A gorgeous 6-8 day jaunt between two of Britain’s greatest national parks
The Dales Way: The Basics
WHERE: Starting just outside the southern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, within a couple of miles of the start you’re entering the park and will spend the next few days within it, before continuing north-west to finish in the Lake District National Park.
HOW LONG IS THE DALES WAY? 81 miles
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO WALK THE DALES WAY? 6-8 days
IS IT A NATIONAL TRAIL: No
WHERE DOES THE DALES WAY BEGIN? Ilkley, an attractive Yorkshire town on the southern edge of the Dales National Park
AND WHERE DOES IT END?Bowness-on-Windermere, a tourist town in southern Lakeland.
HOW HARD IS THE DALES WAY? Pretty easy. The penultimate day is long, remote and with few places to stop on the way; but otherwise it’s a short walk overall, fairly difficult to lose your way and reasonably straightforward.
Bolton Abbey, at the end of the first day’s walking
The Dales Way is often described as one of the easiest of the long-distance paths in Britain, and it’s true that most of the first half of the trail is largely level as it follows the meandering River Wharfe. The walk is not entirely without gradients, of course, and there are steep sections, particularly as the path approaches the source of the Wharfe and the watershed, and again on the approach to the Lakes. It’s likely that you’ll also have to complete a couple of long days on the trail, too, as the path passes through countryside where facilities and accommodation are scarce.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Dales Way is one of the UK’s shortest and most straightforward long-distance trails. Finding and sticking to the trail is also particularly easy, thanks to the wealth of signposts along the way and the superb maintenance of the trail.
No surprise, then, that I consider this to be a path that can be tackled by everyone, regardless of their age: I’ve seen babies conveyed along the trail in prams and on the backs of their parents, while the most fashionable hair colour on the Dales Way amongst both sexes is what can most kindly be described as a distinguished silvery-grey. And it is a great trail for those who’ve never attempted a long-distance path before and want to dip their toes in the water and see whether hiking is for them, before moving on to tackle some of the more challenging long-distance trails such as the Coast to Coast Path, or the Pennine Way.
But the delights of this trail aren’t confined to novice walker. For though it may be only just over 80 miles in length, the Dales Way manages to pack an awful lot of interest into its relatively short span. The charming, lively Victorian spa town of Ilkley; the old cotton mill centre of Addingham and the mining town of Kettlewell; the majestic ruins of Bolton Abbey and the busy tourist hub at Grassington; and the picture-perfect settlements at Appletreewick, Burnsall, Grassington, Kettlewell, Starbotton, Hebden and Buckden – all are encountered on or just off the trail, and all before you’ve even completed the first half of the walk too!
The Wharfe itself is splendid as well. Where it’s placid and becalmed, anglers wade in to fish for trout and weary hikers sit, paddle in the shallows and cool their overheated feet, while kingfishers and dippers flit across the surface. But in certain places the Wharfe is frothing and furious, most famously at the raging Strid, where more than one foolhardy traveller has met his doom down the years
Though I was less keen on the second half of the walk, as you wave farewell to the Wharfe in favour of neighbouring Dentdale, there are still some bits and pieces here to pique your interest. The delights of the natural landscape are supplemented by several magnificent viaducts and bridges, built during the railway boom of the 19th century, which you pass by, alongside and under on your way to the smooth topped Howgills, a delightfully hilly corner of the Yorkshire Dales.
And then at the end of the trail (and having passed under a couple more breathtaking viaducts), you are rewarded for all your efforts over the previous days with magnificent views of some of England’s mightiest peaks as you move into the Lake District – and your second national park on the trail.
If I’m making it all sound a bit too perfect, well I do have some minor quibbles. My biggest gripe is that I think the decision to end the trail at Bowness is a mis-step, and the path would have been better if it had stayed within the confines of the Dales. I suppose if you want to explore another gorgeous part of the country then Bowness, while pretty charmless itself, is a good launchpad for your Lake District odyssey. But I don’t think many Dales Way walkers will be doing that.
But this, as I say, is a minor moan – whereas I could spend many, many more paragraphs eulogising about the beauty and diversity of Dales Way.
Of course it’s true that when it comes to trekking, the things you see on the way are only part of the enjoyment. For going on a long-distance walk is just as much about the people you meet and the food you eat, the things you stop to do and the things that happen to you along the way. That’s where the real memories are made. And of course, I can’t predict what kind of experiences you’ll have on your trek. But whatever does happen on your adventure, good or bad, you can rest assured that at least the setting for them will be wonderful. Because the Dales Way is a gorgeous, gorgeous trail.
It is stunning. Maybe not all of it; I think that once the trail leaves the Yorkshire Dales National Park it goes downhill quite fast. But there are some stretches in the first half that are just gorgeous – the approach to Bolton Abbey, the stroll through Strid Wood and the joy that is the ornate Barden Viaduct are all completely delightful.
At 81 miles this is the shortest route on the website – perfect for those of the requisite fitness who want a trail to squeeze into a week’s holiday. And if you want to increase the length, there are three ‘feeder’ routes from Harrogate, Bradford and Leeds to push the mile count towards the 100-mile mark.
Furthermore, the signposts en route are many and clear, and the trail, for the first half at least, is largely flat as it follows the meandering Wharfe. True, the going gets steeper as you approach the watershed, and again as you finish off the trail in the Lake District. But compared to many trails, it’s a pretty straightforward yomp.
For those who love nature – and if you don’t, why on Earth are you tackling this trail in the first place? – there’s plenty to see. The Wharfe is a lovely healthy river where kingfishers fish, ducks quack, dippers dip, butterflies flutter by and there’s just life aplenty all along its banks.
I was surprised to find several places along the way that don’t allow dogs inside. I found this really surprising for such a rural part of the world – the sort of place where you’d expect them to welcome our four-legged friends with open arms. Kettlewell was just one place where accommodation was limited to just a campsite and one B&B – nowhere else allowed dogs into their rooms. The eateries were no better, as I sat outside shivering in the drizzle eating a soggy sarni because Daisy was barred. (See below for more information on taking your dog along the Dales Way.)
I am sure there is a good reason for this, but I have simply never understood why the Dales Way dribbles on all the way to the Lake District. The first few days of this trail are just exceptional – the stretch from Bolton Abbey to Grassington in particular is just breathtaking, and indeed all the way up to the watershed and down the other side to Dent and Sedbergh is just a joy. But there then follows a long day of about 16 miles, with little in the way of accommodation or eateries (indeed, there’s just one cafe on the whole stage, as I recall, and I believe that’s now closed) that culminates at Burneside – where you can catch a train to Kendal for your accommodation (there’s little at Burneside itself). And the next day the trail continues its meandering way to Bowness-on-Windermere (though, mercifully, this bit is less than ten miles in total).
Like any walker, I fully appreciate the charms of the Lakes, but I fail to understand why this trail, which is supposed to be about exploring the best of the Dales, feels the need to leave the Dales National Park at all, especially as Bowness-on-Windermere is possibly the least charming place in the Lakes. (For those who’ve never been, Bowness-on-Windermere is the busiest place in the entire Lake District National Park and can, at certain times of year, be way too busy).
So while I love the Dales Way, and would encourage everyone with an interest in walking to attempt it, I can’t help but think that there’s a better walk to be had by designing your own trail; one that stays largely within the confines of the Dales National Park, possibly on a circular loop that starts and ends in Ilkley.
The section between Buckden and Dent, as you cross over the watershed and leave the Wharfe behind, is lacking in shops, pubs and cafes, so make sure you bring a packed lunch or be prepared to walk for a mile or two off the trail to get some nourishment. Similarly, after Sedbergh there’s nothing until Burneside (and there’s not too much there either); plan ahead so you don’t get caught out.
For those who care about these things, the Dales Way is not (yet) one of the 15 National Trails in England and Wales. That said, the signage and maintenance of the trail is as good as any National Trail – and, like any National Trail, you can still get a very nice certificate if you complete it.
Useful info for those walking the Dales Way
Transport to and from the path
Getting to Ilkley is relatively straightforward. There’s a train station connecting the town with the major transport hubs of Leeds and Bradford. There are also buses from Leeds.
As for getting back to civilisation at the end of the walk, well one of the (few) advantages of finishing at Bowness-on-Windermere is that it’s fairly easy to get away from, with several buses serving the town. Many of these buses head uphill for ten minutes to the town’s Siamese twin, Windermere, which has a train station that can take you to Oxenholme – which lies on the main London-Glasgow line.
Transport along the Dales Way
Dent Station, the highest main line station in England.
Public transport along the trail is not great. It’s OK for the first part of the trail: bus 74 does a good job of serving this initial section, starting in Ilkley and finishing at Grassington, and calling in at Addingham, Bolton Abbey and Appletreewick. From Grassington the 72A then takes over, going all the way up to Buckden via Kettlewell. But there’s nothing to take you from Buckden over the watershed to Dent, and only the occasional bus from there to Sedbergh. Similarly, there’s no direct connection from here to other points further along the trail, though Burneside, Staveley and Windermere – which are all along the last ten miles of the trail – are all connected by train.
Walking the Dales Way with a dog
The ornate Barden Aqueduct, towards the end of the first stage
As mentioned above, I was surprised at how many establishments refused entry for my dog. For a rural area it was quite surprising. Don’t let this put you off bringing your dog – it’s still easy to complete the trail with them, and you will find enough canine friendly facilities en route to make the walk fairly straightforward – I just didn’t expect it to be as time-consuming as it was to find places that accepted dogs.
Do note that in addition to the frosty reception extended to my bitch by the local residents, there are also lots of cow fields and lots of sheep fields that you’ll be walking through on the trail and the residents of these aren’t too welcoming either. Just take care and follow the usual rules about walking a dog along the trail.
So where might I get lost? It’s not easy to get lost on the Dales Way. Though it’s not a National Trail the signage is very good; and besides, you’ll be walking along a river for most of the first few days. The only place where you may have trouble finding your way is crossing the watershed after Buckden, where the mist rolls in and the signposts are not as plentiful as they could be. But don’t be concerned: as I write in the book, “…there may be occasions where you have to pause, scratch your head and study the maps in this book closely – you may initially even choose the wrong path – but it usually becomes obvious pretty quickly that you’ve made a mistake and need to head back to join the correct trail.”
Camping and accommodation along the Dales Way
Camping Campers are well served along the trail and it’s possible to camp every night. There are a couple of caveats to this, however. Firstly, Ilkley, Grassington and Sedbergh, three of the biggest places along the trail, do not have campsites within a two-mile radius of them. Secondly, if you’re planning on cooking your own food too, then do note that there are a couple of big sections, between Buckden and Dent, and Sedbergh and Burneside, where there are no stores; so plan your trip carefully so you know when to pick up provisions, and where.
The hostel situation along the Dales Way is pretty hopeless. There’s a YHA at Kettlewell and independent ones at Kendal and at Bowness-on-Windermere at the end of the trail – but that’s it. That makes them useful if you’re camping but just fancy a night under a roof every now and again, but not enough upon which to build an itinerary.
As for B&Bs and hotels, there are plenty of these and some of them are charming. Remember to book your B&B well in advance, however, particularly in summer – it can get very busy. And if you’re travelling with a dog, it’s even more important to book in advance because there aren’t that many that accept dogs.
Facilities along the Dales Way
Food and drink There’s some great food on the trail (our favourite meal was at the delightful Craven Arms at Appletreewick) but, as usual, the second half of the trail, once you’ve crossed the watershed, can be tricky. After the pub at Buckden there are no eateries on the path until Dent, so for lunch on that day I had to walk a mile and a half from the trail to Ribblehead and eat at the pub there. Similarly, on the 16-mile schlep from Sedbergh to Burneside there is nothing on the way so make sure you carry a packed lunch with you. Even when you get to Burneside the times when the pub there (the Anglers Arms) serves food are quite limited so you may have to catch a train to Kendal to get something to eat. So, as usual, plan ahead. If you’ve got the book you’ll know where the pubs and cafes are but if you can, ring ahead to make sure they’re still open and serving food.
Shops, banks and ATMs You need to keep at least one eye on your finances and supplies when on the trail, for if you run out of either you may have a lengthy walk ahead of you before you reach a place where you can replenish either. As usual, the first part of the walk is more walker friendly, and there are enough settlements on or near the path where you can get money out and buy food etc. But after Buckden it suddenly becomes a very remote trail – beautiful, but remote, with no shops on the way. Similarly, after Sedbergh, though you’ll be walking through farmland rather than the windswept moorland of the previous stages, shops are pretty much non-existent until you reach Burneside, about 16 miles later.
Trekking companies and baggage carriers Most of the big companies – Sherpa, Macs Adventures, Briagantes and many others – offer a luggage-carrying service and the whole self-guided tour package. HF Holidays was the only company that was offering guided tours when I researched the book and I believe that’s still the case today.
Dangers and annoyances
Despite the fact it’s a short trail and for much of it a fairly straightforward one, you do need to take care on the big march over the watershed. It’s remote, it’s exposed and the mist can roll in and obscure the path. Shelter can be hard/impossible to find on this stretch of the trail unless you’re prepared to huddle down behind some drystone wall or a particularly obliging cow. And if you’re walking in winter temperatures can plummet significantly, which could lead to serious problems. It pays to be well prepared with warm clothing and good waterproofs.
Though the first part is much ‘cosier’ and closer to civilisation, it still pays to be careful. You are, after all, walking along a riverbank for much of this section and the river can be dangerous at times. Famously, the Strid – a short stretch of rapids in the heart of the woods – has claimed several lives down the years. Though it doesn’t look much on the surface, there are some dangerous undertows that drag their victims into underground caverns where there’s no air. Here’s a snippet of nineteenth-century poet Samuel Rogers’ composition on one such disaster, titled The Boy of Egremond:
It may look benign – but beware the Strid!
In tartan clad and forest-green, With hound in leash and hawk in hood, The Boy of Egremond was seen. Blithe was his song, a song of yore; But where the rock is rent in two, And the river rushes through, His voice was heard no more! ‘Twas but a step! the gulf he passed; But that step–it was his last! As through the mist he winged his way, (A cloud that hovers night and day), The hound hung back, and back he drew The Master and his merlin too. That narrow place of noise and strife Received their little all of Life!
Apparently, if you see a ghostly apparition of a white horse near the Strid when you visit, it means you’re going to be its next victim. So best keep away if you do.
Tips and hints
1) You could say that the Dales Way is a trek of two halves. Initially, as you’re walking up Wharfedale, the walking is easy and there are plenty of places on the way where you can stop, rest and restock: Grassington, Burnsall, Kettlewell, Buckden…. It’s almost too easy. After Buckden, however, things suddenly change. You still have over fifty miles to go (around 53 to be precise) – but there are only really two settlements, Dent and Sedburgh, and they sit less than 6 miles from each other (and, for most itineraries, neither occur at the end of a full day’s walking). Even the next most useful settlement on the way, Burneside, has little to offer save a shop and a pub – so most people actually catch the train from there to Kendal where there’s much more choice.
Of course, you can still complete the Dales Way without too many problems; you just have to plan the latter half of your walk carefully, and work out not just where you’re going to sleep each night, but where you’re going to eat along the way before you start out each morning.
2) If you only have time to do some of the Dales Way, stick to the first bit (indeed, any bit up to Sedbergh). Though I love the viaducts that you see after Sedbergh, I think the walking and scenery is much better overall on the first part of the trail and there are many more facilities too.
3) Wherever you’re staying, do return to the trail in the evening; the path is quieter then and your chances of seeing kingfishers and other wildlife is that much greater.
4) If you’re staying nearby, do try to book a table at the Craven Arms in Appletreewick. It’s a place full of character: built in the sixteenth century, it’s still lit by gaslight and acted as the local court until the middle of the last century, with wrongdoers often punished by being placed in the pillory – often wrongly called ‘stocks’ that still stand by the pub. And though it’s a bit more expensive than your average pub, the food is superb.
5) Don’t want to be considered an outsider? Then note that Appletreewick is pronounced “Ap’wick”. And Cowgill is “Ca’gil”
6) If you’re after a souvenir, unfortunately the Dales Way Association is no longer issuing badges or certificates. However, the outdoor store Hawkshead are issuing them from their branch at Bowness-on-Windermere.
‘Trailblazer really have got it right with their route maps. They rival Wainwright’s mapping for accuracy and detail and if anything are actually easier on the eye to read.’ Backpack magazine, winter 2016
‘Hikers will be delighted’Evergreen Magazine
Practical, all-in-one duide to the Dales Way, a relatively easy walk that runs for 81 miles (130km) from Ilkley in the Yorkshire Dales National Park to Bowness-on-Windermere in the Lake District.
* 38 large-scale walking maps at 1:20,000 (8cm or 31/8 inches to 1 mile) and 23 guides to towns and villages.
* Accommodation for all budgets – campsites, hostels, B&Bs, guesthouses, pubs and hotels with reviews.
* Places to eat – cafes, tearooms, pubs, takeaways and restaurants with reviews.
* Detailed public transport information for all access points on the path.
* Itineraries for all walkers – for the entire route or weekend and day walks.
* Downloadable GPS waypoints also available on the Trailblazer website.
* Colour overview and stage maps (one stage per page) with trail profiles (showing ascents and descents).
* Walking with a dog: Henry Stedman, the author, was accompanied along the Dales Way by his dog, Daisy.
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