by Jim Winnerman
|Photos above: Author Jim Winnerman at the high point on the 84-mile walk at a rock outcropping named Conistone Pie where the Yorkshire Dales offer a panoramic view. Inset: The oldest bridge along the Dales Way is the 508 year old Crook of the Lune Bridge across the Lune River. Inset, Center: The Bolton Priory in the Yorkshire Dales was founded in 1151.
Visualize a beautifully painted landscape depicting the deep green, rolling English countryside in the year 1700. In the foreground, a faint path is visible just in front of a neatly stacked limestone wall that continues past a stone house and barn, and then over distant, undulating hills. Now, imagine stepping into that scene and following the path for ten days exploring the villages it passes, and meeting the people who live along the way. That is the seemingly timeless experience available today on the Dales Way, a long distance path through the heart of the Yorkshire Dales in northern England.
While an 84-mile walk may sound daunting to some, the Dales Way is actually quite easy for anyone in moderately good condition. Much of the way parallels different streams, so the route is fairly level. More importantly the route has been planned to tease a walker’s eyes with an unending abundance of unique man-made sites and natural scenery. Every day the walk leads to the narrow cobblestone pavements of several delightful villages with names like Appletreewick, Starbottom, and Gearstones.
Out in the countryside are ancient stone circles, a walk along a Roman Road, a site important to the origin of the Quaker religion, and a fortified manor house dating from the 14th century. Large sections cut across lush meadows and farm pastures full of sheep and cattle. Much of the walk is through the spectacular scenery of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Although land in the park is 99% privately owned, it is managed under stringent park guidelines ensuring the historical appearance of the area remains unchanged.
A walk along the Dales Way is an opportunity to interact with the local population in a manner not readily available to a traditional tourist. The anniversary of the Queen’s reign coincided with our overnight stay in the village of Dent. We were invited to the village party, where all 300 residents of the valley brought food to share. After watching “The Fiddling Green Jig Machine” and several other local performances, we all held hands and sang Auld Lang Syne. Then it was time for afternoon tea, served not on paper plates but on the town’s china. That evening everyone gathered on the village green to enjoy fireworks. Returning to our B and B we watched the Queen address the nation alongside a sentimental English couple. It was a day an organized group trip could never have provided.
Each evening we were warmed by the hospitality of the Dales Way innkeepers where we had made reservations. Often they greeted us by name at the door, and said they had been waiting for us. No one ever requested identification, but immediately showed us to our room where we were given an old-fashioned skeleton key to the house. The next morning we frequently had to search for the host in order to settle our account. Invariably, they would then accompany us outside as we began a new day of adventure.
In the small hamlet of Hebden, a mason was converting a 1728 stone barn into a home. He took an hour to show us how it had originally been built, and told us about the stringent requirements for retaining the exterior appearance while modernizing the interior.
Stone is an integral part of the architecture everywhere along the trail. For the first sixty miles, all the homes and barns were constructed of stone, and every fence was a stone wall. One evening we counted 65 stone walls and 10 stone buildings just from one bedroom window.
An English countryside “stile” - a means of crossing a stone fence. Author Jim Winnerman climbs over an ivy covered rock wall where stone steps jut out
Above, the Ribblehead Viaduct
The stone walls enclose the many farm fields the trail crossed, and keep sheep and cattle safely penned. Because the walls are a necessity for the farmer, a number of creative stiles are used to enable a walker to pass. Some had large flat stones that jutted through both sides of the wall, forming steps up one side and down the other.
Wooden step-ladders were another way to get across. Easy to climb, they were more difficult to descend. Sometimes perched at the top of a stile a high gate awaited. Apparently some sheep can climb ladders! At other places the trail went through a wall by means of a wooden or iron kissing gate. The gate would swing back and forth inside two walls that formed a “V.” A “squeeze stile” was just a simple opening but so remarkably narrow you had to take a deep breath before sliding through sideways. A few stiles even had separate low passages for dogs.
The most imposing physical structure along the walk is Bolton Priory. (See inset photo on top). An immense structure, the Priory is located far out in the countryside. Building started in 1150 and continued for over 350 years. In 1539 King Henry VIII undertook a campaign to destroy all the monastic houses of England, and a majority of the huge church was literally stripped of everything but the towering stone walls, which still stand in ruined grandeur. Ironically, a side nave of the church was saved as a place of worship for the local inhabitants and is still in use, while the large ruins surrounding it continue to decay.
The trail passed alongside many small churches, and most date back at least to the 17th century. None was ever locked, and all had a sign asking visitors to be sure to turn off the lights when leaving. St. Michael’s, built in 1558 in the tiny hamlet of Hubberholme, has wooden pews and chairs de by Robert “Mouseman” Thompson. He left a mouse discreetly engraved in a different location on each piece of furniture.
The most exposed point on the walk proceeds for hours over low, brown treeless hills, described by the locals as “bleak terrain.” In the middle of this lonely and remote area, the trail reaches the Ribblehead viaduct, which carries the Settle-Carlisle railway. Built in 1876, this imposing structure consists of 24 arches elevated 100 feet in the air, and spans over 1300 feet. Isolated in the moors where perspective is difficult to judge, it looks like something out of a toy train set.
Much of the natural beauty along the Dales Way is associated with the rivers that frequently are alongside. Several times the route hugs the riverbank and passes waterfalls, turbulent rapids, as well as placid water perfect for fly-fishing. The abundance of rain always ensured the streams were full, and the current swift.
Just as with the stone walls, the trail crosses the water frequently and by means of a variety of ways. In several spots, permanent stepping-stones are used, which can be slightly unnerving if you decide to stop in the middle and look around. An isolated one person-at-a-time suspension bridge is only two feet wide, but spans 100 feet of water. Many bridges are made of several stone arches. The oldest was the Crook of the Lune bridge built in the 1500’s.
The most ornate stone bridge had medieval ornamentation. Despite the elaborate appearance, it stood alone in the middle of a pretty meadow. The Dales Way path seemed to be its only purpose, but our B and B hosts only a mile away said its actual origin was unknown.
The ability to follow some of the streams to or from where they began was also a unique experience of the walk. The Dales Way begins where the river Wharfe is about 200 feet wide, and then follows it upstream. Three days and about 35 miles later the Wharfe is a tiny trickle. After the high point of the walk, new streams close to the trail flow in the opposite direction of the Wharfe. A few days later they have become good-size rivers flowing into Lake Windermere, the largest lake in England and the end of the walk.
Barbara Winnerman crosses ornate two foot wide suspension bridge at Bolton Abby
A long walk in England does present a variety of daily challenges. For Americans, one is the guidebook that promises to lead a walker step by step, every mile. Although it sounds easy, words such as hill, pond, path, stream, creek and valley are replaced by moor, fell, hillock, track, tarn, scar, beck, gill, and dale. The new vocabulary kept us guessing if our interpretation of a key landmark was correct. For example, how would you interpret these directions, covering less than a mile of the walk?
“The path runs on to a stile just over the brow. Level pastures then proceed the pull to the head of Conistone Dib. Avoid the stile and take the briefly enclosed way to its right to emerge onto a broad track. Cross straight over and head off below a long scar to find a gate into the corner of a plantation. Descend the fell and after a couple of kinks proceed on a course through about a dozen fields.”
The guidebook instructions were uncannily accurate about where to spot unusual birds. When instructed to look for oyster catchers at one spot, the birds were there. When it said to listen for a peewit that was difficult to see, but “rarely out of earshot,” one was audible. At a small lake, the black-headed gulls were hiding in the reeds just where the book said to look.
There are some Dales Way trail markers at key points along the trail, and they were helpful. However, the yellow arrow within a four inch green circle was often difficult to spot. They were placed on stone walls where spot after spot of yellow lichen was the identical color. Although well prepared for the rain, which was a daily companion, we tried to avoid the bogs that are a consequence of so much water. Bogs appear to be firm ground, but are really waterlogged places in the soil that proved impossible to spot until one boot disappears into the mud.
The path passes the front door of many stone cottages and their gardens
A few days after encountering our first bogs, our hosts for the night happened to be a couple that volunteered for the Yorkshire Dales Mountain Rescue Squad. We jokingly asked if anyone ever had to be rescued from a bog. Although the answer was “no,” they did have to transport a fellow who had torn his knee ligament while pulling out his foot.
We found all the people we met every day very interested in where we were from in America. Most knew of my home town of St. Louis or Missouri. Some knew of Mark Twain, while others were acquainted with the Mississippi River, or knew the Arch was here. One man recognized St. Louis as the home of the Superbowl football Champions, even though the sport is not played in England. An elderly gentleman was familiar with the state of Missouri as the home of Harry Truman, his World War II hero. Once we spotted a young boy with a baseball Cardinals jersey, but found he had no idea who Mark McGwire was even though his number and name were on the shirt.
Another time when we mentioned St. Louis, a lady excitedly exclaimed, “I’ve been there!” A few years ago she and her husband had spent three days in the St. Louis home of a couple they had met in England. Their St. Louis hosts happened to live less than a mile from our home, and we called them with the news of whom we had met as soon as we returned. It is definitely a small, small world.
Bio of author: I am a flat-footed hiker with an arthritic toe who has always loved to walk in foreign countries and then share my experiences in the hope someone else will be motivated to do the same.
A typical English stone wall. In the background is another view of the Ribblehead viaduct