Rolling green hills, muscular limestone mountains, 100m waterfalls, labyrinthine cave networks and England's highest lake. Is there anything the Dales don’t have?
If Britain had a physical heart, the Yorkshire Dales would be it. View its nebulous 1762km2 silhouette on a map smack in the middle of the robust upper body of England, and it’s almost uncannily organ-like. But there are also those who justifiably consider the National Park as England’s spiritual heart, too. And while it must be said that it’s generally people from Yorkshire who think this, more would doubtless agree if the popular image of the place wasn’t skewed by so much charismatic propaganda.
Ladle the visual hallmarks of Yorkshire into a stew and you get a familiar flavour: coal mines, depressingly enduring rural soap operas, forced rhubarb, earnestly accented Plasticine characters with a fondness for Plasticine cheese and Plasticine knitwear, a famous Monty Python sketch and one or both of two specific views: an intimate valley fragmented by drystone walls and dotted with old barns, and another cut by an extraordinary, gothic viaduct. Oversimplified as this may sound, this is Popular Yorkshire. And while some may love it, some may not.
But peel off this famous skin and you begin to realise that the intrigue of the place runs far deeper. Strange names spring out at you: the dark and unfamiliar (Arkengarthdale, Muker Side, Gun Ing, Grimwith, Turk Moor Hush) side by side with the intimate and amusing (Appletreewick, Brackenbottom, Wigglesworth, Buttertubs, Crackpot) and the grand and the famous (Wharfedale, Whernside, Malham). Geographically the Dales are, literally, that: a series of river-moulded valleys that intersect and interlock, mostly running north-south. The lower half is the wilder and more rugged, comprised of – among many others – Malhamdale, Upper and Lower Wharfedale, and wild Ribblesdale. Upper and Lower Wensleydale, Swaledale and the southern muscle of the Howgill Fells – while Cumbrian by county – also lie inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Scenically, this makes for a remarkably rich soup. Within the UK’s fifth largest National Park is Yorkshire’s highest point, Whernside, at 736m – which, with Ingleborough (724m) and Pen-y-ghent (694m) forms a trio of peaks linked by a popular challenge walk. Below ground there is also the impressively deep and singularly spectacular Gaping Gill cavern, as well as the longest cave system in the British Isles, a legacy of Yorkshire’s water-burrowed limestone underland. Colourfully, you can also find England’s shortest river (the Bain, at two and half miles), highest lake (Malham Tarn, at 377m above sea-level) and tallest single-drop waterfall above ground in the shape of Hardraw Force, which falls in a single cascade of 100ft. The Dales belt-and-brace this accolade by also possessing the highest underground waterfall as well – the terrifying 300ft descent of Fell Beck into Gaping Gill’s main chamber through a hole on the side of Ingleborough. The hole is so deep that the water loses its composure on the way down; from below, the waterfall becomes less cascade, more ethereal, splayed mist.
Topside are the distinctive limestone pavements of the Dales, jigsaw-cracked, smoothed by weather, and the colour of bone. This tolerates the occasional gnarled tree but little else, leaving a landscape of uniquely stripped, pale beauty.
Literary Yorkshire is perhaps more associated with the North York Moors for their high atmosphere, but for the walker it’s the Dales that hold the fascination and lush variety. Tall yet deep, white and cracked but furred with green, industrially fortified yet arrestingly wild and peppered with more features of such singular spectacle – Malham Cove, for goodness’ sake – it seems unbelievable they’re in one National Park.
So if you’re from Yorkshire, relish in the fact that you hail from one of the most scenically stupendous and personality-packed enclaves of Britain, and don’t take ‘owt in the way of stick. If you’re not, don’t be put off by the culturally impenetrable On Ilkla Moor Baht’at nonsense, the implications of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch or the fact that the tea has the same name as the beer; just go. Or, better still, move there. Then you’ll be able to at least partly believe at least one infamous local saying: ‘If it in’t in Yorkshire, it in’t worth visiting’.
8 Yorkshire Highlights
Probably one of the most astonishing landscape features in Britain, Malham Cove is a natural amphitheatre, once described by Romantic writer Thomas West as being like the ‘age-tinted wall of a prodigious castle’. Underpinned with caves and carved at the end of the last ice age by a waterfall higher than Niagara’s, nearby Malham Tarn is, somewhat unbelievably, the highest lake in England, at 377m. Today both are visited by the Pennine Way, and a short detour leads to the adjacent canyon of Gordale Scar – together an enchanting demonstration of the drama this distinctive limestone landscape is capable of.
White Scar Cave
If potholing isn’t your thing, you can get a less terrifying but arguably more impressive introduction to underground Yorkshire by visiting the caves at White Scar. Featuring a run-down of spectacularly weird underground features with evocative – if rather blunt – names to match (Judge’s Head, Carrots, Devil’s Tongue, Witch’s Fingers and the intriguing-sounding Jailhouse Rock) this is the civilised way to get beneath the Dales’ skin.
One of three distinctive mountain sentinels of Yorkshire, Ingleborough is the most exquisite of the generally shapely three peaks that rise in tiers from the limestone upland of the Dales like buttes in a verdant desert. Ingleborough was once the site of an Iron Age hill-fort, and with its commanding position, it’s not difficult to understand why; on a clear day it’s possible to see as far as Snowdonia.
A famous architectural visualisation of humankind’s hand upon the wild landscape – with not entirely displeasing results – the ornate, 440-yard Ribblehead Viaduct represents the grandest of English steam transport’s final gasps. Part of the hallowed Settle-Carlisle Railway and a key landmark in the Yorkshire Three Peaks walk, the viaduct has become as distinctive as the landscape that surrounds it.
Rumour has it the high, crumbling crags of Attermire are home to the hardest graded rock-climbs in England; either way, they certainly hide the charming and secluded Catrigg Force, surely a contender for the prettiest waterfall you’re ever likely to lay eyes on and inspirational for the composer Edward Elgar. The ubiquitous word ‘Scar’, incidentally, is from the Old Norse word sker, which means ‘low reef in the sea.’ Which, considering most limestone was once a seabed, is quite uncanny.
Old Gang Smelt Mill
The bones of this long-dead lead mine in its bleak setting above Swaledale lend a queer air to any walk. Love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny the atmosphere, and this particular ruin is listed. Those after a summit to nab could climb to the top of nearby Brownsey Moor (544m).
One of the few of the Yorkshire Dales not named for its river (though it may have once been named ‘Yoredale,’ in vague reference to the Ure, which cuts it) Wensleydale is for many people the hub of the region. Packed with interest and home to the appealing base camp of Hawes, from Wensleydale you can explore England’s highest waterfall, climb 546m Penhill, investigate the little-known nooks of Fossdale, Cotterdale and Sleddale, and indulge in some historical interest-hunting: Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned at Bolton Castle, and Richard III is said to have been raised in Middleham. There is also cheese here, we hear...
The massive cavern of Gaping Gill is accessible by two methods, with a gulf between them: either you descend on a cable on one of the occasional winch days organised by the local caving clubs, or you go pro, and pothole your way down a nightmarish labyrinth of tunnels and abseils deep beneath the mountain. Once there, 300ft below the eye of daylight looking down on a cavern the size of St Paul’s dome, you’re rewarded with one of the great sights of Great Britain. Just watch where you put your feet: sheep have been known to fall in.