AYSGARTH FALLS – 16 miles – Saturday 14th May 2016
It was the perfect day for walking. I was in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales staying in a bunkhouse with some friends so no driving required, straight out of the door and I was in Bishopdale with an embarrassment of fells on either side to choose from. The sun was out, God was in heaven, all was well with the world so there was no excuse… if only I didn’t have such a hangover! I had been looking forward to this day for weeks yet on the eve of my great Wensleydale adventure I succumbed to the evils of drink. I looked at my sallow reflection that morning through red eyes and did not like what I saw. Eventually I gathered enough courage and stepped outside at 10 after 9am to be greeted by a glorious blue sky of fun speckled with clouds hurried along by an enthusiastic breeze. The forecast was good. Earlier I had stood outside endlessly chewing my toast whilst studying the land to the northwest and southeast. Even at that stage I hadn’t decided where to go, I had the maps, I had the inclination, all that was lacking was the urge to put one foot in front of the other. Perhaps it was the thought of having to listen to my nagging conscience that finally galvanised me into action. Where to walk though. I looked up and saw Carlton Moor to the southeast yet somehow I felt drawn to the opposite side where a network of paths and fells made for Thoralby Common and decided that would be my quarry.
First encounter of the day was a short drop to Mill Bridge over the stream that gave this valley its name, the 6 mile Bishopdale Beck flows into Wensleydale at the wonderfully named Froddle Dub just east of Aysgarth. A short climb from there brought me into Thoralby, the quintessential Dales village. I turned left up Westfield Lane convinced I’d see ‘The Woolpack’ but had to be content with ‘The George’ instead. Near Old Hall Farm I checked my map and decided on a sharp right up a succession of zigzags through metal gates to find myself heading west along Haw Lane, this bumpy track was my route out of Thoralby and up into the fells. My intention was to follow it to a meeting with another track at Stake Allotments 3¾ miles hence. From there I thought to venture around the enigmatic and distinctive rise of Addlebrough, drop into Wensleydale and return by way of the famous Aysgarth Falls, a fitting finale to a promising and exciting day. In no time at all I was at an elevated position looking down into Bishopdale. These fine and wondrous views stretched to Height of Hazely in the east and the rise of Naughtberry Hill to my immediate south. Haw Lane continued a gradual 2 mile climb on rough pitted stone, ballast and then grass between drystone walls with Thoralby Haw the land rising to the north.
It wasn’t long before I found myself on a wide open plateau with wild grassland and spectacular limestone ridges to heighten my senses, this was as much excitement that my poor head could handle. Looking back to the distant north east the outline of Castle Bolton dominated. I was really out into the open now with wide peripheral views on all sides, a lonely stretch of land indeed. The track continued like a Roman road climbing to the rising fells into the distance. I was soon in open grassland with no walls, those to be seen were distant broken ones. At Heck Brow a footpath came up from the left allowing me to pinpoint where I was on the map, roughly 2¾ miles done. Directly ahead was Thoralby Common with Stake Fell being the rise to my right. I climbed to a stone enclosure at the 3rd mile and then came off the track to continue over a broad grassy dome over fields to Thoralby Common. Through a small wooden gate my route continued towards a cairn and lump ahead. Beyond it was another small stretch of open grass which brought me to a junction with a wide grass track that came up from Stake Moss to the south between broken drystone walls. By my reckoning this spot was as good a place as any to stop and take shelter from the wind and rest against one of those walls for a lunch break.
I sat on the grass in perfect isolation, mostly, sheltered from the winds by the wall to my back and enjoying the silence. It was bliss. All I could hear was the movement of my jaws and the occasional bird chirp. Then from the north four motorbikes buzzed past, my equilibrium thus shattered. A short while afterwards a walker ambled past in the same direction, it was total gridlock! Upon resumption I headed north along the wide grassy track known as Busk Lane to the 5th mile wherefrom it began to drop. As it did I was presented with splendid views to the north over Thornton Rust Moor with a prodigious limestone lump rising independently of its surroundings, this was my first introduction to the 1,561 foot rise of Addlebrough. As I looked it was instantly lit by the sun against the surrounding fells and I could see its classic Yorkshire Dales crown rather like those of Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent.
Busk Lane dropped me from 1,758 feet over 1½ miles to the lonely farmstead of Carpley Green where I passed under the watchful eye of two sheepdogs. I ignored the first of two footpaths to the right and continued around the western edge of Addlebrough which looked fascinating lower down, its limestone rim like a massive tiara of rock. From the (now) tarmacked lane I looked to its steep slope and saw the Devils Stone, this massive boulder is one of several glacial erratics in the Dales. I continued to another footpath to the right across Worton Pasture, the views opposite dropped away to the valley of Raydale and Semer Water, the second largest natural lake in North Yorkshire. The footpath crossed fields of wild grass with screeching lapwings overhead piqued at my intrusion, honestly these birds could do with some anger management. Ellerkin Scar fixed my attention as did the gradual opening of Wensleydale with Askrigg nestled onto its slopes. I began my descent through a field of black and white sheep living in perfect harmony, it seems Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney were right all along! My way into Wensleydale was via the small huddle of Cubeck, the hamlet of Worton and the A684 from which I walked to a humped bridge at mile #9 and formally introduced myself to the River Ure.
Aysgarth was my next objective 4 miles hence with the river and a disused railway line for company. Beyond the farm buildings of Nappa Mill I turned off a lane and walked the line. Even down in the river valley the scenery was breathtaking with the silhouette of Addlebrough still dominating from 2 miles away. As the railway closed off I followed a number of field edge paths from one side of the line to the other close to the serpentine bends of the River Ure. From 1848 the Wensleydale Railway connected the Settle-Carlisle at Garsdale with the East Coast Main Line at Northallerton. It closed to traffic in 1992 but today 22 miles of it operates as a heritage line from Northallerton to Redmire. This section west of Redmire has seen many bridges and viaducts removed but there are plans to make the connection with Garsdale. It was hard to visualise how that could be achieved but perhaps one day I might return to see this ambition fulfilled. Eventually the railway disappeared to the south of Bear Park whilst I continued around the grounds to the north. As I skirted ordered parkland to the far side and met the railway again it soon disappeared into another cutting. I followed a narrow path upwards and then down towards the sound of tumbling water which signalled my approach to Aysgarth Falls.
Aysgarth Falls comes in three versions, High Force, Middle Force and Lower Force. I first watched High Force tumble the River Ure on its 74 mile journey to the River Ouse. The rock surface of hard limestone has thin layers of softer shale which when worn away by the waters results in the limestone layers above breaking off into a series of dramatic steps. Aysgarth Falls were used for Robin Hood’s fight with Little John in the Kevin Costner film ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.’ The river was low as ordinarily it would too dangerous to venture into, especially for expensive, high maintenance Hollywood film stars. I took a tarmacked path via the National Park Centre and added a quarter mile detour to see Middle and Lower Force. They were found by way of a delightful nature trail through Freeholders’ Wood where a viewing platform halfway down overlooked Middle Force, the most inaccessible of the falls. From there a small loop took me down to Lower Force, perhaps the most impressive of the three but to be honest they were all spectacular. This detour was worth the effort, a glorious little woodland wander it is a must when visiting this site.
Leaving the Wensleydale Railway via a lane over the single 71 foot span of Yore Bridge, I took one last look at the splendid falls. Beyond Yore Mill I climbed away from the river on a steep road to pass St. Andrew’s Church, supposedly the largest churchyard in England. Back at the A684 I pondered ‘where to go’ and decided on a footpath across the road next to the entrance of ‘Newlands.’ By way of a gently sloping field I looked to a wonderful panorama as the late afternoon sun lit up the Bishopdale Valley below. Beyond the 14th mile I eventually came down to Eshington Bridge over Bishopdale Beck. On the other side was a footpath to the right which took me to the B6160 where I turned right to follow a grass verge to a footpath on the opposite side signposted Newbiggin 1 mile. This steady south-westerly line took me through a succession of walls to a hefty metal gate and track lined with hawthorns in full bloom, a glorious ending to the day. Eventually, from the properties of Newbiggin I turned right and dropped to Cross Lanes where I saw the bunkhouse on the other side of the B6160. It was just after 5:30pm and I had finished the walk. Despite my sorry condition (not so much Rambling Walker more Shambling Walker!) and the legacy of a sunburnt nose, this was one of my all-time favourites and to think I nearly didn’t go at all. It was tremendous, perfect for walking off the worst of hangovers! True, it is a challenging 16 miles to be sure but well worth the effort if you’re ever in the Bishopdale or Wensleydale area with a day to spare. It can be followed by downloading the route finder below and using with the OS Landranger 98 map. Enjoy!