How to embrace slow travel in the Yorkshire Dales

Alfred Wainwright knew what he was doing when he plotted the now-famous Coast to Coast trail — shining a light on some of the most isolated spots in the Yorkshire Dales

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Museums don’t come much more local than the Muker Literary Institute. The Institute was built in the 1860s as a place for villagers to self-educate by reading books and newspapers, and the museum comprises a single room and holds items as diverse as trumpets, miners’ boots and tools for castrating rams. It neatly embodies the village of Muker itself: tiny, traditional and shaped by its location in a remote, high-sided valley.

I spend some time perusing the museum displays as elegiac strains of brass band recordings fill the room. If you’re here on a Monday evening, in fact, you may even hear the Muker Silver Band in person, rehearsing upstairs as their cornets and trombones echo out across the hills. Next it’s on to the Muker Tea Shop, situated a few steps away, which does a life-enhancing cuppa and cake. It’s here, I’m told, that King Charles buys his gloves from the wool-seller next door.

The Yorkshire Dales are full of villages like this, not least in Swaledale. Despite still bearing centuries-old scars from the lead-mining industry, the valley is a woozily gorgeous part of the national park, with dry stone walls plunging down shaggy slopes and lonely sheep idling on distant ridges. The River Swale itself riffles through the scene like a handsome side-act. When Alfred Wainwright designed his now-famed Coast to Coast walk between the North Sea and the Irish Sea in the early 1970s, he plotted a route that led right through Swaledale. He knew good hiking territory when he saw it.

I’m here in the Dales on a mazy village-to-village trip, trundling by car along single-track roads that spool like silver threads through the mammoth green hills, walking when the fancy takes me. The contours are all-enfolding. It’s a place for travelling slow and feeling small.

Less than three miles from Muker, I find the even smaller settlement of Keld. The squat houses are made of rough stone, shining today after a brief rain shower, and a path from the village leads up to a toppling river gorge. High in the hills, I find the ruins of a grand 18th-century house, the brilliantly named Crackpot Hall. Heading back down into Keld I’m passed by a 30-strong group of primary schoolchildren on a guided walk. “This is how you march up hills, look,” says one to his classmates. “Slow and steady, then you don’t get puffed out.”

The slopes for miles around are sporadically dotted with stone cowsheds, known locally as ‘cow’usses’. They look like tiny, grey and weathered Monopoly houses dropped into a windswept landscape of grassy hills. I pass one engraved with the date 1687. It’s said that farmers often slept in these sheds themselves during the frigid winters, taking advantage of their animals’ warmth.

The next day, after a lunch detour across the high moors to Tan Hill Inn — Britain’s highest pub, at 1,732ft above sea level, and a fine purveyor of pies — I make a drive south to the valley of Wensleydale. The road incorporates the steep but scenic Buttertubs Pass, which was chosen to test the mettle of riders on the Yorkshire stretch of the 2014 Tour de France. Just a couple of other vehicles stir in the landscape, beetling around far-off bends.

In Wensleydale I base myself in Hawes, which is bigger and busier than the Swaledale villages, but still full of character. The top draw here is the cheese-lovers’ haven of Wensleydale Creamery, where a tidy sum buys you a souvenir Wallace and Gromit biscuit barrel, but I find just as much to enjoy in the surrounding countryside. A 1.5-mile wander across mellow water meadows — a curlew here, a heron there — brings me to the 13th-century Green Dragon pub.

Although the inn sadly shuttered in 2022 due to rising costs, walkers still pay a visit for the treat that lies just behind it: Hardraw Force — England’s largest single-drop waterfall, which is around 100ft high. I hand over a few coins for access to the forested area and it’s not long before the sound of plummeting water fills the sycamore woodland with white noise. There’s no one else around. Kevin Costner filmed here once, bathing naked at the foot of the falls for scenes in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Today, there’s just a grey wagtail at the water’s edge.

Back in Hawes, at the Dales Countryside Museum, I learn the Romans controlled the Yorkshire Dales for three centuries, building a network of roads and forts in the process. It must have been an onerous job, constructing roadways across the empty hills, but I reckon there were worse tasks. Even back then, the landscape would have billowed off to the back of beyond as it does now — and on a fine day, there’s still nowhere better to draw breath and soak up the world around you. 

Published in the UK & Ireland supplement, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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