England - a beginner's guide to the Yorkshire Dales

by Michael Madden

Both keen walkers, my wife and I wanted to try somewhere other than the Sussex Weald and Downland or Cornwall. After much research, we decided the Yorkshire Dales it would be...

My wife and I are fit, healthy and active, with pretty stressful jobs. We relish the opportunity to enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. A bit of internet research unearthed the village of Middleham as the base for our stay and, as The White Swan Hotel & Restaurant in the Market Place was offering a mid-week break of three nights for the price of two, our choice was made for us.

Middleham is noted for three outstanding features - its connection with Richard III, its magnificent castle (King Richard’s childhood home) with the largest keep in the north of England and, in more modern times, its horse-racing industry.

The White Swan Hotel is perfectly positioned in the heart of the village, in the sloping main square. This former temperance hotel that became an inn has recently expanded into the former post office next door, to give ample room for the creation of an excellent restaurant, with extra bedrooms above.

A nice touch in this cricket-mad county was the shiny red cricket balls used as key fobs by the White Swan. You certainly wouldn’t forget you had one of those in your pocket!

The first full day was miserable and no weather for walking, so we toured the area by car instead, driving via Ripon to Harrogate for a bit of a wander. The town was eerily empty, and we soon realised the reason when we joined the throng in the world-famous Betty's Tea Rooms for elevenses. We just had to sample their Yorkshire Fat Rascals (a kind of scone with almonds and glacé cherries) to accompany the coffee (1 Parliament Street, Harrogate, HG1 2QU; 01423 814070; www.bettys.co.uk).

So it was on to the bustling market town of Skipton – aptly named “The Gateway to the Dales”, for the Dales are right on the doorstep. The contrast with Harrogate couldn’t have been greater; the one all quiet and reserved, the other busy and brash.

Returning via Wensleydale, we visited Aysgarth Falls, famous as the setting for the fight between Robin and Little John in the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. We enjoyed a pleasant walk to each section of the falls in the river Ure that flows through Wensleydale.

Day two was much better; not especially fine, but dry. Passing racehorses from the many stables in the area on the way up to the gallops on Middleham Low Moor, we drove along another deserted road up Coverdale and into the clouds once more. Descending the steep Park Rash hill, we soon arrived at the starting point for our walk, the village of Buckden.

After an hour or so of fairly challenging walking up Buckden Rake, we came upon the village of Cray, with its pub and not much else. The White Lion Inn is a typical Dales pub; solid and gloomy, but with a welcoming atmosphere.

Revived by coffee, we continued along the contour line above the steep slopes of Todd’s Wood until we descended to the village of Hubberholme where - you’ve guessed it - the George Inn was perfectly positioned for a pub lunch.

We were now on the Dales Way, the long-distance footpath that runs from Bowness on the shores of Windermere in the Lake District to Ilkley in West Yorkshire, a distance of 80-odd miles. Our walk, which continued back along Wharfedale to the car park at Buckden, was a little over five miles in length and had taken us around four hours (including stops).

On the way back to base, we took the minor road through Langstrothdale over the fell to the market town of Hawes, in Upper Wensleydale. The cloud was so low on the top that visibility was cut to 20 metres in places. Just before entering Hawes, we came upon the delightful village of Gayle, almost joined to its larger neighbour, but a million miles away in character. Gayle Beck runs through the middle of the village across a ford and drives the 18th century grade two listed Gayle Mill, which is the oldest substantially unaltered cotton mill in existence. Its working water turbine is believed to be the oldest in Europe - possibly the world.

In order to squeeze in another walk on our last day, we headed to the southern edge of the Dales. This time we headed over the moor, on yet another deserted road, to Lofthouse. Here we found a small car park in the village that was actually free of charge!

From the village we followed a track leading us on a gentle stroll back up Nidderdale, through a sheep farm and across the River Nidd. The way led steeply up to the village of Middlesmoor, a traditional Yorkshire hill village at 1,000ft – a few houses, a church and a pub.

Once again our arrival coincided with lunchtime, and we were able to find a table at the Crown Hotel, where we enjoyed a leisurely lunch, smug in the knowledge that we had earned it.

By-passing the 70-metre deep Stean Gorge, we headed down the short lane back to Lofthouse to end our walk. Carrying on south now, we drove down the valley, past the Gouthwaite Reservoir to the cheerful little town of Pateley Bridge for a final stroll in the late afternoon sunshine, before starting on our journey home.

What did we learn from this taster session? The Yorkshire Dales area caters for walkers of all ages and abilities, from the serious long-distance hikers and fell walkers to the strollers. The facilities in the villages are excellent; they all have at least one pub, and the car parks are well equipped and good value.

Would we come again? The answer to that one is a resounding, "yes!" You can’t guarantee the weather, of course, but early summer is probably the best time, with plenty of daylight and a reasonable chance of fine conditions.

The Dales offer something for everybody – tourist attractions side-by-side with breathtakingly beautiful scenery. Empty landscapes can be found just a few miles from busy market towns and the whole area is readily accessible from the rest of the country.