“History and agriculture clash in a scene of haunting loneliness.”
Swaledale is probably my favourite Dale, particularly towards the Upper Swale where a combination of pretty villages, lovely waterfalls, isolated stone barns (or laithes) and beautiful hay meadows are enclosed by a vast upland moorland. The history of the Dale rather than the natural environment has affected it today; man the provider rather than God. Unusually though this has created a Dale full of interest and a wilderness that contrasts Swaledale with the other Yorkshire Dales. It may not be typical but it is very good!
Thwaite, Muker and Keld are small hamlets/villages which characterise the Upper Swale and are simply delightful. Further east Reeth is an attractive ‘larger’ village set around a large village green whilst Richmond itself is a market town dominating the entrance to Swaledale and marking where attractiveness starts and finishes! Just get a room facing west.
Muker, Thwaite & Keld. Of the 3 villages I would actually stay in Keld, which for anyone who knows me would be a surprise as it is the only one which presently does not have a pub (alcohol can still be found in the youth hostel though!). Probably because it is less busy (a relative term) than the other two and seems a little off the beaten track, almost hidden in fact, it has a lovely, tranquil atmosphere – a real escape from the world outside. However staying in Thwaite or Muker would not be in any way disappointing. Muker has a traditional pub and tea shop, St Mary’s Church has great views and probably the best Hay Meadows in the country whilst Thwaite is the start of the Corpse Road, the best start for Kilsdon Fell and a pleasant pub cum tea shop.
Reeth is situated in Swaledale mid-way between the pretty trio of villages of Muker, Keld and Thwaite and the large market town of Richmond. It sits very well as a small market town or a large village. Previously the centre of the vast lead mining industry in Swaledale. Reeth is now a popular (but rarely over busy) tourism centre and farming community. Reeth has a large sloping village green with the main shops and houses situated on its fringes. The green gives Reeth its character as does the range and variety of craft shops and places to drink and eat. However I like taking time to explore the little lanes and alleys which lead off the main square, the Folk Museum up one as is the pretty children’s playground and school. From these lanes spring walks for all energies and abilities; secret valleys, and pretty villages greet those who venture away from the main valley.
Half a mile down the road is the pretty little village of Grinton. Grinton would be a Dales classic if it was not split by the main Swaledale road; however it still has a lot to commend it. The Norman church is rightly hailed a classic of its type whereas just outside the village the youth hostel at Grinton Hall and the Old Smelting Works are worth visiting. The Youth hostel, which is now based at the Hall is probably the most glamorous affordable accommodation in the Dales. Gunnerside and Low Row are midway between Muker and Reeth and both rank amongst my personal favourites, the lovely stone buildings grab at the steep hillside in a dramatic and beautiful way.
North from Reeth is Arkengarthdale. This is a stunning valley in which the Arkle Beck winds its way up passing the twin settlements of Arkle Town and the infinitely better Langthwaite (I could live there). The small tributaries hide some even smaller hamlets including one with the splendid name of Booze; a walk up here on a summer’s day really is a walk in paradise. Finally the lonely road breaks out in to the wild moorlands of the Pennines and the lonely outpost which is the Tan Inn.
Richmond is a fine Georgian town which has changed little through the centuries. It is one of the gateways to the Yorkshire Dales and a fine place to stay if a detailed exploration of Swaledale is called for. The castle and the Church of St Trinity are the dominant features of the town; the church surrounded by what surely must be the biggest town square in the north of England. I do enjoy exploring the cobbled streets around the square and there are plenty of interesting shops and quirky artisan industries to fill in a good day. The river is never far away but Richmond is a castle town with the old Keep (built originally in Norman times) dominating all around and providing a focus for any aimless wanderings.
The history of Swaledale is unusual, dominated by mining activity and to a lesser extent agriculture . The Vikings appear first on the records naming the villages on an agricultural theme – Keld meaning spring, Thwaite a clearing, Muker an acre and Reeth ‘the place by the stream’ – and undoubtedly found the pastures to their liking. Lead mines were probably introduced over 1000 years ago but the Kingdom of the Upper Swale remained dominated by an agricultural theme. The land away from the villages was wooded, offering excellent hunting for a succession of lords and landowners until it was finally cleared roughly 200 years ago to leave the bare landscape of today. It is always worth remembering that what we see today is not the natural landscape of the Dales. More industrial activity in the form of lead mining occurred at the beginning of the 19th century and for 100 years it dominated the lives and the landscape of those who lived in Swaledale. Walking really brings the history to life, particularly up the gills and on the hillsides to the north. The remains of the mines and the settlements that worked them are plain for all to see and long may they be so.
Finally cheap foreign imports as ever killed the local industry although some smaller artisans survived and can still be found in Reeth although more for the tourists than any practical use. Sheep farming and tourism now predominate around the villages, the hardy, black faced Swaledale sheep are now world renowned and scatter the landscape just like the individual stone barns which dot the hillside.
Walks in Swaledale
My favourite walks in Swaledale are detailed below, simply click the link for further details.
Kisdon Fell Circular. A 7 1/2 mile walk through Upper Swaledale taking in Kisdon Fell and a beautiful riverside stretch of the Upper Swale.
Hay Meadows at Muker. A short stroll through some of the most spectacular Hay Meadows in England. May and June are best months.
Rogan’s Seat from Keld. A rarely visited hill in rough moorland but fantastic in its lower levels
History in Gunnerside Gil.l No better example of the unique history of Swaledale than a walk up Gunnerside Gill and a return over the higher ground.
Riverside at Reeth. The banks of the Swale to the west of Reeth offer the best riverside walking in this part of the Dales.
Swaledale Moors from Reeth. An interesting walk on the lesser known southern slopes of Swaledale taking in the pretty village of Grinton.
Discovering Arkengarthdale. Alongside Littondale Arkengarthdale is my favourite place in the Yorkshire Dales. Do explore it.
Mining on Great Pinseat. Another great example of walking through the history of Swaledale over Great Pinseat hill.
From Richmond to Marske. Part of the Coast to Coast this section of Swaledale is greener and more open with wide ranging views.
Easby Abbey from Richmond. A short walk along the fast flowing River Swale to the ruins of Easby Abbey.
Other Things to do in Swaledale
Swaledale Festival. Taking place at the beginning of June this is a 2 week extravaganza of talks, concerts, visits and general revelry which is always well received.
History of Swaledale Museum. Set in an old methodist school room in Reeth the Swaledale Museum chronicles the history of mining in the valley with some excellent old photography and manuscripts.
Swaledale Woolens. Learn all about the traditional cottage industry of knitting at this shop in Muker where this ancient art is still being carried out. Learn also about the local Swaledale sheep.
Easby Abbey. The ancient ruins of Easby Abbey reveal a story typical of the age; a thriving and rich Benedictine community shorn of all wealth when HenryVIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536.
Richmond Castle. Supremely dominant in the Georgian market town of Richmond the castle dates back to Norman times and is extremely well preserved.
Arklemoor Riding Centre. If not walking riding is probably the best way to explore Swaledale and Arklemoor pride themselves in offering horses for the beginner to the experienced.
Updated Weather Forecast
Click here to go to the Met Office website for the 5 day weather forecast for the Yorkshire Dales.
Places to Stay
Kearton Country Hotel , Thwaite
Rowleth End Guest House , near Gunnerside
Swaledale Cottages, Healaugh, near Reeth
Thwaitedale Cottages, Upper Swaledale
Westend Garden Cottages, Richmond