Ilkley to Grassington
Updated: Jan 17
Dales Way – Day 1 – 16.3 miles
It had pretty much rained for four days solid in the Lakes. The valley road was flooded and moors saturated; even the Herdwicks looked fed up.
My plan for walking the Dales Way had been to wait for a five-day fine-weather window. Crisp autumn mornings, dewey cobwebs, pub firesides and frost.
But with the long-term forecast looking unsettled there was no point hanging around. Sod perfection. At the tail end of a washout summer a few days of grey skies and drizzle felt like a safe enough bet.
So it was that in the space of a frantic afternoon I booked my Dales Way accommodation, packed the rucksack and bought my one-way ticket to Ilkley.
Two days and three train journeys later (Penrith > Lancaster, Lancaster > Shipley, Shipley > Ilkley) and I arrived in the well-to-do spa town that would be the starting point for my 80-mile wander from urban West Yorkshire to distant Windermere, a smile on my face.
The first day of sunshine in a long while blinked to a starry night.
The morning breaks with frost. Whitened leaves on meadowside paths.
An early start means I join the Wharfe at the same time as the morning commute in the company of joggers, office workers and school kids. And while you wouldn't normally expect walkers' greetings until you're out of town, Ilkley outdoes itself.
I ask an early-morning jogger if they'd mind taking my photo at the Dales Way's start (a stone seat beside a front garden). "Sure. Off to Windermere?" Friendly and well-informed.
A few hundred metres further upriver a group of school-bound teens give a smiling hello. And then a few hundred metres after that a dog walker asks how far I'm planning for the day.
Wasn't the UK meant to be tearing itself apart with politically-fraught angst?, I wonder. Weren't kids meant to be at the end of county lines? But there are some parts of this country that are a tonic to the soul and a shot against world-weariness. Send Daily Mail hacks to Ilkley for a week and the tone of our press would change for good.
...Which is to say, I love the north of England, and all felt well with the world as I embarked on a walk that had long been on my to-do list.
The Dales Way gets off to a gentle start. There's no Pennine Way grand opening here. Instead riverside paths littered with the first leaves of autumn, soggy outskirt paths over dewey water meadows, a diversion around Ilkley leisure centre.
But it's amiable enough, the miles buoyed not just by the morning hellos, but also the crisp air, milky sky refusing entrance to a low, washed-out sun, hedgerows laden with elder berries, rose hips, sloes. Ducks dabble in floodwaters, remnants of last week's deluge. A glance skyward left finds Ilkley Moor on the skyline. The 1,319ft grit escarpment was bought for the people of Ilkley by its district council in 1893 in the kind of act of far-sighted commitment you don't expect any more. Under relentless sun it blazed this summer. But there's no evidence of the fires now – just browning bracken, clumps of pines and crags breaking the moorland skein.
Hints of open country are few for the first four miles.
But there's plenty to engage. The hamlet of Low Mill is a museum piece of honey-stone loveliness. It's the first of several riverside settlements the Dales Way passes today that are reborn; old watermills and cotton-spinning hamlets given a second life as desirable homes and holiday lets – the refurbishments sensitively done, heritage retained in the cobbles, stone troughs and water pumps.
There are memories of a different kind in the churchyard of St Peter's, Addingham; a mourner laying lilies at a grave already awash with colour. The church stands on a spot where christians have gathered for over 1,100 years, among its curiosities a London-made bell (the fourth) inscribed: "Our voices with joyful sound makes hills and valleys echo round," and a labyrinth – or 'sacred gateway' – in its grounds.
Not wanting to lose myself too soon on my walk I rest briefly in the grounds instead, rooks calling overhead, a white-haired lady exiting the church doors with a broom in one hand, dustpan-and-brush in the other.
The Dales Way gets into its stride proper at Bolton Abbey.
Here the valley widens and the Wharfe spreads, parkland stretches on either side of The Strand overhung by birches flecked with gold. The moors rising ahead. A month or so back these heights would have glowed purple. Now they're rust brown.
If you're after a walk on the quiet side the Dales Way is not the one to pick. Solitude-seekers step away now. And as the gravelled path rounds the old fish ponds the Way comes to Bolton Priory, one of Yorkshire's tourist top trumps. Even on this murky Thursday folk are out by the dozen, couples milling round the ruins of the Augustinian priory that has been drawing crowds since the days of the English Grand Tour, when artists of the picturesque, from Wordsworth to Turner, came to admire the ruins in their Romantic riverside setting.
Arriving at the Abbey it's hard not to note the glum mood. Well-dressed ladies eye the stoned gables with misty eyes; solitary gents seek comfort in the crumbling spires. My smiles are not reciprocated here. Ilkley this is not. It's only when I approach the Church – sole part of the Priory saved from Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which remains in use today – that I'm told there's a funeral in progress.
Onwards it is then, over the Wharfe alongside the spate-drowned stepping stones and onto the carefully maintained path that rocks and rolls northwest above the river, streamlets tumbling down walled channels, beech canopy shedding cobs.
Mile 7, 11.30am, time for a tea stop.
I rest my pack on a seat outside the Cavendish Pavilion – a mile upriver from the Priory it's still part of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire's 30,000 acre estate – and I'm drinking tea when my next-door neighbour strolls past. I'm not sure if it gets much smaller-world than that.
It's then that I make a walkers' rookie error. I wander into the Pavilion. Where's the next lunch stop?, I ask the cashier. I would eat here if there's nothing now until Grassington, I reason. But I'd rather not.
No worries, I'm told. Barden Tower has a restaurant and a café. It's only a couple of miles upstream. I'll be there at lunchtime.
Sounds good to me.
So I pull on the pack and enter Strid Woods.
Strid Woods are a rare pocket of acidic oak woodlands from the days when it was said a red squirrel could travel from Skipton to Knaresborough without touching the ground. At times the path through the wood is wide enough to wander four-a-breast and level enough for a mobility scooter. At others it's an adventure playground of tree roots, mossed rocks and bouldered steps from Middle Earth. The Wharfe, meanwhile, performs an endless dance of tumbles and circles and swirls. Leaf litter forms a carpet to fern and liverwort; toadstools and fungi sprouting from flaking tree trunks.
The sound of rapids heralds the approach of The Strid, the landscape feature which lends the wood its name; a narrowing of gritstone that, through the centuries, has channelled the Wharfe ever deeper – up to nine metres in places, possibly more – into a churning rib of water flowing through subterranean caves. Occasionally The Strid's a peaceful place, its waters drifting and folding in lazy whorls. Not today. The soaking of the past week reveals the Wharfe's deadlier side, peat-waters racing and diving, driven by unseen currents, a pooh-stick snatched and drowned in a second.
This is the deadliest stretch of water in Britain (or maybe the world), with a reported 100% fatality rate for those unwise enough to test its waters. Or those who, like its first recorded victim, William de Romilly – the Boy of Egremont – attempt to leap the banks.
The far extent of Bolton Abbey's riverside walk is marked by Barden Bridge and, above and beyond, the second of the day's ruins, that of Barden Tower, a hillside hunting lodge once the principal of six in Barden hunting forest. The efforts of serial restorer Lady Anne Clifford was to give the Tower another hundred or so years' life, but by the late 18th century the building had been all-but abandoned.
It's here I was told there's a café.
I crest the hill and explore the handsome ruin and out-buildings alongside. Signs proclaim: CAFÉ, RESTAURANT, BUNK HOUSE and WEDDING ENQUIRIES WELCOME.
I follow direction markers around the grounds. Each leads to a heavy oak door that is locked. I look in at a dining room, fully lit, with no diners.
Behind the back, observing me curiously, is a girl smoking.
"Are you open?" I ask.
Only on Sundays, I'm told.
I'm heading upstream, I say. Where can I stop for lunch?
Burnsall, she says. There's a café and a pub in Burnsall, jinust 50 minutes walk away.
So onwards I stroll again.
The first 30-and-a-few miles of the Dales Way follow the River Wharfe. The original plan had been to track it from Ilkely to its source. But murky, marshy Oughtershaw Moss is no place to end a journey. So trail devisers Colin Speakman and Tom Wilcock looked west for a suitable end point. First to Sedbergh, then to the old West Riding of Yorkshire boundary at Crook of Lune Bridge, finally to the shores of that great Cumbrian lake – then in the county of Westmorland – Windermere.
Critics of the walk (of which there aren't many) lament the similarity of scenery.
But the Wharfe is a charming and ever-changing companion. With Barden left behind, the riverside vegetation transitions from oak and beech to alder scrub and willow; flecks of purple in underlaid balsam. A half-mile later it changes again, to open farmland now, DNA of the Dales proper in the whiter stone walls, limestone outcrops and field barns. The millstone grit outcrop of Simon's Seat on Barden Fell in retrospect -– with its celebrated views – is a reminder we're entering hill country. In the meadows the lowland Texel is supplanted by Swaledale and Rough Fell.
A switchback at Howgill transforms the landscape all over again; the river plays in falls below a terrace path lined with birch, beech and oak, air damp and heady.
The ever-changing Wharfe is such good company that the miles to Burnsall – however hungry I now am – slip sweetly by.
My first stop, alongside the wide and immaculately manicured village green, is the café.
Which is closed.
Next stop, in the heart of the honeypot village is the Red Lion pub.
"We stop serving at 2.30, sir. Sorry." (Though not sorry enough, at 2.40, to rustle up a sandwich.)
With Plans A, B, C and D now shelved it was looking like a very late lunch in Grassington – 16 miles without food. As I say, rookie walkers' error.
Then the landlord mentions 'Rachel at the Riverbank'. It's a new café alongside... the riverbank. And not only is it open, but it's wonderful. Everything is home baked by Rachel in her now permanent home – she previously ran a mobile coffee van out of Appletreewick. There's a wood stove, books to browse, bigs cups of tea and, for me, a veggie roll and a Snickers and Malteser traybake, gone in south of five minutes.
With a Snickers/Malteser-fuelled spring in my step the final miles to Grassington continue the pattern of perpetual engagement that has defined the day's walk.
A round of the great river-bow cradling Burnsall is dominated by Loup Scar, a limestone crag hugged by thorn and ash. Then a suspension bridge crossing gives way to a grassy promenade lined by chestnuts, sun illuminating the autumn leaves in the colours of a children's song. All too soon the roar of Linton Falls heralds journey's end at the great Dales market town of Grassington with its four pubs, postcard-perfect mews and cobbled streets. I find my B&B for the night and check in. An hour later, as darkness falls, the heavens open.
Yet more water for the restless Strid.