Friends were doubtful. “You’re planning to walk up to 11 miles a day?” they asked. “Are you sure?” As my wife Clare and I set off for the Yorkshire Dales, we took their point (they know our limits) but referred them to that guru of good sense, JB Priestley. In English Journey, his wise, compassionate Thirties account of the state of the nation, he recalls the “mighty pedestrians” of his Bradford boyhood. “Everybody went enormous walks,” he writes. “I have known men who thought nothing of tramping between thirty and forty miles every Sunday.”
Halfway through his journey, Priestley had returned to Yorkshire for a battalion reunion and joined his old pals for a ramble up Wharfedale, from Ilkley to the village of Kettlewell. They weren’t to know, but their route would become more or less the first stretch of the Dales Way, the 80-mile long-distance footpath that links two National Parks: the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District.
It was created after the 1968 Countryside Act – 50 years ago this year – paved the way, so to speak, for more public access. So, eager for that access, and with good weather forecast, we decided to explore the Way over a few early autumn days.
As novice long-distance walkers, we aimed to cover just 24 miles. We were being realistic. We live on the edge of the Peak District and walk there regularly. But they’re essentially weekend strolls – six or seven miles and a doze afterwards – not the heavy-duty, heads-down route marches of the truly dedicated rambler.
We are not people of Lycra; Gore-Tex means nothing to us. We don’t do pull-on cagoules or zip-off trousers or designer rucksacks. We’re fair-weather walkers. One drop of rain and we call the whole thing off. Seasoned walkers say there’s no such thing as unsuitable weather, only unsuitable clothing. Nonsense. There’s plenty of unsuitable weather.
These seasoned walkers will often tackle the full Dales walk from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere in less than a week. It’s considered one of the gentler long-distance trails, much of it on riverside paths, but with steeper, more demanding central sections in remote, high landscapes.
We were doing our taster walk over three days, with overnight stops. Our luggage would be picked up from our hotel every morning by the impressively efficient Sherpa Van company and driven ahead to the next hotel. We took a small library of Ordnance Survey maps, two guidebooks, and English Journey for inspiration.
“There is no better country in England,” Priestley says of the Dales in prose that should make Welcome to Yorkshire whoop with joy. “There is everything a man could possibly want in these dales, from trout streams to high wild moorland walks, from deep woods to upland miles of heather and ling.”
No wonder, as he says, that it all appealed so much to the city-dwellers of his youth: “However small and dark your office or warehouse was, somewhere inside your head the high moors were glowing, the curlews were crying, and there blew a wind as salt as if it came straight from the middle of the Atlantic.”
All this, we thought, lay ahead of us as we took a train from Leeds for a few hours in Ilkley, a place of sturdy gentility whose epicentre is Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms. We got ourselves in a good mood with lunch there – wonderful Yorkshire Rarebit. On reflection, we should have already done a bit of walking to deserve it.
Bettys’ menus are masterpieces of persuasion, making food and drink sound beguilingly tempting. My favourite descriptions over the years have been of two exotic coffees: Mexican Cloud Forest (“from a beautiful farm hidden by clouds, on the slopes of the Tacana volcano”) and Nepal Snow River (“Melting snow feeds the river running through this Himalayan estate”). The menus are almost travel supplements in themselves.
But, you’re right, that’s enough hanging around, we needed to get on. So just down the road, we joined the start of the Dales Way for an undemanding three miles. The route hugged the River Wharfe – slow-flowing, its banks pink with Himalayan balsam, pasture land beyond, the occasional flapping heron.
We were staying at the Crown Inn, a friendly 1760s coaching inn in the pretty, stone-built village of Addingham (“pretty” and “stone-built” can be taken as read about every village mentioned here). Two pairs of weathered walking boots stood outside the next-door bedroom. I looked at my brogues; Clare looked at her trainers; we felt reproved. “They’re a hardened lot, the Dales walkers,” said a passing guest, staring down at our shoes.
Next morning we set off for the 10-mile walk to Burnsall. We asked a man with a dog the best way to the Dales path. He pointed us down the road. “It’ll be muddy,” he said, also staring at our shoes.
We crossed fields swirling with swallows and discovered the Farfield Friends Meeting House, a simple 17th century Quaker chapel with plain benches and an atmosphere of timeless calm: a peaceful place buffeted by wind. What a contrast to the grand romantic part-ruin of Bolton Priory – painted several times by Turner, who said it was Yorkshire landscapes like this that first inspired him as an artist.
In the woods beyond, the twisting, turning river became a roaring torrent. The gravel paths made walking at our slow-travel pace easy, but we felt slightly hemmed-in, frustrated at being down in the valley bottom rather than high up among the big views.
More determined walkers were striding ahead, recalling Priestley’s comments on the keen young hikers he saw on his pals’ trip. He doubts “whether this organised, semi-military, semi-athletic style of exploring the countryside is an improvement upon our old casual rambling method. These youngsters looked too much as if they were consciously taking exercise.”
As we neared Burnsall, we had a setback. Stepping down from a stile, I twisted my right knee and had to hobble the last couple of miles. The views opened out into Beautiful Britain grandeur: a shaft of sunlight hit the silver-shining river, drystone walls snaked up fells, trees rustled, cloud shadows were scudding over the hills, a kestrel darted past, and it would have been perfectly blissful if my knee hadn’t felt as though someone was hammering a knife blade into it.
As my slow travel became sloth travel, Clare hurried ahead. “My wife’s left me behind,” I said to an elderly farmer as I crossed his yard. “Nay,” he said, staring at my shoes. “Time goes faster than she does.”
I finally reached the Red Lion at Burnsall, a sort of country-house coaching inn with a cosy, welcoming atmosphere and plenty of sofas. Some walkers, a fellow traveller told us that evening, skip sections of the Way. Good to know the route is littered with thrown-in towels.
Boldly, though, we set off for our final 11 miles, to Kettlewell via Grassington. On this Saturday morning, the Way was teeming with walkers, most of them coming in the opposite direction. Was Grassington, four miles on, being evacuated?
Arm-swinging pensioners scampered past bushes of rose hips, rowan and hawthorn. We crossed a 200-year-old suspension bridge and met a couple from Louth in Lincolnshire. “What we really like about the Dales is the pubs and the food,” said the husband, “and that though it’s a National Park, there are real working farms and they manage to keep the tourists down to a reasonable level.”
Except in Grassington, a honeypot of cobblestone picturesqueness and shops. My knee was playing up and I decided I couldn’t walk much further. “This,” said Clare, “is why God invented buses.”
So we did the final seven miles by bus, a jaunty journey round tight lanes. Sitting higher than the walls and the hedges and the fields full of pheasants, we saw far more of the landscape than we had on the walk. The driver stopped for a dozen-strong party of cheerful ramblers, plus children and dogs. “We’ve done enough walking,” said one. “It can get to the point where you’re just doing it for the sake of doing it and you’re not enjoying it any more.” Good man.
We checked into the Racehorses Hotel, a smartly modernised 1740s coaching inn at Kettlewell, a few miles down the road from Hubberholme, the hamlet where Priestley and his pals had lunch. He called it “one of the smallest and pleasantest places in the world” and his ashes are buried there.
At dinner, a man at the next table was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the boast “Hadrian’s Wall Path – 84 miles in 7 days”. Clare promised to get me one with a subtly different message: “Dales Way – 17 miles in three days, plus seven miles by bus”