The Dalesway

Every May come rain or shine - usually rain- a group of grey haired men descends on some undeserving part of the UK and attempts to drink their way along a long distance path.  This year (the 20th year) the treatment was dished out to the Dalesway and for my money, a large amount of which was spent on some truly excellent beer, it was one of the best.  If you want a gentle walk through some pleasant countryside then the Dalesway has a lot to recommend it.
The Dalesway
The Dalesway goes from Ilkley in Yorkshire to Windermere in Cumbria.  It's an easy 80 mile walk that follows the River Wharf up a valley to northern England's main watershed and then descends down to the shores of Lake Windermere.

At the start of the Dales Way
Although the walk visits two national parks (the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District) it's not, for some reason, a national long distance path. It is however reasonably waymarked and there is a lot of information about it on the web. It's marked up on Ordnance Survey maps and you can find GPS trails to download.  It's also a very popular and when we walked it in May there were plenty of other walkers enjoying the same route.
Great places to stay
The usual schedule takes 6 days but we had to fit it into 5 (Monday to Friday and the afternoon train from Windermere back to London).  A five day schedule works and even if you take six days there is still a long walk in the middle where accommodation, particularly for groups, is in short supply.

Although you can't count on dry weather in the north of England it wasn't bad when were there. We had one damp day but saw sun on the other four. But the intensely green landscape, gorgeous in May, is a product of lots of rainfall.
Crossing a stile at Cam Houses

Green grass also means livestock, dry stone walls, huge numbers of stiles to climb and gates to pass through.  These were all well maintained and in excellent condition, but if you were camping and carrying big bags (or just a bit on the porky side) progress may be seriously impeded.
Stepping stones at Bolton Abbey
We didn't camp (of course) and instead enjoyed some of the plentiful and generally speaking excellent accommodation.  Universally good was the beer, which just gets better and better.  As an ex-Northerner I used to annoy old friends by claiming that the beer in London was superior to what I had been bought up on, and40 years ago when I arrived down south it was. But now it's just as good up north and is of course cheaper.  Speaking as someone who does a lot of walking in Europe, the quality and variety of beer in UK pubs is a major attraction, just as important as say wine is in France.
Approaching Dent
We stayed in lovely, picture postcard, towns and villages.  Some I had been to before - Ilkley and Grassington - but some were new.  Dent was a particularly nice surprise - all cobbled stones and narrow streets - and would have been the perfect choice for the Hovis advert if Shaftesbury hadn't grabbed the role first.  It also had two excellent pubs.

Trip Summary

Day 1 - Ilkley to Grassington (26.3km or 16.4 miles).

The opening day involved a gentle walk along a particularly well-trodden route, with a lot of hard surfaces on the first half.  Even on a Monday the path was busy with the ruins of Bolton Abbey attracting daytrippers.  If Grassington is too far then Burnsall, getting ready for the Tour de France when we stopped for an afternoon cup of tea, is the obvious alternative.  It has plenty of accommodation set around a large village green in a lovely valley bottom setting. Grassington, the 'capital' of Upper Wharfedale, is I think even better. It has a lovely cobbled square and there are more pubs to choose from.
Bolton Abbey
Day 2 Grassington to Swarthgill (29km or 18 miles).

From Grassington the route heads into classic limestone countryside and starts to feel drier and more remote. The first half to Kettlewell is particularly nice.  Here it leaves the river, goes higher and crosses some classic limestone landscape. After Kettlewell, another lovely village (accommodation, pubs and tea houses) which was making frenzied preparations for the Tour de France, the path runs along the bottom of the dale alongside the River Wharfe past potential stops at Starbotton, Buckden and Hubberholme.  The George Inn is last pub this side of the watershed and is closed on Tuesdays!

The limestone to the north of Grassington
Swarthgill, an old gated farmstead right on top of the moor, provides accommodation on a semi-self catering basis and is a nice place and surprisingly remote.

Day 3 Swarthgill to Dent (21 km or 13 miles).
Crossing the moors on the way to Cam Houses
The first half of the walk, where the watershed is finally crossed at Cam Houses, is the toughest and remotest part of the route but with excellent views.  The huge open moors are wonderful with highlights provided by the Ribblehead Viaduct and the Three Peaks (Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside).  Just beyond Cam Houses the route reaches its highest point (521m) and briefly joins the Pennine Way as it follows an old pack horse route west towards Ingleborough.  After heading north across more open moor it drops down again into a dale, passes under the Dent Head Viaduct (part of the Carlisle Settle line) and heads along a very pretty road to Cow Dub and the first pub since Hubberholme.  After something resembling a tough walk the Dales Way returns to more mannered ways and follows an easy path along a lovely green valley to the wonderful village of Dent.
The highest point on the Dales Way

Day 4 Dent to Burneside (27.4 km or 17 miles)

Our fourth day was spoilt a bit by the weather - it rained and drizzled all day, a shame because it was a nice route.
Heading towards Ingleborough
The first part continues west along Dentdale before heading north towards Sedbergh, a picturesque market town with as yet unfulfilled aspirations to compete with Hay on Wye as a northern centre for books.  Although the path doesn't actually go into town, it seemed a shame to miss it, particularly on a wet day, and we stopped for sandwiches before heading north and west out of town (cutting off a bit of the Dales Way in the process). You then head north along another intensely green valley following the wonderful River Lune before passing under a huge Victorian Viaduct (the disused Low Gill Viaduct) at Beck Foot, heading west to cross the M6 over a footbridge.  Continuing east we got our first views of the peaks in the Lake District.  After passing several large almost stately homes we reached Burneside from where we headed cross country down to Kendle and a boring walk into the centre of town.

Day 5 Burneside to Bowness (15km or 9.5 miles)

Given the need to get to Windermere in time for the train a shorter low stress day was the perfect end for the walk, and after a horrible wet start the sun actually came out.
The western end of the Dalesway
We got a bus back to Burneside from Kendle and after making our way around the paper mill (where apparently some of the highest quality paper in the world is manufactured) followed the River Kent through meadows north east towards Staveley.  After passing underneath the railwayline to the south of Stavely and over the A591 the walk got even better and the last part, when we crossed Fell Plain, was excellent.  Although the weather wasn't perfect we got great views of the peaks in the Lake District and, on the final descent down into Bowness, of Windermere itself.  Into one last pub in Bowness and there was just enough money in the beer kitty for another couple of pints - a perfect end for a walk and the right preparation for a snoozy train journey back to London.

For even more photographs follow this link.

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