The Ultimate Guide to Wensleydale
Of course it’s famous for its cheese, and more of that later, but there’s a lot more to Wensleydale than Wallace & Gromit’s favourite snack
principal river, instead taking its name from the town of Wensley, the market town for the area, although records show that it was once called Uredale, and Yoredale.
Famous for other food and drink (it’s the home of Black Sheep Brewery amongst other Yorkshire favourites), there’s plenty of history here too. Bolton Castle dates back to 1378. Competed in 1399, it was the home of Richard le Scrope, Lord Treasurer and Chancellor to Richard II. It is perhaps most famous for becoming a temporary ‘prison’ to Mary Queen of Scots in 1568, who apparently did escape but only got as far as Leyburn. Middleham was the childhood home of Richard III, the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey are stirringly beautiful, and the Druid’s Temple on the Swinton Estate is also worth visiting, although in fact it is a Victorian folly commissioned by landowner William Danby as a philanthropic gesture to create employment on the estate.
The dale’s main market town is Leyburn (seen as the dividing line between Upper and Lower Wensleydale), and popular villages include Hawes, Bainbridge, Hardraw, Aysgarth, Middleham (famous for its racehorse training stables and gallops), and Masham. Roman remains at Bainbridge include remnants of a Roman fort and part of the Roman road here is still walkable. Other well-known attractions include Hardraw Force, England’s highest unbroken waterfall, and Aysgarth Falls, made famous by the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Tumbling over a series of limestone ‘steps’; the High, Middle and Low Falls attract many tourists for their beauty and nearby walks, as well as their on-screen fame.
Lying between Wharfedale to the south and Swaledale to the north, Wensleydale stretches for 25 miles west to east; further east and south, the River Ure becomes the River Ouse, flowing through historic York and eventually meeting the Humber before flowing into the North Sea at Spurn Head. The southern end of Wensleydale encompasses the market town of Ripon, on the edge of the Vale of Mowbray.
The dale has some quite famous side-dales; Coverdale, Raydale and Bishopdale. The infamous Buttertubs Pass, a highlight of the Tour de Yorkshire cycling route, connects Wensleydale to neighbouring Swaledale. Unlike some of its neighbours, Wensleydale is a broad and fertile open valley, with gently sloping sides, making it popular with walkers and cyclists due to its less challenging landscape.
Starting at the upper end of the valley, Hawes is home to the world-famous Wensleydale Creamery and the interactive Dales Countryside Museum, where you can learn about life in the Yorkshire Dales all the way back to the Vikings. It’s one of the highest villages in England at 850 feet above sea level. Just south of the village, Gayle Mill is an 18th century water-powered working cotton mill with original Victorian machinery. Thought to be the oldest unaltered cotton mill in existence, it is well worth a visit. A few miles further down the dale is Bainbridge. It’s where England’s shortest river, the Bain, meets the River Ure, and is one of Yorkshire’s oldest villages. Important in Roman times, it’s where you’ll find the Roman fort of Virosidum. Across the river is the village of Askrigg – the film location for the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. It’s a pretty village, with 18th and 19th century cottages, an old market square with a cross and the Parish Church of St Oswald.
The whole of Wensleydale is a haven for walkers but one of the most popular parts is the area around Aysgarth Falls. You can take in the falls, wander through the surrounding woods or head up to the villages of Carperby and Aysgarth. At West Witton there are woodland, fell and meadowland walks. It’s also home to a great pub with rooms, the Wensleydale Heifer, famous for its seafood, which is well worth seeking out, as is the nearby Forbidden Corner, a unique labyrinth of tunnels, chambers and follies full of surprises, and perfect for a family day out.
The market town of Leyburn in the heart of Wensleydale is home to lots of great independent shops and traditional pubs, and still hosts a regular weekly market. Best explored on foot, don’t miss Campbells of Leyburn, a great mini-department store-cum-deli selling all manner of artisan local foodstuffs. Pop into the Sandpiper Inn for a pint at the cosy bar (there’s a great little restaurant here too, serving the best of local and seasonal produce). Walk the Leyburn Shawl, an easy circular walk of around five miles, with some beautiful views, which starts just outside the town and can take you all the way up to Bolton Castle, one of the country’s best-preserved medieval castles with 600 years of fascinating history. A luxurious home as well as a fortress, you can still visit the castle’s kitchens, dungeon, solar, nursery and Mary Queen of Scots’ bed chamber to discover what life was like in the castle’s heyday, and there are regular archery and falconry displays in the castle’s grounds too.
Nearby Middleham has a rich racing heritage and you can watch the race horses on the gallops above the village (it’s home to more than 500 leading flat and National Hunt horses). The ruined Middleham Castle was the childhood home of Richard III, and it is where he spent much of his youth. An exhibition tells the story of the famous Neville family who owned the castle and includes a replica of the Middleham Jewel, a 15th century pendant containing a huge sapphire found near the castle.
The vibrant market town of Masham, in Lower Wensleydale, stands on a flood-proof rise at an easily-fordable part of the River Ure. That, its proximity to a Roman road and its position on the main route to York, is partly responsible for its prosperity. The site of important annual sheep fairs, the town was granted a market charter in 1250 and a bi-weekly market still takes place in the pretty market square, lined with Georgian houses. Masham is the home of Theakston’s beer but what you may not know is that its Old Peculier is named after the parish, which was designated a Peculier. Although the area fell under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York, he didn’t want to make the journey to oversee the town’s affairs. A Peculier was the name given to such a parish which consequently had its own ecclesiastical court and governed its own affairs. The brewery goes back six generations, and was originally founded in a hotel before moving to its present site at Paradise Fields, where there is an interesting visitor centre.
There are plenty of lovely walks around the town and surrounding area and just a few minutes outside Masham is the aforementioned Druid’s Temple on the Swinton Estate. Head up to the Leighton Reservoir for spectacular views of the moorland or meet the birds of prey at Swinton Park, a country house hotel with a fantastic spa.
At the lower end of Lower Wensleydale is the cathedral city of Ripon. One of the oldest cities in Britain, explore its medieval cobbled streets, visit the stunning cathedral and don’t miss Ripon’s three museums; the Workhouse, the Prison & Police Museum and Courthouse, where you can follow the heartbreaking story of poverty, crime and punishment in the area. Lewis Carroll loved Ripon and was inspired by carvings in the cathedral. Literary connections continue at nearby Norton Conyers, a 14th century house which was the inspiration behind the mad Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
In Hawes, the Wensleydale Creamery is home of the famous crumbly cheese. Cheese making here dates back to 1150 when French Cistercian monks first settled in Wensleydale, bringing with them their cheese-making recipe. The first creamery was built in Hawes in 1897, and although it has had a somewhat chequered history, in 1992 it was bought by a team of exmanagers who, together with 11 skilled former cheese-makers, turned it into the successful business it is today. Well worth a visit, there’s an on-site visitor centre with interactive family activities and cheese-making demonstrations, and a much-loved Cheese Shop selling handcrafted cheese.
Jervaulx Abbey, on the edge of Wensleydale, is a tranquil place to reflect. Like so many wealthy monastic estates (it was one of the great Cistercian abbeys of North Yorkshire), it was plundered during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century and as a ruin, it is an ancient and moving monument, overrun by beautiful wild flowers.
Aysgarth Edwardian Rock Garden is perhaps one of the more unusual listed buildings in the Dales. Commissioned before World War I by Frank Sayer-Graham, a local landowner with something of an unusual reputation as a dealer in gulls’ eggs and rabbit fur (he reputedly supplied Tzar Nicholas of Russia with furs for the royal family), he was also a horticulturalist. He lived in a cottage nearby and built the nursery, shipping limestone blocks down from the surrounding fells to create the rockeries and water feature.
The Forbidden Corner was originally built as a private folly, but opened to the public as a result of huge demand – this is an extraordinary place and well worth the trip. Discover the temple of the underworld, the eye of the needle, a huge pyramid made of translucent glass, paths and passages that lead nowhere, and some extraordinary statues. At every turn there are decisions to make – and tricks to avoid. There’s also an on-site café to keep you fuelled up throughout the day.
The Wensleydale Railway is an authentic heritage railway running from Scruton in the Vale of Mowbray to Redmire in the Dales, built to serve the agricultural communities and local quarry industry in Wensleydale. Sadly, much of the line was closed in 1964, but in 1990, the Wensleydale Railway Association was formed with the main aim of restoring passenger services on part of the line. Now a valuable tourist attraction, there are regular services between Bedale, Leeming Bar and Scruton.
Stay A While
With a sunrise and sunset view to die for, the five yurts at Berry’s Farm which make up the Wensleydale Experience are luxe Scandi-style, with raised decks, private hot tubs and big views of the Dales, and are just a minute’s stroll from Fairhurst’s at Berry’s Farm Shop and Café.
At Bainbridge, the award-winning Yorebridge House has a three AA-Rosette restaurant, 12 individually-designed rooms with fabulous views, and some have their own private hot tub. It’s a great place to hide away in the heart of Wensleydale, whilst making the most of the beautiful surroundings.
Near Masham, the Swinton Estate (all 20,000 acres) is home to the luxurious Swinton Park Hotel and Spa with its fabulous walled garden, cookery school, Samuel’s restaurant, and Swinton Bivouac, a luxury glamping site in a woodland clearing with tree lodges, meadow yurts and its own café and bistro.
Originally built as a shooting lodge, The Blue Lion at East Witton near Leyburn is an 18th century inn with 15 country-style rooms and a great restaurant and bar. It’s dog friendly and the perfect place to relax whilst exploring the surrounding area.
Camp Hill Estate has 31 different style dwellings over its 300 acres. There are new ensuite geodomes, perfect for stargazing, Chestnut Hill with two luxury geodomes and log cabins, and The Meadow, an off-grid back-to-nature site with a range of quirky accommodation, from bell tents to Hobbit pods. The newly-refurbished on-site bar and grill serves handpicked local ales and fine wines to pair with the exciting seasonal menus created by chef Adrian Orford.