Under Open Skies...

Extract from the first edition: 

The Dales Way - Ilkley to Windermere by riverside path 

by Colin Speakman, June 1970 (Dalesman Books).

1. The Dales Way

The Dales Way by Colin Speakman, first edition, June 1970We sometimes forget that until the last hundred years or so poor people - and that meant most people - wanting to get anywhere went on foot. From Bronze Age times onwards, long distance footpaths have existed across the Pennines as part of trade routes from Ireland and north-west England to Eastern Britain and the Continent. These hill and ridge tracks remained in use in Iron Age times connecting the kingdom of Brigantia with its neighbours. The Romans built their great roads to subdue the resisting tribes of Brigantes, and most Roman soldiers walked. Our modern road systems developed from the ancient tracks used by generations of Anglian and Viking invaders and, in more settled times, by the administrators of the great Norman Honours. The monks of Fountains Abbey brought their flocks down from Borrowdale by drove roads, and until the railway age packhorse men covered vast distances with their trains of ponies over the Dales hillpaths.

The industrial revolution with its turnpike-roads, canals, railways and eventually motor-buses and cars, took away those long-distance footpaths travellers. But it also brought a new kind of walker, a new generation of intellectuals, writers and poets seeking in the Pennine Dales and the Lake District an escape from the ugliness and squalor of the new industrial towns. William Wordsdworth, whose ideas were so influential in creating a taste for wild, uncultivated and barren "northern" scenery, knew the fells of the Lake District and much of the Dales as only a rambler can, and used the landscapes in his greatest verse. J. M. Turner, arguably England's greatest painter, was a frequent visitor to Wharfedale while staying at Farnley Hall, and John Ruskin, the great scholar and art-critic, not only lived in Brantwood near Coniston, but also knew and loved Wharfedale. Many others have followed in their footsteps. They have included men like Edmund Bogg, the Leeds painter-framer with the Ruskian style, whose books such as A Thousand miles in Wharfedale are still in great demand.

The growth of railways in the nineteenth century, and the advent of the car in the twentieth century, have allowed the ordinary city-dweller to share in the experience. Rambling clubs and organistations like the Commons Society, the Youth Hostels' Association, the Ramblers' Association and the Council for the protection of Rural England have been established to safeguard the amenities of the countryside and allow all to enjoy them. These pressures culminated in an Act of 1949, which led to the setting up of National Parks in the Lake District in 1952 and the Yorkshire Dales in 1954. These two superb areas of northern Britain, through which the Dales Way will run, have thus theoretically been protected against all the many pressures which might quickly have destroyed them.

By and large the National Park committees and local authorities have done their work well: there have been exceptions but frequently the worst forms of commercial exploitation have been resisted. It must be understood that National Parks are not "parks" in the urban sense. Apart from a few special areas such as Barden Moor and Fell where access agreements are in force, the public have no more rights than they have elsewhere in the kingdom. They should always respect the life and work of the countryside.

The National Parks Act contained another important provision in empowering the Countryside Commission to create long-distance footpaths. The first of these was a result of hard work by the Ramblers' Association and in particular by its then Secretary, now its president, Tom Stephenson. This is the Pennine Way, 250 magnificent miles between Edale and the Scottish border. Other long-distance paths have followed, including the Cleveland Way in North Yorkshire and the proposed Wolds Way in the East Riding. These routes have become so popular that a specialised facet of rambling has developed - long-distance walking. This does not involve using a continuous beaten-earth path between A and B but rather an interlinking series of paths - some new and some quite ancient - providing the walker with a great variety of scenery. The route should have accommodation fairly conveniently placed, and offer sufficient challenge and excitement to capture the imagination.

The Dales Way does just this. For some time now West Riding Ramblers' Association has been developing the concept of continuous riverside paths; and the Way has evolved from these notions. It is a superb riverside walk based primarily on the Wharfe and the Dee, and leading right through the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park from the edge of the industrial West Riding to the Lake District. It is not as tough an ordeal as the Pennine Way. It is a lowland path in the sense that it keeps to the valleys rather than the fells, though occasionally going over the tops. The route is easy country in the main, suitable for the average rambler or reasonably energetic family, and can be easily done in a week's holiday - a period most people are likely to have available. With careful planning it can also be covered in stages over several weekends, using a family car and public transport. This flexibility is likely to be one of the Dales Way's greatest appeals.

The concept of the Dales Way has been enthusiastically received since its announcement by the West Riding Ramblers' Association in the autumn of 1968. Press publicity was widespread, and local authorities and the Countryside Commission have reacted favourably to the proposal. Yet in a profound sense the success of the Dales Way depends not on officials but on ramblers themselves. And ramblers are taking it up with great enthusiasm. The first "official" crossing was made by the Bradford Grammar School Venture Scouts Unit in the early spring of 1969 in atrocious conditions. They covered the route in a mere 3½ days, perhaps too quickly for enjoyment but achieving what is as yet the fastest crossing. Several groups and individuals tackled the Way during the summer and autumn of 1969, using brief notes prepared by the Ramblers' Association and sending back reports of their experiences. All comment on enjoying the walk immensely, many referring to the magnificent scenery and the size and majesty of a river like the Wahrfe. Paradoxically the transport revolution has made the world a smaller and tamer place. The long-distance footpath walker rediscovers the vastness of our landscape and its richness, variety and beauty. To walk the Dales Way is to share this experience.

The Leeds Footpath Group of the Ramblers' Association has already planned a "link-path" from the city of Leeds via Woodhouse Moor, Meanwood Valley and Adel to Bramhope, Otley Chevin and Ilkley. The Bradford Group is working on a route via the canal, Shipley Glen, Baildon and Ilkley Moor, while Harrogate Group plan to take a path along the Nidd eventually to meet the "mainline" Dales Way at Kettlewell. It might come as a surprise to some people to discover that from the centres of Leeds and Bradford are footpaths through some splendid countryside to the Dales Way and on to the Lake District itself. Certainly it ought to challenge some smug assumptions about the filthy industrial north.

How long will it take for the Dales Way to come into existence? Officially perhaps years - it took 20 years to create the Pennine Way. But the Dales Way has been designed as far as possible to use existing rights-of-way, and where this is not feasible attractive diversions have been suggested. Thus the route is in existence and can be walked now. Indeed the diversions are so attractive that they may eventually become an essential part of the Dales Way fabric, offering a touch of variety for the individualistic rambler.