Ilkley: New book explains why Yorkshire spa town is one of the best places to live in Britain

A new book provides an insight into the attractions which have made the spa town of Ilkley one of the best places to live in Britain. Greg Wright heads over the moors to meets its author, Mark Hunnebell.

Half a century ago, Mark Hunnebell accompanied his father on a sombre walk on the moors. Mr Hunnebell senior wanted his son to see a famous Ilkley landmark, before it was lost forever.

Their destination was White Wells; a quirky spa cottage with its own bath house which once attracted tens of thousands of visitors, including, it was believed, Charles Darwin, who had undertaken a “water cure” in Ilkley as he waited for publication of “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection”.

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But, in the early 1970s, the cottage’s fate appeared to be sealed. Wind-swept and semi-derelict, it was set to be dismantled and become just another ghostly ruin.

Cow and Calf rocks, Ilkley Moor,Cow and Calf rocks, Ilkley Moor,
Cow and Calf rocks, Ilkley Moor,

In fact, the isolated building often referred to as “that place on the moor” was about to enjoy a spectacular revival. Today, local historian and author Mark Hunnebell and his partner Joanne are the proud occupants of White Wells, which is the location for a famous New Year’s day dip which attracts hundreds of bathers.

Whenever the flag is flying on the cottage’s roof, day trippers are welcome to pop in for a brew, served by an author with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ilkley and the surrounding moorland. Mr Hunnebell’s latest book “A-Z of Ilkley” introduces you to the people who have made the West Yorkshire town one of the most desirable places to live in Britain.

"White Wells, which is where I live now, was derelict and on the cusp of being demolished 50 years ago,’’ he recalled. “It was saved from destruction by a single vote on the old Urban District Council. Eric Busby, whose family owned a big department store in Bradford, put some money into the building and that saved White Wells, which was really instrumental in establishing Ilkley as a spa town.

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"People had been bathing on this site since the 1700s, but it really took off in the 19th century. Charles Darwin stayed at Wells House which is just down the hill. We can't say if he definitely came here, but it is very likely he did, because at the time White Wells was actually owned by Wells House. I have been fascinated by White Wells ever since I was a child. At the time, the building was derelict. I remember thinking that it would be a great place to live.”

Ilkley TarnIlkley Tarn
Ilkley Tarn

The site has been owned by Bradford Council since the late 1970s, and Mr Hunnebell has held the tenancy of White Wells for 23 years. But what’s it like living in such a remote place, which was never intended for 21st century comforts?

“We never really feel cut off because we are not far away from the main road, although it does get interesting when the wind starts howling around,’’ he said. “The New Year's Day dip started in 1995 and has snowballed from there. We had 300 people in 2020 just before lockdown. We didn't hold the dip for a couple of years due to the pandemic but 285 people took part on the most recent New Year's Day.”

Mr Hunnebell’s family connections with Ilkley date from the 1880s when his great grandfather Edward moved to the town from the east of England.

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"I had already written a book about the town - 'Secret Ilkley' - and I had quite a bit of extra material left over from that,’’ he said. “My publisher, Amberley, was planning a number of 'A-Z' books about towns up and down the country so they suggested the format."

Mr Hunnebell has used tales from his family history to illustrate what life was like in Ilkley in the 20th century. It includes, for example the story of his grandmother Clara who was “bruised and shaken” after being knocked down on Brook Street in 1917 and anecdotes passed on by his father Edwin, who was the projectionist at the now demolished Ilkley cinema, which once had 1,000 seats and a ballroom.

Over the centuries, the town has attracted celebrities ranging from Darwin to GK Chesterton, who devised the character of Father Brown while walking over Ilkley Moor. And then you have the visitors who appear to be from another planet. Strange lights have been sighted in the sky for decades, and in the 1980s, a retired policeman reported an encounter with an alien being on the moor. No aliens, it seems, have popped into White Wells over the last quarter century.

Mr Hunnebell said: "With regards to UFOs, we haven't seen anything odd in all the years we have been here, but other people believe that they have seen unexplained phenomena.”

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The A-Z is the ultimate insider’s guide to Ilkley; it transports the reader from hidden nooks such as the tranquil Grove Road Park to the splendour of the Cow and Calf rocks, which can attract a crowd to rival Blackpool pleasure beach on bank holidays. It also records tragedies, such as the wartime crash of a Canadian air force Halifax bomber at Woodhouse Crag, which is commemorated with a simple, but profoundly moving, cairn in the heart of the moors. But why has Ilkley prospered when other small towns have floundered in the face of competition from big cities?

"Ilkley is a really nice town with lots of events to keep you occupied, such as the literature festival and the markets,’’ said Mr Hunnebell. “It also has a long history of providing shelter for refugees. It provided shelter for Jewish refugees in the Second World War and also for Belgians who fled when their country was invaded in the First World War."

The town’s tradition of hospitality continued with the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in 2022.

"It's a friendly place but people aren't afraid to have healthy debate,’’ said Mr Hunnebell. “ It's attracted lots of famous visitors; TS Eliot spoke at Riddings Hall off the Grove when he delivered a lecture series and Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart and Lemmy from Motorhead have also performed in the town."

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Only Ilkley, it seems, with its bohemian alleyways and genteel tearooms, could have attracted such an eclectic range of visitors.

Mark Hunnebell’s book A-Z of Ikley is published by Amberley Publishing. To order a copy, visit