Splendid isolation

A Day in a Dale. Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swan report from Upper Swaledale and Birk Dale

Birk Dale (sometimes spelt as one word) isn't the most northerly of the dales, though it sometimes feels like it.

During two out of three recent trips here, the weather was cloudy, cold and uninviting. However, when the sun shines there can be few places quite so glorious.

Our approach was via Hawes, in Wensleydale, then following the giddy and unnerving C road up (and up and onwards) over the famous Buttertubs Pass, descending to Swaledale, with Muker in view eastwards and with Thwaite to the left.

Taking this left turn (you are now on the B6270, Swaledale's main thoroughfare, leading you to Reeth and towards Richmond in one direction, and to Natesby and towards Kirkby Stephen in the other) you immediately find yourself in the small, quietly charming yet imposing village of Thwaite.

Several houses advertise themselves as holiday cottages and the village is indeed a lovely place to use as a base for exploring. We got chatting to a man who was sanding down his front door – Mr Hambleton – who described himself as "an incomer" and has owned a holiday property in the village for 20 years. Did he know anything about the famous flash flood in Thwaite at the end of the 19th century. He joked that he hadn't actually been around at the time, but had heard the bridge had been washed away by the torrents. Fortunately no-one had been killed, but the event lived on in folklore. He advised us to talk to a local man known as Jack Ned. "He was born in that house," he said pointing to a small stone cottage. "And now he lives in that one," he added, indicating another cottage just round the corner. Jack is 83 and has lived in Thwaite all his life. "I've never lived anywhere else and I've no desire to." He has travelled to Scotland and Wales but not "over the water". He has farmed at Thwaite and Keld and worked for landowners Lord Peel and Lord Arundel as a gamekeeper on their estates. He has also been a butcher, a mason and an undertaker's assistant. Jack Ned (full name John Edward Raynoldson) confirmed the earlier account of the flood but with this further vital detail: "A pig got took but it got out further down river."

The Kearton Country Hotel is a warm and friendly place to stop off – the sign at the front encouragingly announces: "Muddy boots welcome", good to know if you have been walking the Pennine Way which runs through the village. The view out onto the moor – the purple of the heather quite startling even in the dampness and mist – was all the more appealing for the tessellated patterns created by the dry stone walls. The hotel is named after Thwaite-born brothers Richard and Cherry Kearton who, between them, were famous for wildlife writing and daring photography at the end of the c19th and in the first part of the c20th. Their pioneering endeavours, especially in the sphere of early film-making in spectacular settings, are the perfect example of how a fascination with the wild lifts the human spirit.

Heading north out of the village, the next settlement is Angram, distinguished by a Celtic-style stone with the name of the hamlet vertically engraved upon it. It boasts the date AD 807 but the carving and construction of the stone would appear to be of much later origin.

Already, Swaledale is narrowing to what feels more like an enclosing gorge than a dale. However, the landscape opens up to some extent as you approach Keld, a village located off the main road but linked by two lanes to the east and west which form a neat triangle. There's bed and breakfast facilities here (for example, at Butt House), as well as a caravan and camping enterprise whose customers are privileged to enjoy breath-taking scenery on their temporary doorsteps.

Keld Lodge, formerly a Youth Hostel, is now a thriving hotel and hostelry run by Linda Birkett and her partner Tony Leete. "We bought it in October last year," says Linda "and had a lot of work to do on it. We opened at Easter and have been packed out since then – and we haven't even advertised yet!" The lodge is on the Coast to Coast walk, the Pennine Way and the Land's End to John O'Groats walk, among others.

"We are on the route of about 10 walks, so it's mostly walkers we have staying," says Linda. "But we get lots of local people coming to the restaurant. The last time there was a pub in Keld was in 1954 – so the locals are very happy." They are planning to start up a microbrewery to be called Kelda breweries. It's obvious that they are enjoying themselves.

"You have to love people in this business," says Linda. "And we do."

Continuing past Park Bridge, prepare to gasp and then gasp some more. This stretch of the upper reaches of the River Swale, close to the roadside, provides splendid views of Wain Wath Force and other lesser waterfalls, with an escarpment backdrop that is a must for the happy snapper and professional photographer alike.

The next obvious turning to the right is signposted to the Tolkienesque placename of Ravenseat, one and a quarter miles to the north.

If you stay on the main road – which by now feels to be little more than a track – you are about to encounter Birk Dale proper.

The road to Natesby is by now heading more westerly than north. At this stage of the journey, you feel that you are in some of the most isolated outreaches of the county.

At about this point, bird watchers might well want to park their cars and put on their walking boots. With the use of a good map, one can readily locate Birkdale Tarn, not much more than two hundred metres from the road but with no marked footpaths to lead you there and with a bit of a climb to negotiate. The tarn is the third largest in Yorkshire – it's about three hundred and fifty metres across at its widest point and is the perfect spot, on a clear day, for spotting moorland birds.

Just south of this point is the confluence of Great Sleddale Beck and the Birkdale Beck, marking the source of the River Swale on its journey eastwards.

The next few miles westwards take you into the heart of Birk Dale with barely an inhabited dwelling in sight. There are "field" barns (without the fields) scattered about the moorland wilderness.

Close to the road you'll come upon a moss-covered example of just such a barn, though this one is remarkable for having a chimney and a network of stone-wall pens to the front and side.

To left and right, assuming the mists have not come down, as they are apt to, there are great expanses of moorland grasses and heather.

The road west and north leads into Cumbria.

Continue a little way to let your eyes drink in the view as you round a bend over the Eden Valley.

The relative flatness of the plain in contrast to the terrain which has surrounded you throughout the length of Upper Swaledale and Birk Dale is perhaps part of the surprise.

Without doubt, the sky seems "big" here (as is often said of the veldts of Southern Africa) – the combination of height and distance providing a pleasure to the eye and adding further to the enduring memories of the day.