About the Yorkshire Dales

Tranquil villages, dry stone walls and barns characterise much of the iconic Yorkshire Dales landscape. However there is so much more to see, do and enjoy when you immerse yourself in the people and history of the area.

Dales and Villages of the Yorkshire Dales

School at Long Preston
School at Long Preston

One of the best known and loved features of the Dales is the Villages and Market Towns. They will be the centrepiece of any visit to the Dales. Whether you are staying there, eating or drinking in one of the pubs or cafes every walk should include a previously unvisited one.  Each has its own character and there is always smething unusual to discover. However they all share the beautiful stone buildings and walls, interesting shops and tea rooms, pubs with the best beer in the country and hardy locals who are direct, forthright but friendly to their core.

I recently wrote a blog on my favourite 10 Dales villages.

Map of the Yorkshire Dales

Yorkshire Dales map

Geology of the Dales

The Yorkshire Dales is a soft landscape mainly characterised by the outcrops of limestone that create rocky scars and pavements. The stone is used for the walls and barns particularly to the south and west of the area. The limestone rock lies on top of an ancient granite base, known as the Askrigg Block which is hard and resistant to any erosion.

Attermire Scar, near Settle

The granite only comes to the surface in a few places (usually high) because it has been overlaid by two different forms of limestone,each roughly 400 feet deep. Carboniferous Limestone dominates the south and west and a darker, less obvious rock, mixed with shale and sandstone to the north.

Limestone to the South and West

The Carboniferous limestone of the south and west is softer than that further north. It is therefore subject to erosion, both water and ice, which has created the distinctive scenery.  The limestone can be seen in the limestone scars (such as the one above Austwick and Settle), and the pavements that sit, amongst others, on Malham Cove. These spectacular sites are the clearest evidence of limestone for the walker and casual visitor but probably not the most dramatic. These can be found underground where a giant caving network has formed. The caving is the best in the country.

Water Sinks, Malham Tarn
Water Sinks, Malham Tarn

The less intrepid amongst us can view caves in safety at Stump Cross near Pateley Bridge and Ingleborough and White Scar Caves near Ingleton. On the surface the limestone is very light in colour. In low light producing the most dramatic effects colours beloved of both the professional and amateur photographer. The soil on top of this is generally very thin and calcareous. It forms soft green pastures which make the area such a pleasure to walk in.

Shale and Sandstones to the North and East

Wensleydale, Swaledale and Nidderdale do not have the obvious attractions of this ‘white’ limestone. The shale, sandstone and limestone have produced a ‘stepped’ hillside, darker in colour. The scars that are formed from this layering leave a landscape of dramatic waterfalls, often clothed in ash and oak. This is most clearly seen at Hardraw Falls and in the Upper Swale at Kisdon. A layer of thin coal lies in places above the rock layers and resulted in some frenzied mining at the turn of the 18th century.

The shales and sandstones are much harder/less porous than the southern limestone. Any water that falls tends to sit on top creating the (often damp) peat moors of the upland areas in the north of the Dales. Throughout the Dales the many of the highest hills have a coarse millstone grit cap on them.


Halton Gill, Littondale
Halton Gill, Littondale

Glaciation has shaped the dales to what they appear today. Immense glaciers scoured the valleys (the last ice age was only 18 million years ago). It formed along existing water courses and leaving the familiar U shaped dales of today. Kilnsey Crag is a notable truncated spur and Upper Wharfedale generally is a great example of moraines and glacial debris. In more recent times water erosion adds to the landscape. Not just in the deep river valleys, but also with the erosion (through acid) of the limestone rock.

This is where man comes in!

History of the Dales

Man has shaped the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales in a highly significant way. If man had never arrived the lowlands would still be forested with only the upland moors and grasses free from woodland. However we have lived in significant numbers for over a thousand years. Prior to this settlements did exist and the remains of bronze, iron and even Roman can be seen in different parts of the Dales.

However it is mining, agriculture and tourism which have really affected the land.


Arten Gill,, Dentdale
Arten Gill,, Dentdale

The Romans were probably the first to mine effectively. There is evidence of some lead mines of the age as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries. However it was much later in the 17th and 18th century that lead mining became big business and large communities grew up as a result. These are particularly noticeable in the Swaledale and Wharfedale and for those wanting to know more should take to the moors above Grassington. During the 19th century thousands of miners were employed and the Dales had their highest population in history. It is even suggested some of the lead was used in the building of Windsor Castle.

Aside from lead mining there was some small scale coal mining, most obviously seen on the summit of Fountains Fell, silver mines and marble from Dentdale. Some of the marble was used on one of the fantastic viaducts which characterise the Settle Carlisle railway. A major feat of Victorian engineering, the railway is one of the most spectacular sites in England today.


Yorkshire Dales custodian
Yorkshire Dales custodians

Agriculture has been practiced through the centuries. Initially tenant farmers scraped a living paying taxes to the local land owner.  The land owner may be a local lord or pre 1540 the great abbey estates such as the Augustine monks of Bolton Abbey or the Cistercian monks at Fountains Abbey.

However changes happened which seriously affected the landscape and left us, largely, with what we see today. This was due to the introduction of sheep in to the area. Between 1780 and 1820 the Enclosure Acts led to a re-distribution of land. The resulting construction of miles and miles of drystone walls dominate the dales and hills of today. Many of the lovely buildings of Yorkshire stone that make up the villages and towns of this period were built at this time. As were the drover roads and tracks which litter the area and are now used as paths.

Further south the realisation that grassland can be improved by the application of burnt limestone on sheep grazing land led to the growth of lime kilns. Even today there is a thriving industry in Wharfedale and near Horton in Ribblesdale.

Today sheep still dominate the landscape. They largely exist however, not due to the value of their fleece or for meat, but due to subsidies paid to farmers to keep them.


Bolton Castle
Bolton Castle

The impact of tourism has become increasingly significant in the last 50 years. The Yorkshire Dales National Park was established in 1954 and the area now attracts in excess of nine million visitors each year to the region. The visual side to this is obvious in the towns, walkers, cyclists and other outdoor activities but it is the economy which is the real beneficiary. Most people who work in, or own property in the area are involved in the tourist industry. This may be directly or local businesses and farmers indirectly. Without tourism the area would be in severe difficulties.

See Also

About the Lake District

About the North York Moors

Extra information on the Yorkshire Dales