The Dales Way, Day 1: Ilkley to Grassington (16 miles)

Life has randomly brought me to Ilkley a number of unconnected times with unconnected people. It is now a place that is very familiar to me; an old spa town full of Victorian stone houses, bedecked with great baskets and bushes of flowers that compete aggressively each year for coveted In Bloom trophies. Its high street a cornucopia of independent shops with the proud placement of a Betty’s Tearoom – the true admired stamp of a well-to-do Yorkshire town. To the south lies the scraggly, shadowy Ilkley Moor, rising to the rocky Calf and Cow; an outcrop and a boulder frequently climbed. In 1987, a retired policeman saw an alien here. The alien was polite enough to signal to him to stay back before buggering off at lightning speed. It was the start of advent so the policeman may have had a few mulled wines, but we should let him have his truth.

The Wharfe river flows confident and wide through the town, and just along it, by the old bowed bridge, the Dales Way began. Initially through sheep fields then, soon, into wild meadows. In warmer months these waterside grasses buzz with copious damselflies and dragonflies with 54 different types of butterflies cluttering up the grass blades from here through Upper Wharfedale. The occasional dog walker in sturdy Hunter boots was pushing back to Ilkley after their morning stroll.

The trail swung by Addingham, passing the old Quaker Meeting House, before entering the Yorkshire Dales National Park and soon tripping upon Bolton Abbey. The gothic abbey itself is only ruins now; still tall and imposing, with sky seen either side of the windows as the roof has long disappeared. A half built tower had ceased its construction when Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and from then on the building wilted until the half built tower was in keeping with the dilapidation of the rest.

In Summer, this site is more festive. Ice cream vendors cater to picnickers that all collectively cheer on those that attempt to cross the river via the stepping stones, and cheer even louder when they fall in. The water was high now, the stones almost covered, and I didn’t want to get completely wet this early on so, call me a loser, but I opted for the bridge.

Now up a bit and round a bit and down a bit, over stony riverside paths under clusters of trees, until the path paved out and I entered the Strid Woods. Normally it might seem a shame to pave out a forest and riverside path, but the Strid is notoriously deadly and clearly the Estate preferred to mitigate the risk of walkers and cyclists and the occasional dog sliding off in muddy, wet slips and disappearing forever.

William de Romilly

The Strid has taken lives for years. A young boy fell victim to its cruel charm whilst we were in lockdown. Back in 1998, a couple just out for a walk were killed after the waters rose over five feet in less than a minute. as if the fierce currents, underground caves, jagged underbelly and deadly ragged walls of the river weren’t quite enough, it’s also apparently prone to random, extreme bank breaking.

Whilst the Strid has taken a vast amount of lives, it was the death of William de Romilly which was the first recorded and, eventually, got given legacy in verse. The son of the landowner, Lady Alice de Romilly, he was killed after trying to jump the Strid in 1152.

Alice, bereft and tortured, donated the land to the monks on which to build the Bolton Abbey – so that they may continue to always pray for his soul. This is entirely unverified, but local legend is a strong bender of facts.

It was William Wordsworth that, hundreds of years later, decided the tale of the child and the Strid was to become prose.

Oh yeah, it looks cute. It looks like an adorable babbly, normal, little river; barely a couple metres across, flowing through riverbanks heavy with moss and giggling its way through the pleasant woodland; but the Strid is one of the world’s most dangerous waterways. It is essentially a sideways river. It may only be a couple big steps across, but it is twenty metres deep. Or thirty. Or sixty. It’s hard to get a read because the currents underneath are so brutal they make readings go mental. The Wharfe has been forced to narrow dramatically in under 100 metres, so formed the Strid.

The battering of the violent and unmeasurable currents have created a cave system underneath. Local legend places the mortality rate of those that have fallen in the Strid at 100%, with many bodies dragged and rammed into those caves. In any pub in Yorkshire you’ll also find a man who will swear down that he jumped it.

Soon after the woods and the deadly waterways, I came across the Barden Bridge and Aqueduct, from there it was a long fenced stretch close to the water.

One of the reasons I had opted to spend my November on the Dales Way was to force myself to get over a developing fear of cows since this was a notoriously cow-filled path. However, I had only come across four cows so far, all clustered together in the middle of one field far away from the path itself. Whilst I’m not complaining here, in fact I was pretty relieved, it didn’t seem like this was going to be truly the exposure I needed to be able to be ok with cows again. I would later learn that most farmers were now keeping the cows inside due to the cold, hence the lack of cows and just plenty of sheep. It was obvious that there were times of year that their interactions with hikers had become problematic, and the sorts of fencing seen here in this stretch would not be uncommon – anything to keep the hefty beasts from the idiot hikers.

It was an easy section to lull into my own head and just trek on. Despite an icy as hell end of October, this November had started off surprisingly mild.

Odd Creatures of Yorkshire

Know any short, hairy men that are prone to sulks and strops and don’t pronoune their definite articles? You could know a hobgoblin! These fuzzy, weather-hardened creatures can be both helpful and also just total arseholes. Clearly not used to kindness, if you treat a hobgoblin well then they will look after you. It’s said that each household has a resident hobgoblin that will either make all housekeeping and maintenance chores into an easy process, or just mess up your life. Just leave it out some food every now and then and say thank you. Maybe even tell him he’s very handsome – isn’t that the basics of what we all want?!

A hobgoblin gone bad is a boggart. They’ll hide things, break thing, turn fresh milk sour. If you somehow manage the nearly impossible task of evicting them, they’ll go and just throw tantrums in the nearby rivers.

Up and down Wharfedale there trots a large, black hound. Not dissimilar to those spied in Wakefield or Winchester; it is heralded with a sense of foreboding and doom and has eyes that glow. It’s said that Arthur Conan Doyle based his Baskerville Hound off the black dog myth in Devon, but his mother was from this way and highly superstitious. There’s just as much chance that his famous canine hailed from the Dales.

In fact there are plenty of Yorkshire versions of other area’s folklore here that have been twisted to make their own; there’s one of those classic kindly giants that is made a mockery of, trickster fairies playing with the fates of man and even yet another bloody Kelpie.

Now, I use the word ‘mild’ but, I’ll be honest, I have no idea what that means. I always thought it just meant not too warm and not too cold; a completely inoffensive and unnoticeable temperature. But then I hear hot summers and bone-freezing winters being called ‘mild’ and I just don’t know. I’m starting to suspect that it’s actually a word the British use sarcastically and its taken me over thirty years to figure it out.

Nevertheless, it was perfectly pleasant walking. There had been no utter chores so far on this trail and I didn’t really expect there to be – everything out there rates this as an easy trail and, frankly, if I was to come across anything like the Migneint Marshes I’d battled in Snowdonia, or the up and down nonsense of the Trotternish Ridge, or the steep, steep switchbacks of Stake Pass I would have been massively peeved. I’d signed up for a very pretty, very easy trail and that is exactly what I wanted this time. I’d enthusiastically smashed my body up enough in the name of fun this year.

This lovely, calm walking continued up past Appletreewick and into Burnsall where I stopped for a drink. However, knowing that the days of endless evening light had vanished, I rushed through my beverage to continue as the shadows of the trees started to stretch out and the sky dimmed. I crossed the narrow footbridge at Hebden and made my way along the riverside of the valley through hilly grazing pastures. As the blue of the sky darkened, after a few more miles I set up my tent down by the river just outside of Grassington. The trail meandered up a bank halfway across the field so, sheltered from view, I started up my dinner and watched the river trundle past, filling in crosswords from a puzzle book (the easy ones, no one actually likes the cryptic nonsense).

Hiker midnight eventually came after what seemed like hours and hours and hours of darkness already. Nine o’ clock was a perfectly acceptable bedtime now. Whilst I had packed a mini hot water bottle in my bag, I didn’t think I’d need it tonight, and happily cuddled down to sleep having successfully completed seven crosswords with only a tiny bit of cheating.

  • Distance:  16 miles
  • Total Elevation: 600ft
  • Terrain: Pasture and grass tracks, stony riverside paths, paved tracks, easy going
  • Toughness: 2/10
  • Maps Used: Harvey Map XT40: The Dales Way, Hiiker Map;The Dales Way (downloaded for offline use).

5 thoughts on “The Dales Way, Day 1: Ilkley to Grassington (16 miles)

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