a chapter house, dormitory, refectory (or dining room), kitchen, hospital and storage. A gatehouse, which visitors enter through today, would guard the entrance.

Fun fact #1: in the 19th century the cloister was used as a tennis court.

Fun fact #2: Winston Churchill and King George VI visited Kirkham Priory as the site doubled-up as a secret military site, testing the D-Day landing vehicles, during the Second World War.

(I’m a sucker for heritage run routes and running on a sunny day, as testified by my Hadrian’s Wall ultra run and Holy Island route)

Route for the 7km Kirkham Priory circular walk

Your start and end point is the Kirkham Priory car park, next to the riverside ruins. Parking is free 24/7, 365 days of the year.

English Heritage Kirkham Priory entrance - view from the car park before it opens
Where to park for free at Kirkham Priory

On exiting, turn left and head over Kirkham Bridge. Built in 1806, Kirkham Bridge crosses the River Derwent. The entirety of your walk is to the left of the bridge, but you’ll need to head up the hill, past the the former Kirkham Abbey railway station. Trains still pass through on the York to Scarborough Train Lines but no longer stop.

Ignore the path on your left, leading to the banks of the River Derwent. This is where you’ll finish.

Kirkham Priory railway station hut and crossing
Kirkham Priory railway station hut and crossing

About 50 yards up the hill is this discrete gate on your left. Enter the woodland here.

Gate to enter the woodland next to the Kirkham Priory and go off road
Gate to enter the woodland next to the Kirkham Priory and go off road

This dense woodland is a delightful mix beech, oak, ash and sycamore. Follow the one clear path through and the only real incline throughout the entire Kirkham Priory circular walk route. I found the woods to be extremely tranquil – not another soul in sight, the early morning sun light piercing through the mile-high trees.

Kirkham Priory incline through woods with sky high trees
Kirkham Priory incline through woods with sky high trees
Kirkham Priory woodland walk route - follow the path
Follow the path through the Kirkham Priory woodland walk route

The woodland path leads you to a country road with a field opposite. Turn left.

Kirkham Priory circular walking route - leaving the woodland onto the road
Kirkham Priory circular walking route – leaving the woodland onto the road

Then left again off the road, down the track, keeping the woodland on your left.

In contrast to the woodland climbs, everything beyond this point is flat and exposed.

Kirkham Priory loop walk in North Yorkshire - country lane, turn left to enter the first field
Kirkham Priory loop walk in North Yorkshire – country lane, turn left to enter the first field

Follow this track for a few hundred metres as it winds left, flanked by fields on your right.

Kirkham Priory trek against a beautiful sunrise - follow the path alongside the woods and field towards the farm
Kirkham Priory trek against a beautiful sunrise – follow the path alongside the woods and field towards the farm

Re-enter the woodland through the gap in the trees, directly ahead. This is a pleasant stretch of the trek, offering a glimpse of the Howardian Hills to come. Walking at 6am, this was also the my first taste of the wonderful sunrise on the route.

Howardian Hills at sunrise with woods on the left and field on right - keep walking straight towards the woods
Howardian Hills at sunrise with woods on the left and field on right – keep walking straight towards the woods
Path entering the woods
Path entering the woods – don’t worry it gets clearer from here

You’ll retrace your steps through the woodland on a path parallel to the one taken earlier. The paths are far more generous than in the first woods.

Be careful for steep drops on the left and the obstacles, in the form of fallen tree trunks, presumably laid out to deter mountain bikers.

Kirkham and Howsham woods with fallen trees

Ignore the smaller exits to the right. Simply follow the main path straight ahead, which will take you to the gate below nearby. This is the last of the woodland trek for a while, as the trees disappear and give way to some incredible views.

Gate exiting Kirkham woods onto a field
Gate exiting Kirkham woods onto a field

It’s from this point you’ll be able to follow the waymarks along the public footpath. Keep an eye out for these markers to reassure you’re on course.

Epic Views Across the Howardian Hills

This stretch is more exposed if the weather does change, but you’re rewarded with glorious views if it doesn’t. Trading cover for vistas. Ryedale Vineyards and Howsham are in the distance.

Howardian Hills waymaker to guide you, with woods on the left
Howardian Hills waymaker to guide you, with woods on the left

Just look at that sunrise below, pointing in the direction of the beautiful village of Westow. An experience I shared with a flock of curious sheep who gave scale to the big open landscape.

You’ll encounter a collection of remote farm buildings straight ahead. Take the road and follow it round to the right, over a rather pointless stile.

Grass-lined road exiting a farm towards the Howardian Hills
Grass-lined road exiting a farm towards the Howardian Hills
Remote countryside cattle grid and stile
Pass over the cattle grid and stile

Turn left at the t-junction. Next milestone: train lines at Howsham.

Howsham t-junction, turn left towards the Howsham railway line
Howsham t-junction, turn left towards the Howsham railway line

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Halfway Point: Crossing at Howsham Train Station

This road takes you to the quaint Howsham signal box. A tiny crossing that pops up out of nowhere.

The box, together with Kirkham Abbey signal house, is set to be demolished in 2026 with the area controlled by centrally in York, so enjoy it while you can. The friendly signal attendant told me I was unlucky to have to wait for the two trains that pass through every hour, although he did let me cross after the first had sped by. During the wait we had a little chat about our love-hate relationship with running (my love, his hate!) before I was on my way again.

The conversation was welcome as I this was a solo trail run and he first person I’ve spoken to that day.

Howsham crossing box and the York to Scarborough train line
Howsham crossing box and the York to Scarborough train line
Howsham railway tracks headed towards York
Howsham railway tracks headed towards York

Rejoin the country road and follow its bends until you reach the signpost below. Follow the arrow across the path carved into the golden field. In the distance are Howsham Hall and Howsham Mill.

Kirkham Abbey country lane - turning left to head through a field towards Howsham Hall in the distance
Kirkham Abbey country lane – turning left to head through a field towards Howsham Hall in the distance
Public footpath sign along the Kirkham Priory trail walk - towards the River Derwant and Howsham Hall
Public footpath sign along the Kirkham Priory trail walk – towards the River Derwant and Howsham Hall

Walking along the banks of River Derwent to Kirkham Priory

Enter this gate and its trusty waymarker, and you’re on the home stretch.

Public footpath gate to take into a wooded area near River Derwant
Public footpath gate to take into a wooded area near River Derwant

The area is a tad overgrown but nothing to worry about. I was able to run through with minimal care and zero scrapes or stinging nettles. One point to note though… I imagine this area gets boggy after rain in the Autumn/Winter months, so you’ll need hiking boots, wellies or trail shoes.

Kirkham Priory slightly overgrown riverside walk towards the River Derwent
Kirkham Priory slightly overgrown riverside walk towards the River Derwent

The River Derwent becomes visible before long, and you follow its banks all the way to back to the old Kirkham Priory railway station.

River Derwant riverside path towards Kirkham Priory in Summer
River Derwant riverside path towards Kirkham Priory in Summer

Keep following the single riverside pathway where you’ll encounter small wooded areas and more gates.

Kirkham Priory trail walk - keep following the path along the river and field
One of the many bridges and gates on the Kirkham Priory circular walk

Clearings will reveal the Howardian Hills once more and some of the sights already conquered. For example, the farm we passed earlier, in the distance.

Best Kirkham Priory walk with the farm we passed earlier, in the distance. Waymarker in the foreground.

River Derwent Waterfall and Kirkham Priory ruins

Kirkham Priory ruins will soon become visible on the other side of the river.

Walk to Kirkham Priory ruins along the River Derwent
Kirkham Priory ruins across the water from the River Derwent

A bit further up is the stunning River Derwent waterfall overlooking Kirkham Priory. Resist the temptation to get too close to the water edge to take a photo.

River Derwent waterfall overlooking Kirkham Priory ruins on a sunny day
River Derwent waterfall overlooking Kirkham Priory ruins

The next spectacular riverbank view is only moments away. The Grade II listed Kirkham Bridge, built in 1806. I wasn’t brave enough to go on the rope swing – let me know if you do!

Kirkham Priory bridge with a rope swing across the river
Kirkham Priory bridge

Continue on the path leading to the road, turning right over the bridge back to the car park. Your walk is now complete!

English Heritage Kirkham Priory history - cloister exterior wall

Well done, you’ve earned that stroll round the abbey and pub meal at the Stone Trough Inn!

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