Historic Upper Wensleydale
...where past meets present
The natural beauty of Upper Wensleydale (the valley of the Ure from its Pennine watershed to Aysgarth Falls) is spectacular the whole year round.
The Yoredale series of carboniferous limestone, sandstone and shale, shaped by ice, gives the dale its characteristic profile. Fields (hay meadows) and pastures (grazing land) of upland farms provide a background for traditional stone buildings. Below moorland, isolated farmhouses and tiny hamlets punctuate the broad sweep of the valley.
Prehistoric people lived here. Earthworks remain and artefacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages can be seen in the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. The Romans built a fort at Bainbridge. Place-names reflect the presence of Anglian and Norse settlers, eg 'ton' ('Worton) and "sett" (Appersett).
In medieval times, much of the upper dale was "forest" (royal hunting ground) and sheep country belonging to Middleham Castle and Jervaulx Abbey. Villages and towns grew up until today's pattern took shape.
Aysgarth parish once included the whole of Upper Wensleydale. Non-conformity took firm root after the Reformation (c. 1540). Many former monastic tenants became yeomen (independent farmers). Some fine farmhouses still retain the mullioned windows typical of seventeenth century building.
A knitting stick
Trade and industry flourished. Alongside farming, coal and lead mining, dairying, quarrying and textile - production developed. Hand knitting provided work for many dales people, young and old, male and female. Vast quantities of stockings and "guernsey frocks" were sent to market.
The Richmond to Lancaster turnpike (created 1751), originally followed the line of the Roman road from Bainbridge. In 1795 it was diverted along the valley to Hawes and took the Widdale route (now B6255) to Ingleton. Hawes (market charter 1700) grew as Askrigg's earlier market dwindled. The Wensleydale Railway (disused west of Aysgarth from 1964) reached Hawes in 1878. It was joined by a branch from the Settle-Carlisle line at Garsdale. This station still provides a rail service (with some bus links) for Upper Wensleydale.
The side valleys, each with a distinctive character, add greatly to the interest of the area. Many are now "no-through roads". In the days of foot and horse travel journeys over the "tops" to other dales were more readily undertaken. The old footpaths and bridleways offer splendid walking through peaceful valleys and over moors. Undisturbed by traffic, they pass remote farms, tumbling becks and innumerable points of interest. Such a walk, when the curlew calls and the lark sings, is a haunting experience.
The routes into Upper Wensleydale from north, west and south give panoramic views in ever-changing light. From the east, travelling up the valley, the heights of Addlebrough, Countersett Crag, Yorburgh, Ten End and Widdale Fell (south), and Ellerkin, Stags Fell and Cotter End (north) stand out as memorable shapes against the sky.
Upper Wensleydale lies within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The YDNP authority was created to "protect the Park's landscape, wildlife and cultural heritage, in order to maintain its beauty and character for the quiet enjoyment of present and future generations".
Hill farming has always been hard work. Sheep and cattle are reared and meadow grass for hay and silage is vital to the system. Walls, stiles, footpaths, gates and barns take much maintenance and should be respected by walkers. The miles of stone walls with characteristic "throughs" (projecting lines of stone) form dramatic patterns in the landscape.
Sheepdogs work alongside farmers with uncanny ability. Demonstrations of dogs at work take place on certain farms.
Hill sheep (usually Swaledales) are crossed with a long wool breed (eg Leicesters) to produce "mules". These in turn are crossed with a downland breed (mainly Suffolk) to produce meat lambs. Sheep are also bred pure to maintain good breeding stock. The auction mart at Hawes is the chief outlet for the upper dale. Beef and dairy cattle are also kept, with many new breeds being introduced in recent years.
Upper Wensleydale is perfect walking country. The many waymarked footpaths and open landscape, together with self-guided walk leaflets and maps, enable walkers to enjoy and discover routes with confidence. Flagged footpaths to the villages around Hawes and Askrigg are especially attractive. The Pennine Way passes through Hawes. The scenery in winter is particularly rewarding.
Legend, Lore and Story
Semerwater, a magical place at any time, has given rise to three legends concerning a mermaid, a giant's stone and a drowned city. Many customs have survived into living memory. Writers have found much subject matter for fiction or poetry. John Thwaite (died 1941) of Hawes, wrote dialect poems. More recently James Herriot has introduced the dale to a worldwide audience through books and television.
There were water powered mills at Gayle, Hawes, Burtersett, Bainbridge, Askrigg, Thoralby, West Burton and Aysgarth which were variously used to grind corn, produce textiles (wool, cotton, linen, silk, flax), generate electricity or saw wood. Yore Mills, Aysgarth, is now closed and Bainbridge Low Mill is only open to the public at certain times.
Visit Gayle Mill, a unique 19th century state-of-the-art sawmill, complete with working Victorian machinery and water-powered turbines. Fully restored and operating as an historic visitor and educational attraction. More information available here.
Lead, coal and stone were extracted. Limestone was burnt in the many old kilns which are a feature of the landscape. Visitors are welcome to watch traditional ropemaking at Hawes Ropeworks.
Geology and botany are rewarding studies in Upper Wensleydale. Aysgarth and Hardraw are pre-eminent among the many dramatic waterfalls. Water has worn away the softer sandstones and shales and left the harder limestone as "scars" over which becks tumble down the valley sides.
The many habitats of the area each have their own array of flora. Particularly impressive are the herb-rich meadows when in flower with cranesbill, bistort, pignut and buttercup.
A cheese press
Hawes is the home of Wensleydale cheese. Cheese-making is an age-old method of preserving milk, each area producing its own variety. Most old dales farms produced cheese. In 1897 production on a larger scale began in Hawes. Local hero Kit Calvert ensured its survival in 1935 and built a new creamery in 1953. When this closed after nearly 40 years, a local campaign "saved the cheese". Production was restored using milk from local farms. Visit 'The Cheese Experience' at Hawes Creamery.
Sports and Events
All year round the local calendar is filled by sporting fixtures. In addition to organised events, fishing, cycling, walking, windsurfing amd hang-gliding take place. Many cultural and sports societies welcome visitors. Other activities include amateur dramatics and operatics, choral performances, Hawes Gala, village "feasts", the Moorcock Agricultural Show, Askrigg Produce Show, and an annual programme of talks on the Upper Dale at Hawes, guided walks, and many other regular or occasional events. There is always "something to do".
Village greens (Bainbridge, West Burton), old crosses (Carperby, Askrigg) and becks and bridges (Gayle, Appersett, Cotterdale) add interest to the old houses, churches and chapels which form the much-photographed villages of the dale.
History and Archaeology
A wooden clog
A visit to the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes introduces the history of the area. Artefacts from prehistoric times to the recent past are displayed along with photographs. A local history reference room enables researchers to delve deeper into the past. Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, writers of standard works on the dales, started the collections.