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  • Writer's pictureRoyston Nicholls

Swaledale and Wensleydale: the best of the Yorkshire Dales

Photo: Swaledale

Swaledale and Wensleydale are two valleys on the east of the Pennines, in the area known as the Yorkshire Dales. Swaledale gets its name from the River Swale, that runs through the valley, and Wensleydale is one of only a few Yorkshire Dales not named after its principal river, but takes its name from the village of Wensley, once the market town for the dale. Most of the Yorkshire Dales is now a National Park and is popular with tourists, attracted by the beautiful countryside, and the magnificent walking and cycling. The characteristic scenery of the Dales is green upland pastures separated by dry-stone walls and grazed by sheep and cattle. The towns and villages are built with the local limestone, and farms and stone barns are scattered across the landscape. It is a wonderful area to explore, and many people have their favourite destinations, but I particularly like the journey westwards along Swaledale and then eastwards following Wensleydale. This journey shows you some of the very best of the Dales scenery and can easily be done in a day using a car, or, if you are having a more leisured holiday, walked or cycled over a few days.

Photo: Richmond

Begin your journey in the historic town of Richmond, described by the Rough Guide as ‘an absolute gem’ of a town. It stands in a commanding position overlooking the River Swale, with a cobbled marketplace, ancient houses and narrow streets. Just off the marketplace is the well-preserved 12th century castle and down a little alleyway is the Georgian Theatre Royal, built in 1788, it is the UK's most complete 18th century theatre. From Richmond (Google maps will come in handy at this stage, if you want to follow the route), follow the A6108 road and then take the smaller, B6270. On this road you will have the valley of the Swale on your right and you will pass the ruins of Ellerton Priory, formerly a priory of Cistercian nuns.

Photo: Grinton Church

At Grinton, the road swings sharply over a hum-backed bridge over the Swale and very quickly you are in the village of Reeth, with its large grassy, village green. It is well worth a stop here. Grinton and Reeth are virtually one village, there are excellent walks along the Swale and there are excellent pubs (the Black Bull in Reeth and the Bridge Inn in Grinton) and teashops. From Reeth, the valley is now on your left and the road runs higher up the valley, so that there are magnificent views of the field and dry-stone walls. Follow the road through the little settlements of Gunnerside and Muker, and then at Thwaite turn off for the Buttertubs Pass.

Photo: The village of Thwaite

The road takes you over the top of the moors, pass the Buttertubs themselves, 66 ft deep limestone potholes. It is said that the name of the potholes came from the times when farmers would rest there on their way to market. During hot weather they would lower the butter they had produced into the potholes to keep it cool.

Photo: Field path near Hawes

Photo: Meadow in Wensleydale

The road will lead you into Wensleydale, but before turning eastwards, take a diversion in to the small and pleasant market town of Hawes. It is a major producer of Wensleydale cheese (watch Wallace and Gromit for further elucidation), has a traditional ropewalk and just south of the town is the 18th century Gayle Mill, now a Grade II listed building, a scheduled monument. From Hawes take the main road and at Bainbridge, take the turning for Askrigg.

Photo: Village of Askrigg

Photo: Askrigg, with 'Skeldale House' on the right

Fans of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small will recognise this pretty little village as the setting for the original film and tv series. At Aysgarth you can stop to view the Aysgarth Falls, a triple flight of waterfalls, surrounded by woodland and farmland, carved out by the River Ure over an almost one mile stretch on its descent to mid-Wensleydale. The falls are quite spectacular after heavy rainfall as thousands of gallons of water cascade over the series of broad limestone steps. If you want to take a short side trip, follow the signs to Castle Bolton.

Photo: Castle Bolton

The village of Castle Bolton takes its name from the magnificent 14th-century castle. The castle is a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The castle was damaged in the English Civil War, and “slighted” afterwards, but much of it survived. It has never been sold and is still in the ownership of the descendants of the Scrope family.

Photo: A traditional 'Fat Rascal'

Pass through the village of Wensley and at Leyburn (there is a wonderful café there which sells Yorkshire Fat Rascals, a sort of very fruity scone), take the A6108 to Middleham. Middleham Castle is a ruined 12th century castle, once the childhood home to Richard III, although he spent little of his reign there.

Photo: Middleham Castle and village

Before you reach your final destination at Masham, you will pass the romantic ruins of Jervaulx Abbey, another of the great Cistercian abbeys of Yorkshire, dedicated to St. Mary in 1156. Masham is a small market town, famous for its two breweries, the Black Sheep Brewery and Theakstons, situated only a few hundred yards apart. Both produce wonderful beer, but I particularly like Theakstons’ Old Peculier (spelling is deliberate), a dark, traditional ale. Two pints of that and you can feel both old and peculiar very quickly!

Photo: The Black Sheep Brewery, Masham

Masham is a good base to explore the Dales further, or you can continue to Ripon, Thirsk or York quite easily.

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