Having walked Britain as much as most I can safely say the Dales are completely unique. No visit to another area of England, Wales and Scotland can compare to a visit (or living in) the area. It is partly the physical landscape but in addition there is a sense of nostalgia and space not found elsewhere. It is very different.
It is partly geographic. The Dales is a large area bounded by wild moorland to its north and south. It is landlocked with no distraction of a coastline and in addition no high and pointy mountains to attract the thrill seaker. It is a landscape without any of these distinctive features but the characteristics described further down combine to provide something very different.
In my humble opinion there are 6 characteristics which make the Dales so special.
‘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.
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.
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 be replicated in other parts of the country.
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!
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. However visit one of the exquisite (and tranquil) villages of West Burton, Thwaite or Stainforth and be delighted.
It is these villages (and their quite excellent pubs) which go a long way to create the ‘Image of the Dales’. As portrayed in many TV programmes the traditional Yorkshire village and pub brings back a nostalgia and yearning for a better or at least simpler age. And of course the beer is superb, whether enjoyed in a pub beer garden or in front of a cosy fire.
The Dales are a place of emptiness. I can spend hours, even on the more popular walks without seeing people. None of the other more popular areas have vast areas of empty landscape. In a largely crowded country the peace and ability to get away from ‘the real world’ is a real blessing. Some of the hotspots are busy, granted, but there are not that many. Strike out for 15 minutes from even a Malham/Bolton Abbey and enjoy the peace.
As a result of these large expanses were people rarely tred, nature thrives. Whereas native mammals are at a premium. the bird life is 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.
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 grouse moors around Coverdale and along Mallerstang offer another completely different experience whilst out walking. Each choice has its own satisfaction.
It is easy find Short Walks and be in the countryside in no time at all. However walk further and enjoy the many excellent public rights of way either up Dales or over hills. Strike out in to the Access Land for your own unique viewing point and enjoy the adventure. Challenges such as the Dales 30 bring people in to the area; Walking Festivals, the Yorkshire 3 Peaks and the Dalesman all also offer unique and special walking days.
Let’s help preserve the Dales but at the same time encourage many more to come and visit….there is room for them!
*The term a Love Letter is a little dramatic particular as I do not list some of the more corny reasons in my 6. However it may attract the attention!
Love reading this – I think another trip needs to be planned to visit some more of the dales!
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