Grassington – Hubberholme
Updated: Jan 17
Dales Way – Day 2 – 12 miles
No cold and frosty morning for the second day of the Dales Way. Instead the deluge of last night – I had to run a rained gauntlet from the pub in Grassington to my Lower Bridge End Farm B&B, and still got soaked – gives way to drizzle and mist, and a temperature uplift of around five degrees.
But with heavy rain forecast I’m grateful for drizzle. Not least because Day 2 starts by departing the Wharfe for the first time and scaling the moors.
As I pull on my pack I eye the hillsides warily: heavy clouds hug the tops. Big-sky panoramas won't be mine today.
The good folk of Grassington are in a media frenzy; a Yorkshire kind of frenzy that sounds something like:
“I see they’ve got those cameras back in town.”
That was the conservation in The Devonshire last night, anyway.
Source of the excitement? A new small-screen adaptation of All Creatures Great and Small that is using one of the town’s four pubs as a location.
I always feel the Yorkshire Dales have been short changed by big-hitting cultural icons – and all that means in terms of TV and film profile and subsequent tourist lucre. The Lakes gets Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey... Not to mention Postman Pat and films from Star Wars to Withnail and I... while the Dales get James Herriot.
Nor is there any specific village mecca for Herriot fans; although much filming for the original BBC series took place in Thirsk (where the World of James Herriot museum is located), the town of Darrowby was Herriot's own creation, a fictional combination of Thirsk, Richmond, Leyburn and Middleham.
Which is partly, I imagine, why the drinkers in The Devonshire were so aminated.
A too-short stroll through Grassington – mossy backlanes on hillside terraces – and the Dales Way meets the moor.
Although the Way is largely known – and marketed – as a low-level river walk (following, among others, the Wharfe, the Lune and the Kent), there’s plenty of non-river walking to get your boots into, not least the upland crossing of the Pennine watershed into Dentdale.
Today’s moorland wander across Grassington Moor was never part of the original Dales Way plan. And its inclusion reveals something of the spirit of its pioneering creators five decades ago.
Like Tom Stephenson’s long green trail, the Dales Way – which is only four years younger than the Pennine Way – was part-born by a political motivation to open up the countryside. In the unheady days of the post-War years access to much of the countryside still lay decades away. But the passing of the Countryside Act 1968 gave members of the West Riding Area of the Ramblers Association a rare opportunity to lay down new rights of way.
Specifically, a new power given to local authorities to create public access to riversides proved crucial in deciding the route of the burgeoning Way.
But while those powers were helpful in establishing access along much of the Wharfe, some stretches remained out of reach, including that from Grass Wood to Kettlewell, where resistance from anglers and landowners meant a temporary moorland diversion was put in place until riverside access could be settled.
50 years later that diversion – along an ancient drovers' road via Conistone Pie – remains in place on what is now one of the walking highlights of the trail.
There’s no envious backwards glance at the Wharfe as the path rises; instead the reward of higher places, a greenway weaving through limestone pavements above hanging Scar woodlands, over bluff and under scree as mist creeps along hills higher still.
The payoff for the first climb is a drop into the upland bowl of Lea Green, no life visible but for a single far-off cow and a rambling couple a mile distant who walk in and out of the shifting cloud.
It’s not long before the mist becomes mizzle. And it’s not long after that it becomes rain proper. A few score miles northwest of here Cumbrians have a rich vernacular for rain. In the space of half-an-hour the wet stuff runs the precipitation gamut from driddle (very light rain) to sappy (rainy); muck wet (very wet) to hossin' it doon (raining heavily).
No worries though. Moorland never feel quite right in the sun; moors and moisture are made for one another. So I pull on the waterproofs in the shelter of an old lime kiln and stride out across the ancient common pockmarked by lead minings and shakeholes, Bronze Age enclosures, bygone field systems, and an all-but-lost turf road.
Through meadows to Kettlewell and the Dales Way rejoins the Wharfe, narrower now, but ever more frantic, overnight rain swelling the banks with a flow canoeists would eye greedily. Without them it’s up to fallen leaves from riverside trees, making torrent journeys of waltzered green, red and orange as they head south.
To Buckden is a showcase of Dales loveliness. Waterfall-fed streams – sykes in these parts – that tumble down the meadows; ancient stock roads lined by dry-stone walls; open pastures with views to the tree-cloaked limestone scars razing skyward to clag. At times the path leaves the river to meander over the floodplain, at others it stays faithful; oak, sycamore and willow boughs bending close, sometimes too close, to the spate waters.
The names delight too: Throstles Nest, Drizzle Pot, Paradise, Hush Gutter and, best of all, Starbottom, the Upper Wharfedale village the Dales Way bypasses, which means the small wood where poles were cut.
The only sadness, as the path continues north, rises from the ashes.
These grand trees have made a home in this landscape since the ice sheets retreated. Lovers of limestone, the ash moved in after the early colonisers, the thorns, birches and willows. As early man settled the dales it was worked too. In summer the trees gave shelter to sheep, and in winter food, bark providing minerals to stock when snows lay thick. Pollarding yielded not just fuel but sturdy stopes as well – long, straight branches that doubled as gate poles.
Now the ash’s days are numbered.
Dieback, we are told, will kill 95 per cent.
95 per cent.
Hundreds of millions of the third most common tree in Britain following the ghosts of the elm.
The ash is everywhere here. Scrubby fingers embedded in karst grikes. Forest dwellers. Riverside boughs. Saddest of all, the parkland ashes; iconic arborial spires of the Dales landscape that have stood for centuries. At one point the Way passes a plantation of young trees – probably no more than five-years-old – planted with love and care, and dead already. A hope for the future dashed.
Who will mourn these mighty trees when they are gone? When their leaves no more litter the valley floor?
Nordic settlers in the Dales considered the ash greatest of all the trees; 'Yggdrasil',was the Tree of Life. Until Georgian times the ash was known as the healing tree.
Just downstream from here Grass Wood is the largest native ash woodland in the Yorkshire Dales. Many of its trees will go dormant for the last time this autumn.
Ashes to ashes.
And so to Buckden.
Dales Way walkers bound for Hubberholme have no call to visit this valleyside hamlet. It’s a few hundred yards off-route. And Hubberholme’s only a mile upstream.
But I’ve a soft spot for the place. Partly because of its fine village greeen. Mostly because of the West Winds Café, from whose unassuming front room an assortment of cakes, scones and tea is served at 1990s prices; a hidden gem that deserves as much footfall as possible.
I also love Buckden for the anecdote Alfred Wainwright tells about it in his A Pennine Journey travelogue. Arriving at nightfall after walking from Horton in Ribblesdale, Wainwright is unable to make out a single house as it is so dark. The fellwanderer is forced into using his hands to feel his way between cottages before a young lady – who remains an unseen (and angelic) mystery – saves him by leading him to shelter.
How much of the tale is hyperbole we’ll never know, nor is anyone certain which house he lodged in, but on dark Dales nights in these out-of-the-way valleys that perfect darkness is not so hard to find.
The Parish Church of St Michael & All Angels, Hubberholme, is known for three things. Firstly, it is one of just two churches in Yorkshire that retains its oak rood loft, dating from 1558. Secondly, it is the resting place of the great Yorkshire novelist, chronicler and playright J. B. Priestley, who wrote of Hubberholme that it was “sheer magic, not quite in this world”. Thirdly, its pews and choir stalls were made by Robert Thompson, the celebrated 'Mouseman of Kilburn', whose signature is a tiny wooden mouse carved into his furniture. I had been to the church before, in May, walking the Pennine Journey. But despite a good half-hour's search I'd found no mice.
I would not be beaten twice.
Second time around I search high and low in this little sanctuary of hillside solace; eying the pews, and the wall-mounted engravings, and the decorative chairs… all in vain…
…Until, just before giving up I run my fingers along the underside of a nave pew... and come upon a little rise in the woodwork where it should not be.
And there it is. A single church mouse.
I check into the George Inn a happy man.