Special Qualities of the Dales

February 8, 2018

I have now lived in the Dales for 20 years and have a great affection for walking in the area. What are the reasons that make it such a special and unique area to walk in my humble opinion?

I have always thought there were 5 main reasons that make the area stand out, that make it a little different from elsewhere.

Incidentally I do refer to the area as THE DALES not the ‘Yorkshire Dales plus a bit’ because some of the best walking is in Cumbria and even a slither of Lancashire. The new Yorkshire Dales National Park sets a good physical boundary for the Dales (even if they insist on adding Yorkshire to the name). For those from Derbyshire, it is lovely but I am sorry the proper Dales are up here!

  1. The stone walls and barns

Dry Stone walls
Dry Stone walls

‘The classic Dales photograph’ depicts a landscape of rolling fields usually full of sheep with many dry stone walls and stone barns stretching in to the distance. It is a scene I certainly never cease to enjoy when I am out and about. The dry stone walls, many over 300 years old, not only have withstood everything that the British weather can throw at it but reflect the long history of farming in the area.

A Wensleydale Barn
A Wensleydale Barn

Originally built to define a tenants land the walls are now preserved to characterise the area. The stone barns complement the walls with their own history and character. Now they are sort after for housing, a reflection of both the quality of the building and the quality of limestone used to build them.

      2. Variety of the walking

Calders from Winder
Calders from Winder

I enjoy walking the Howgills more than any other part of the Dales. It is unique and wonderful to stride over their steep slopes and wide ridges. However it is in complete contrast to a walk through the dramatic limestone scenery of Malham or the South Western Dales near Ingleborough. Similarly the bleak moors around Coverdale and along Mallerstang offer another completely different experience whilst out walking. All good.

Addlebrough hill
Addlebrough hill

It is easy to pick short or much longer walks through any of this scenery and now of course you can climb the ‘Dales 30‘ the mountains that rise to over 2,000 feet (whatever the Lake District can do the Dales can do ….with bells and whistles). Challenges such as the Dales 30 bring people in to the area; Walking Festivals, the 3 Peaks and the Dalesman all also offer unique and special walking days.

      3. The industrial history of the area

Gunnerside Gill
Gunnerside Gill

The Dales has a fascinating history. Ancient Roman Roads, ruined and semi ruined monasteries, the castles which became the centre of the Yorkist’s rise to glory in the Middle Ages and the development of farming and tourism in more recent times are all best seen on a walk . A walk along Mallerstang or a visit to Bolton Abbey can not even be closely replicated in other parts of the country.

Ribblehead viaduct
Ribblehead viaduct

However it is the industrial history of the 18th and 19th century that makes the area stand out. Swaledale is the best example of how lead mining has shaped the landscape of an individual dale, particularly if you take the walk up Gunnerside Gill and on to the hillsides above. There are also cotton and wool mills near the the villages of the south and, mines on the hillsides including the summit plateau of Fountains Fell and of course the wonderful Settle to Carlisle Railway with its impressive viaducts and tunnels. The history of England is well chartered in the Dales!

     4. The loveliness of the villages


The villages and small market towns in the Dales are lovely and have bags of character. The Yorkshire Stone traditionally used on most of the building give the villages and their individual buildings a lightness and quality that could only form a ‘Dales village’. I accept that there is a place for the thatch in the Cotswolds or the slate and whitewash of the Lakes but entering one of many lovely villages (some of my favourite examples Thwaite, Stainforth or West Burton) in the dale floors is always a pleasure.

Fox and Hounds, West Burton
Fox and Hounds, West Burton

It would be remiss of me to say I do not also enjoy a traditional Dales country pub.Some are struggling at the moment (particularly those owned by ‘chains’) but others are improving themselves, retaining the character but improving the quality and food. There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting in a pub of character with a pint of excellent Yorkshire bitter after a long walk. Away from the pubs there are some interesting little businesses growing up, many based on traditional methods of working.

      5. The peace, tranquility and associated wildlife

Askrigg Hay Meadows
Askrigg Hay Meadows

Nature thrives in the Dales, mainly due to the peace and tranquility of the area. Bird life is particularly impressive, I was delighted to watch a kingfisher recently and the peregrine falcons are a delight, as are the Red Squirrels protected near Hawes and the wonderfully colourful butterflies. I know less about the wild flowers of the area but I have walked through the increasing numbers of Hay Meadows which are simply fabulous.

Long Preston
Long Preston

All of this nature can only come about when people do not dictate the landscape, as they can do in the Lakes. The peace and quiet experienced on the vast majority of the walks described on this website characterise the Dales and for the better. However the vast open spaces and endless hours that I have walked without seeing a soul bring to me a certain sadness, a sadness that not more people are out and enjoying the area. There is plenty of room.

I have been fortunate enough to introduce many 100s of people from outside the area on the best walks in the Dales (not a summer Saturday on the 3 Peaks!) through our guiding programme and almost without fail they end the day with great memories of a unique and special place, usually with a quip about how lucky I am to live and work here.

Let’s help preserve the Dales but at the same time encourage many more to come and visit….there is room for them!

Happy walking


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