Occupying 683 square miles (1769 sq km), the Yorkshire Dales National Park, created in 1954, is mainly in Yorkshire but creeps into Cumbria’s Dentdale. Gradually rising from east to west, the land sweeps upward to the Pennine fells where it reaches heights of over 2000 feet.
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The mix of pastoral valleys, gritstone fells and limestone cliffs adds to the austere beauty of the dales area. Moorland becks tumble down the fells to become waterfalls and gills before reaching the rivers in the valley floors. Curlew, golden plover and skylarks ride the breezes.
Complimented by waterfalls, hay meadows replete with ox-eye daisies and cranes-bills, drystone walls, and welcoming villages, the Yorkshire dales live up to author J. B. Priestley’s comment, “In all my travels I’ve never seen a countryside to equal in beauty the Yorkshire dales.”
There are many dales in the park. A few are Swaledale, Upper and Lower Wensleydale, Upper and Lower Wharfdale, Ribblesdale, Malhamdale, Littondale, Bishopdale, Coverdale, Arkengarthdale, Garsdale, Dentdale and Airedale. Each has its own character and charm.
Dramatic Arkengarthdale, the most northerly Pennine dale, and narrow Swaledale suffered heavy lead mining, the result of which is seen in the many mineshafts and smelt mill remains in the dales.
The Swaledale road, captured by the moors on either side, is deep and winding—one of the most beautiful of all the Dales’ drives. Spread out in the distance, layered one upon the other, lie green-grassed hills playing host to black-faced Swaledale sheep. Waterfalls tumble down hillsides to feed the Swale River, one of the fastest flowing in England. Stone walls, farms and hay barns dot the landscape.
The dramatic drive over the well-known Buttertubs Pass, a natural pass whose limestone formations are said to resemble butter, is just north of the village of Hawes. Rivers and glaciers carved the rugged beauty of the land, cutting, scouring and eating away the stone.
The town of Reeth, on the slopes of Calver Hill, sits at the head of Arkengarthdale and Swaledale. It became a farming centre and the lead mining capital of Swaledale. A visit to the Swaledale Folk Museum gives an historical background of the area.
The high moor road into Wensleydale is dotted with deep ravines on one side, limestone cliffs and scars on the other and a view that extends in all directions. The dale is a widespread, gently sloping green valley with swelling hills dotted with farms and woods—tamer than the dales on either side. This pastoral area has, since the 16th century, supported dairy farms, except in the higher hills where sheep grace.
Upper Wensleydale is home to the village of Hawes, location of the Hawes National Park Centre. The Dales Countryside Museum is also here. In Lower Wensleydale on the river Ure is thundering Aysgarth Falls, actually three different waterfalls. Here, in coppiced hazel woods, bloom bluebells, primroses and wood anemones in springtime.
Ribblesdale is an area of limestone scenery and caves. At Ingleborough is a national nature reserve comprised of woodland, limestone pasture and bare stone. Here is the Dales’ only Iron Age hillfort, encompassing 15 acres. Here, too, are the three peaks of the park: Ingleborough, Pen-y-ghent and Whernside.
Upper Wharfdale is a mix of valley pastures and barren limestone pavements, while heather on the hilltops provides a colourful contrast. Buzzards and kestrels soar in the air. Buckden Pike offers a vista across the dale. Grey stone villages add to the countryside attractions. In Ribblesdale, Wharfdale and Lower Wensleydale, limestone quarrying is an ongoing industry.
The limestone scenery of the Yorkshire Dales National Park—scars, crags, caves, gorges and sinkholes—are a trademark of the area. The limestone was formed 330 million years ago when this area was a tropical sea. As animals died and left behind their shells, layer upon layer of limestone was built up. Aided by earth movement, the rocks were uplifted to form the core of the Pennines. Rivers and glaciers made their contribution, wearing away the soft limestone.
Malhamdale is especially noted for its limestone formations of Malham Cove and the Great Scar Limestone. Malham National Park Centre has displays on the history and geology of the area.
The Romans left little behind in the dales except for the remains of a couple of roads. Today’s walkers trod the Pennine Way that crosses the park from north to south for 60 miles. It was the Danes, Norse and Angles that stamped the landscape with the pattern of settlement seen today.
Castles—Brough, Richmond, Middleham, Skipton—and abbey ruins—Jervaux, Fountains, Bolton, Easby—tell of medieval power. It was the monasteries that brought sheep farming to the dales from the 1100s and later established granges and farming along with a network of roads. By the 13th century stone walls began to enclose land and continued being built till the mid 1800s. Stone built villages sprang up to serve the growing population.
Charlotte, Anne and Emily Bronte were inspired by the heather moors of this area to write their books.
The Yorkshire Dales, still largely rural in character after twelve centuries of settlement, is an area of variety and contrast: stone-fenced farms, green-laced fells, deep valleys, peat-stained rivers and exposed windswept moors. The beauty of this distinctive landscape is undeniable.
National Park Officer
Yorkshire Dales National Park
North Yorkshire DL8 3BP
Tel. 01969 650456
Malham National Park Centre
Tel. 01729 830363
Sedbergh National Park Visitor Centre & Tourist Information Centre
Tel. 01539 620 125
Aysgarth Falls National Park Centre
Tel. 01969 663424
The World of James Herriot
23 Kirkgate, Thirsk
Tel. 01845 524234
Website: World of James Herriot
Website: Bolton Estate
Website: Skipton Castle
Swaledale Folk Museum
Tel. 01748 884373
Dales Countryside Museum
Station Yard, Hawes
Tel. 01969 667450
Tourist Information Centres
Tel. 01969 667450
Tel. 01969 623069
National Park Centre and Tourist Information
The Green, Reeth
Tel. 01748 884059
Friary Gardens, Victoria Road
Tel. 01748 850252
Tel. 01845 522755
Photos courtesy Lakeland Cam, Cornwall Cam, Visit Britain, and by Barbara Ballard