Grassington, nestling beneath the moors in the heart of Upper Wharfedale, is probably the most visited of all Dales destinations.
Only Malham, perhaps, runs it close. Here is the most perfect walking country with footpaths radiating from the village like the spokes in a wheel. This outing – mixing and matching paths already familiar to regulars of this column – is a delight from start to finish, winding its way through high-quality limestone scenery.
Grassington has a long history which stretches back to prehistoric times. More than a thousand years before the Normans arrived on these shores in 1066, Iron Age Britons lived in their hut circles and enclosures on Lea Green, the limestone plateau just north of the present-day village and traversed in the final stages of this circuit.
Those Iron Age Celtic tribes, in 74AD, faced the might of the Roman army on its all-conquering march through the north of England and, in a vain attempt at resistance, they established a hill-top defensive position in Grass Wood now known as Fort Gregory.
The Celts were over-run and many were put to work as slaves in their own lead mines which were exploited to the full by the Romans on Grassington Moor. Pigs of lead bearing Latin inscriptions and the date 81AD have been uncovered on the moor.
Much later, from the Middle Ages onwards, those lead deposits on Grassington Moor played an important role in the area’s economy, particularly in the boom years of the 18th and 19th centuries when the local landowners, successive Dukes of Devonshire, developed the Grassington field to its full potential, driving through deep shafts and tunnels at enormous expense.
More than 600 hardy souls were employed in the mining operations in the middle of the 19th century and, with their families, they swelled the population of Grassington to more than 3,000 compared to the 1,200 of today.
By the 1880s, cheap imports were taking their toll on the lead-mining fields of Grassington and Swaledale and, within a few short years, the industry collapsed, throwing hundreds of men out of work and putting their families on the bread line. Most trudged to the industrial centres of the West Riding in search of work in mills and factories.
PARKING: Use the large car park (£4.50 over 2 hours) at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Visitor Centre on the B6265 Pateley Bridge road or park by the roadside in Wood Lane (the Grassington-Conistone back road) or park for free in a car park at the top of the village in Moor Lane, beyond the Town Hall.
GRASSINGTON AND CONISTONE
6 ½ miles: Allow 3 - 4 hours. Map: O/S OL 2 Yorks Dales Southern and Western.
The walk is described from The Square in the centre of Grassington. Go up the lefthand side of The Square, passing The Devonshire on your left and The Foresters’ Arms on your right to gain the Town Hall with its prominent clock and then turn left along Chapel Street (gallery on corner).
Near end of Chapel Street, turn right up Bank Lane (fingerpost: Dales Way, Kettlewell etc). Follow Bank Lane for about 300 yards to a 3-sided fingerpost where the walled track turns right and, here, turn left for Dales Way etc. Cross a railway-sleeper footbridge and go slightly right over field to fingerpost and stile with a huge dairy operation (Dales Dairies) on your left.
On crossing stile, turn left for a few yards and then go through a gated stile to your right. Enter vehicle track and turn right for Dales Way and Kettlewell. The vehicle track finishes almost immediately – press on over the field with Grass Wood to your front left.
Go through a gated squeeze stile and straight on with wall 30 yards to your right. At end of field, turn left and follow the wall, past a gap, to a gap stile on your right. Pass through and walk up to a stone stile and fingerpost. You have now entered Access Land.
Ignore the main track straight ahead for Kettlewell – instead, go half left along a green sward towards the wood. After about 200 yards, there is a fork – take the right branch (the lesser path). This path gradually closes with the wall on your left to run along the edge of Bastow Wood, the eastern arm of the much larger Grass Wood.
Eventually, the grass track runs into another – turn left and then, within 20 yards, turn half left with the path back towards the wall. The path leads unerringly to a gate, pass through and turn right to a fork within 40 yards – take the righthand path.
Pass through a wall and descend more steeply into a shallow, dry gill, go up the other side, through a gated stile and turn left along wall, soon with the impressive chasm of Dib Scar – haunt of the summer rock climber - down to your left.
Stride out along the good path, descending and then contouring the hillside past a yellow arrow when the path bears right. Press on, past the next waymark, to continue with wall on your left. The path is now obvious and needs no description - just stride out with, soon, Kilnsey and Kilnsey Crag appearing ahead.
1: Follow the track all the way down into Conistone, entering the Grassington-Conistone back road (Grass Wood Lane) and turn right into the village to the triangular stone centrepiece with tall weathercock.
Conistone takes its name from the Old Norse kunung (king) and tun (farmstead) - so here we have the king’s farm. Domesday Book of 1086 tells us that the pre-Conquest holders, Gospatric and Chetel, made their peace with the new Norman king, William, and so retained their properties as the king’s tenants.
All around the village are old field systems, enclosures and settlements which show the area was in cultivation as far back as the Iron Age. The village church of St Mary’s is early-Norman, but rests on Saxon foundations. It is believed to be the oldest building in Craven. During renovation work in the 1950s, Saxon markings were uncovered on stones in the south wall.
Just before the weathercock, turn right and then right again along the Conistone-Kettlewell back road for a dozen paces only and turn right yet again on vehicle track past cottages.
Go through a gate across the track (Old School House on left) and straight on for Conistone Dib, first passing through the rocky defile of Gurling Trough, beginning with a rock step. This narrow ravine was carved out by glacial waters before they found a route underground. Take care on the uneven path.
On emerging from Gurling Trough, enjoy the grass track up Conistone Dib, passing through a kissing gate and then passing Bull Scar, which offers a fine profile up to your right. About 200 yards beyond Bull Scar, spot the gate and fingerpost in wall on your right. Pass through and take the uphill path for Grassington and follow it all the way to a wall and fingerpost.
2: Cross the stone stile and press on over the meadow on the Dales Way path. All very enjoyable! Cross the next stile and continue past a well-preserved lime kiln, dating from the 1850s, with information plaque.
The broad green track now leads through two more walls. After passing through the second wall, notice the fenced-off area on your right, the site of a prehistoric settlement.
The whole of this upland area is known as Lea Green, probably the most important and extensive Iron Age site in the Dales covering some 300 acres and comprising settlements, hut circles, enclosures and field systems. It was the home to a Celtic tribe – part of the Brigantes federation - which lived on these high pastures at the time of the Roman advance through the north of England in 74 AD.
The Celts were vanquished and put to work by the Romans in their own lead mines on Grassington Moor and at Greenhow. Historians now believe the Romans only kept control of the major centres of population, leaving the native Celts to continue their hardy lifestyle in remote sites such as Lea Green.
On crossing the next wall, the green path splits – take the left branch and follow it all the way over Lea Green with Grassington popping into view. Now stay alert! Eventually, you will arrive at a prominent fork – the bigger, lefthand branch being vehicle tracks. Ignore it.
Take the righthand track, descending, soon spotting a wall ahead with fingerpost and stile. You will now cross over the green track of the outward leg, which goes off to your right. Drop straight down to the fingerpost and stile, ignoring another green track going left.
Now retrace the outward leg back to the finish. Here is a brief description: Cross the stile at the fingerpost and go straight ahead to the next stile and then turn left along wall. The path then sweeps right across the field before climbing up to a gap stile.
Now go straight ahead towards the Dales Dairies farm, entering vehicle track at spoil heaps and then spot the stile in wall to your left (fingerpost) just before an open gateway. Cross the stile and turn left to the next fingerpost and stile, go over the final field into Back Lane and turn right into Grassington.
Turn left along Chapel Street to its end and then turn right down to The Square. Regain your vehicle.