I spent a great deal of time in Wharfedale in the 1960s and as the nearest beautiful part of Yorkshire, it became very familiar to me. The Cow and Calf, the Chevin, Almscliffe Crag, Otley, Ilkley and Burley in Wharfedale, became friends that were part of my history. I wasn’t aware how so much of what I believed was the natural countryside wasn’t at all. Humans have changed the landscape over thousands of years and before that the ice ages had carved the earth’s surface.
I was always fascinated about why the countryside looked as it did. At Roundhay School some of the geography courses dealt with that in geomorphology and it was the main reason that I did A level Geography. The River Wharfe cuts a gentle path through the lower reaches of Wetherby and Tadcaster, but in the upper parts in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the valley is steep and full of character, with crags and cliffs. It passes through Kettlewell, Grassington, Bolton Abbey, Ilkley, Burley-in-Wharfedale, Otley before it joins the River Ouse. It is 65 miles long and follows a drainage path originally sculptured by ice sheets during the ice age and then heavy melt-water as the glaciers retreated.
We used to go for picnics when I was a child at various spots along its length. I loved the wilder parts in Upper Wharfedale, but Otley Chevin was a regular place to visit. It wasn’t always easy to park along the busy roadside, but once parked there was short climb up a steep path to get onto some of the large boulders that are the remains of the large valley side landslide that created the Chevin. As young boys, my brothers and I would scramble over the rocks and practise what would later become our rock climbing skills on boulders that were challenging, but where our feet were only a yard or so above the ground. It is funny how climbing is easier when you know you won’t hurt yourself if you fall. I believe that the rock at this point is millstone grit, whereas higher up the river it is limestone. There are places where the millstone was quarried and cut into the said millstones, and we came across examples of partly-cut stones that showed their characteristic round shape. It was a good rock to climb on as it had a very coarse, rough surface that provided a good grip, but could scrape your skin off if you slid on it.
We would occasionally fish in the river near Collingham, but never with any success, as an earlier tale tells, and I have waded and swum in the Wharfe. It didn’t matter how warm the day was, the water was always freezing and it would snatch your breath away with its icy grip, but it was always crystal clear. At Bolton Abbey we would go to visit Bolton Priory. Despite the village being called Bolton Abbey, it was never an abbey. The priory was founded in 1154 and continued despite the odd Scottish attack until the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Part of the ruin has served as the parish church ever since. The river at this point is wide, shallow and fairly slow moving and it is a beautiful spot for a visit and a picnic. I remember as a child crossing the river on the stepping stones. The water has a cold tea colour from the peat moors high above, and is even colder than lower down at Collingham. Further upstream from Bolton Priory, lies the Strid. The Strid is where the river is forced through a narrow gap in the rock and it creates a fast torrent. It gives the impression of being easy to jump across, hence the name, but it is perilous if anyone falls in, as many have done over the years. Apparently, the swirling water is much deeper than it appears and there are caves and whirlpools that can trap anyone unlucky enough to fall in.
One of my most vivid memories of hiking on the moors above Ilkley was when I was a member of Lidget Lane Methodist Youth Club. I have covered the tale in a blog about two years or so ago, but we were part of an orienteering competition, and in a group of four, had to plan a course to reach and record as many of the marked points over the moor as we could. There were two girls, Chris and me and when we were about forty minutes into the hike, one of the girls told us that she was allergic to heather. Now this wasn’t a good thing, as there were considerable amount of heather on the moor and it ended up that we had to take turns in carrying her as she was ill. The weather was dreadful and the ground sodden, and even with boots etc, we got soaked to the skin before the day was out. It was very hard hiking, but I loved the challenge that the land and weather set us. I even seem to remember that we got some sleet at one point. I think we did two of these competitions, over two years and I do know that one group came across a dead body on one of days, and it did make the news. I believe it was a suicide.
Not many people venture up onto the Ilkley Moor proper, which is part of larger Rombalds Moor, but they are well worth the effort. When you are there, you could be on another planet, as there appears to be no other living person as far as you can see. The top of the moor is 1319 feet above sea level. It is fairly flat at the top and the views are spectacular. The weather can be very changeable and appropriate clothing is a must. It was whilst I was up there that I got a greater understanding of how the land had been carved by the ice and the weather.
When I left Leeds and went to Borough Road College in West London, I studied Geography and I had to do a project, and I chose to do a study of Wharfedale and the morphology of the land and the flow of the river. Part of my project required my taking pictures of some of the features on the moor and valley that were the remains of the ice and melting water. There are drumlins, small hills that resemble groups of eggs, and moraines that formed as the ice ground the rock and pushed ridges of rocks and soil that acted as dams when the ice melted and they held lakes behind them. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would not notice them, but they are to be found on ordnance survey and geological maps. I borrowed my friend’s camera and my mother’s Morris Minor and headed out to take shots of some of these features. Cameras in the 1970s took rolls of films and the 35mm canisters had a leader tape that you fixed into the spool and then wound on so that you could take photos. You could get 35 or so photos on one cartridge, but sometimes one or two more at the end. I didn’t have a lot of money and so hoped one spool of film would do. I drove over to the moor and hiked up to the various points of interest. I took a couple of shots of each of the subjects and was feeling quite pleased with myself. It took all day and I was blessed with lovely, even warm weather. I walked miles, climbed up and down and was quite weary, and just had a couple of shots to go. I hoped that I would just fit them in. I took both and thought I would take the last shot. The camera wound on and I took a shot, and once again it wound on. This was a little puzzling and I took another photo and tried to wind the film on. It wound on OK and now I was worried. With great trepidation, I opened the back of the Yashika camera to see that the film hadn’t engaged and that I hadn’t taken any photographs at all. I could have screamed!
There was nothing I could do but return the next day. It was the summer holidays and so I had to frustratingly retrace my steps and take all the photos again. I made sure that the film was wound on before closing the back of the camera and I bought a second film to make sure that I didn’t have to return. The second day was just like the first, beautiful, and if you have to waste a day there are far worse places to do so than on the top of Ilkley Moors. The photos worked and I got what I needed. I produced my study and Yorkshire Water Authority provided me with years of river-flow data to assist. The only problem there was that I had to covert half the data from Imperial to Metric data. I still have my project and will add a photo or two from my venture.
Further north of Bolton Abbey is Barden, Appletreewick, what a lovely name, Linton Falls and Grassington. Some incredibly picturesque countryside, but then there is Kilnsey, with its stunning limestone crags. I have never climbed there, but I have seen climbers on its magnificent overhanging face. Just to the north of this, the valley splits, and if you take the left fork, the valley is magnificent and the tiny road leads over the moors on one of the most challenging climbs and arrives on Malham Moor and then down hill into Malham village. If you have never done it, then it is something to add to your bucket list. There are plenty of pubs along the Wharfe where you can get a meal and a pint, as long as you aren’t the driver. When the weather is good, this is the place to be, but my older brother discovered, when he returned to live in the dales, that winter snow can see you snowed in for months. The whole valley area is a chequerboard of fields, marked by drystone walls that have been in place since the Napoleonic wars. The roads are very narrow and yet have trucks and buses hurtling along them and you need to shoot into small passing-places to allow them to continue. They never seem to be the ones to give way, maybe because they are much bigger. On a good summer day, or a bank holiday, the roads are heaving with tourists and parking is a real problem, but even so, the country is still worth it.
I didn’t really intend this to be a travel guide, but it seems that is how it has turned out. Not only is Wharfedale beautiful and geographically stunning, but it has an ancient history. On its route are Iron Age remains on top of the moors, castles, ancient churches and magnificent houses, and to add to its lure, it is full of Yorkshire folk!