Riverside rambles, moorland magic

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Riverside rambles, moorland magic

Skipton Castle

Skipton Castle

You’ll find walking trails, wide open spaces, waterfalls, picture-perfect villages, historic towns and fantastic food in Wensleydale and Wharfedale. Gillian Thornton did

Strolling beside the River Wharfe in the early morning sunshine, it was hard to imagine the peaceful paths thronged with Victorian visitors. But on an August Bank Holiday in the 1890s, some 40,000 people came to Bolton Abbey by rail – as many as now visit York in a week. In the 1920s, ‘Sunday Best’ was standard attire for families enjoying a day out here at the Yorkshire estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Today, most visitors arrive in outdoor clothes and walking boots.

"The dales encompass some of the most spectacular scenery in Britain, with drystone walls criss-crossing rugged fells where sheep graze beside tumbling streams"

An inspiration to artists and writers such as Turner, Lansdseer and Wordsworth, the Bolton Abbey estate (www.boltonabbey.com) has changed little over the centuries, even if the dress code has moved on somewhat. Access to the estate is free, and with more than 80 miles of scenic footpaths, there’s plenty of room for everyone, whether you fancy a riverside walk, a hike over the heather moors or a family picnic beside the ruined priory. Additional attractions in the area include the Embsay and Bolton Abbey steam railway (www.embsayboltonabbeyrailway.org.uk) and Hesketh Farm Park (www.heskethfarmpark.co.uk) with its native Yorkshire sheep, cattle and goat breeds.

This beguiling, 30,000-acre estate is one of the highlights of Lower Wharfedale in the southern half of the Yorkshire Dales National Park (www.yorkshiredales.org.uk). The dales encompass some of the most spectacular scenery in Britain, with drystone walls criss-crossing rugged fells where sheep graze beside tumbling streams. In the valleys, villages and busy market towns sit beside winding rivers.

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This is prime walking country, but don’t set out for high ground without proper clothes and equipment – the weather can change quickly and dramatically. We spent an idyllic morning exploring the Bolton Abbey estate in brilliant sunshine, but by the time we emerged from lunch, snow was falling heavily – a climatic change you’d not want to encounter on open moorland.

Our base was Burnsall, a pretty stone village six miles from Bolton Abbey and still in Wharfedale, which runs from Ilkley in the south to Hubberholme in the north. Burnsall scores well in the picturesque village stakes. It’s got a tree-lined green complete with a shop, an impressive arched stone bridge, a church and, of course, a village pub. From the living room window of our holiday cottage, we had perfect views of river, fields and fells.

With plenty of local produce and independent retailers to choose from, we were happy to make good use of our cottage kitchen, but on our self-catering holidays we also enjoy trying local restaurants. The Devonshire Fell (www.devonshirefell.co.uk) on the edge of Burnsall village proved an inspired choice. Its brasserie has fresh local produce that includes Dales lamb, estate game and veg from the garden.

North of Burnsall, the Wharfe runs through a succession of picture-postcard English villages: Grassington, the main centre of Upper Wharfedale; Kettlewell, a major location for the hit movie Calendar Girls; and Buckden, where a memorial commemorates a Second World War air crash.

Just beyond Buckden, the road turns north-east away from Wharfedale into Bishopdale and on into Wensleydale, famous for its cheese and associations with writer James Herriot. We always enjoy visiting Aysgarth Falls, where the river Ure tumbles over a series of three waterfalls between wooded slopes. The river is obligingly accessible – even the Lower Falls are close to the car park and the visitor centre.

Wensleydale runs at right angles to Wharfedale and is dotted with spectacular waterfalls. There’s not only Aysgarth, but also Hardraw Scar and Cauldron Falls, Mill Gill Falls and Cotter Force. We turned west from Aysgarth through Bainbridge, a chocolate-box-pretty village around a huge green, complete with wooden stocks. Its name comes from a Roman bridging point over the River Bain, believed to be Britain’s shortest river at just two-and-a-half miles long.

In the 13th century, most of Upper Wensleydale was a hunting forest for the lords of Middleham Castle. Today, it’s open grazing land dotted with solid stone barns, most of them built in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The main town is Hawes, home to the Wensleydale Creamery Visitor Centre (www.wensleydale.co.uk), the Wensleydale Pottery (01969 667594) and the excellent Dales Countryside Museum (tel 01969 666210). Housed in the old railway station, the museum provides an overview of the geography, social history and traditions of this unique area.

Moving on, you can take the road over Langstrothdale Chase to rejoin the Wharfe valley at Hubberholme, or do as we did and travel down Ribblesdale on the western side of the national park towards Settle. We couldn’t resist the pull of Malham Cove, between Ribblesdale and Wharfedale, a massive curved crag of limestone formed after the last ice age. From Malham village, there’s an easy walking trail to the horseshoe-shaped cliffs of the cove itself, or you can try one of the more challenging routes which climb to the limestone pavements above.

We spent a very happy morning exploring Skipton, the southern gateway to the national park. Leave the car by the tourist information office and stroll beside the Springs Branch canal to the 14th century church which stands at the top of the high street. Beyond the church is Skipton Castle (www.skiptoncastle.co.uk); fully roofed, it’s one of the best-preserved and most complete mediaeval fortresses in England. There’s a busy market on Skipton’s high street four days a week, as well as a farmers’ market in the Canal Basin on the first Sunday of each month throughout the summer.

But however much you enjoy retail therapy and touring churches and castles, it’s hard to resist the pull of the great outdoors for long – whatever the weather.

The author

• Gillian Thornton, e-mail gillian.thorntons@btinternet.com