Discover Wensleydale in the Yorkshire Dales

PUBLISHED: 14:48 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:49 20 February 2013

More exhibitors at Wensleydale Agrcultural Show

More exhibitors at Wensleydale Agrcultural Show

A magnificent dale in the Yorkshire Dales National Park

For many, Wensleydale is forever Herriot Country. Much of the long-running BBC television series All Creatures Great and Small was filmed here and its hard to travel up and down the dale without a sense of dj vu. The producers moved the real life Alf Wights Skeldale House surgery across the A1 from Thirsk to Askrigg and transplanted the Drovers Arms while they were at it.

Wensleydales mellow scenery and picturesque villages were ideally suited to the gentle Sunday night tales of a country vet. Its plump fields and meandering river softly seduce where neighbouring Swaledale seeks to impress with its rugged landscape.

Yet it was not always so; the dale holds two magnificent mediaeval castles and its abandoned leadmines remain as testimony to a harsher industrial past. But these days farming and tourism are its staple industries and the Herriot legacy has left it with easily the best developed visitor facilities to be found in the Dales. So there is no shortage of attractions to keep visitors occupied should they ever tire of the exquisite scenery and spectacular waterfalls that are the natural hallmark of this most mellow of dales.

Places to visit
Wensleydale is steeped in the blood of historical wars and throughout the Middle Ages and beyond played its part in fending off raids and even full scale invasion from the Scots. Bolton Castle, near Leyburn, is an imposing and well-preserved square fortress, completed in 1399. It was besieged during the Civil War in 1645. A century earlier it was a prison for Mary Queen of Scots on her long journey to her execution.

Middleham Castle is even older, tracing its roots back almost to the Normal Conquest and was once home to Richard III. It was so grand it was known as the Windsor of the North though today it is a ruin looked after by English Heritage. Delightful Middleham still echoes to the clatter of horses hooves but today they are thoroughbreds and their riders are not knights in armour but the slighter figures of lads and lasses from more than a dozen local racing stables which make use of the all-weather gallops around the village.
Although the real life James Herriot, vet Alf Wight, was actually based in Thirsk on the other side of the A1, his practice ranged to the head of the Dales. So BBC television located much of the action in Wensleydale and Swaledale and the fictional Skeldale House surgery can still be seen in Askrigg, as can the programmes Drovers Arms

Things to do
Like all of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Wensleydale is walkers heaven with routes ranging from the ascent of eye-catching tops such as Addlebrough and Pen Hill to gentle riverside strolls. Nor need the weather spoil your enjoyment. The dale is often at its best after heavy rain when the local falls are at their most spectacular. At Aysgarth visitors get three lots of falls for the price of one while Hardraw Force, near Hawes, lays claim to being the countrys highest unbroken fall as the water drops 100ft from the limestone lip into the pool below. It was here that Hollywood star Kevin Costner took his nude swim in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. There are lesser-known but equally worthwhile falls up and down the valley from Gayle to Askrigg and West Burton.
The Ure also provides good fishing with day tickets available. Semer Water, a rare lake in this porous limestone landscape provides scope for canoeing, sailing and windsurfing.

Local specialities
When it comes to local food the dales eponymous cheese holds unrivalled sway and the Hawes Creamery where it is made now attracts 200,000 visitors a year to its tours and exhibitions (
But theres more to this valley than Wallace and Gromits favourite snack, as is proved each year over the May Bank Holiday when Leyburn becomes the food capital of the north with the three day Dales Festival of Food and Drink showcasing the very best of local delicacies as well as many treats from further afield.

Getting there
The simplest access to the dale is from the A1 at Leeming Bar though a more picturesque route from the south is via Ripon, West Tanfield and Masham while the high road over the Buttertubs Pass from Thwaite in Swaledale to Hawes always feels like an adventure. The greenest route, however, is to take the re-opened Wensleydale Railway. Throughout the spring and summer regular trains link Leeming Bar with Leyburn and Redmire, 17 miles up the valley. Eventually it is hoped to complete the route from Northallerton to Garsdale Head on the Settle-Carlisle line. Go to 0845 505474.

Where to stay and eat
Wensleydale has the best developed tourist infrastructure of all the major dales so there is no shortage of places to stay, from country house hotels to village pubs and B&Bs as well as lots of self-catering accommodation and camping and caravan sites. Diners too are well-catered for in the pubs while the larger villages are all well-served with cafs, restaurants and a growing number of shops selling local foods.

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