This circuit gets into the real heart of Ilkey Moor, offering the chance to soak up the atmosphere of Yorkshire’s favourite stretch of moorland.
The Cow and Calf Rocks, standing four-square and belligerent above mid Wharfedale, have long been a favourite with climbers, walkers and weekend visitors. The crag is a particular favourite of mine, being the place where I learned to climb as a schoolboy in the 1950s, proudly returning home at the end of the day on the Sammy Ledgard bus with battle-scarred hands after grappling with the brutal, unyielding gritstone.
The Rocks began attracting tourists in the mid-19th century when they became “a must” on the weekend itinerary of well-off Victorians staying at Ilkley to sample the spa waters. Their afternoon strolls would take them out and about on Ilkley Moor visiting the Tarn, the White Wells bath house and, of course, the iconic rocks of the Cow and Calf.
Ilkley Moor, famed throughout the nation, is a wonderful upland area which has played an important role in Yorkshire’s long history. Some 4,000-5,000 years ago, the Neolithic people of the late Stone Age passed this way and left behind a number of stone monuments on the moor, the most famous being the Twelve Apostles stone circle.
Their successors, the tribes of the Bronze Age, created Ilkley Moor’s greatest legacy – more than 200 rock carvings (so-called cup-and-ring markings), making the moor one of the most important Bronze Age art sites in Europe. The Bronze Age people settled on the moor and the sites of their huts, enclosures and burial mounds are all about.
Note: This route was checked in snowy conditions when the frozen ground was rock hard. This meant some of the paths were icy and slippery. If you encounter such conditions, please take care.
COW and CALF and SPICEY GILL
4 ½ miles: Allow 2 – 3 hours. Map: O/S Explorer 297 Lower Wharfedale
Use the free car park at the Cow and Calf Rocks in Hangingstone Road above Ilkley (toilets and cafe). Exit back of car park as if walking up to the obvious jaws of The Quarry. There is an immediate fork – take the left branch to gain the rim of Ilkley Moor to left of all the rocks.
On gaining edge of moor, go straight ahead on a broad track towards the crags of Rocky Valley. Follow the track to the Backstone Beck, cross it and bear right for a few yards and then sweep left.
Within a few yards, spot the good path a few yards to your right – gain it and bear left along it towards the gritstone buttresses of Rocky Valley marked on the O/S map as Ilkley Crags. Just before the buttresses, the path bears right down Rocky Valley on a gradual descent with the gritstone crags lining the lefthand side of the valley.
At end of Rocky Valley, Ilkley opens up in all its glory. Spot, also, the buildings of White Wells ahead. This is a delightful section – enjoy it! Stick with the good track all the way to arrive at a clump of trees and four benches on your right.
The track now bears right to arrive – suddenly – at one of the most famous buildings in the area, the old bath house of White Wells.
White Wells, now a small museum and tea room, is believed to have been known to the Romans who made use of its natural spring. The present bath house was built in the 1760s by Squire Middleton, of Ilkley, as the water-cure craze swept Europe. Inside the bath house is the original well which was used by the Victorians as a freezing-cold plunge pool.
At White Wells (fingerpost pointing back the way you have come), turn left along a wall which soon finishes and then continue straight ahead to gain a broad track and bear left along it with the huge, dark-stoned building of the old Wells House hydrotherapy hotel down to your right.
The hotel was one of several built in Ilkley in the 19th century to cater for wealthy Victorians taking the town’s spa waters. It was to Wells House that Charles Darwin retreated in 1856 to recover from the exertions of writing his monumental work “On the Origins of Species”. Wells House later became Ilkley College before being converted to private homes.
1: Go over a deep gill (metal railings) and then, within ten yards, at a yellow arrow, go off left along the Dales High Way. This splendid path leads, eventually, above houses (on your right) and on to a fork - take the LEFT branch.
Follow this path to its end to enter a vehicle track at picnic tables. Bear left along the vehicle track (the unmade Keighley Road), immediately crossing Spicey Gill and sweeping left with the vehicle track up Ilkley Moor.
After a few hundred yards of uphill effort, a prominent fingerpost pops into view ahead. At fingerpost, go off half left to gain a fork within 20 yards and take the LEFT branch (it actually goes straight ahead) with Spicey Gill to your left.
After about 400 yards – stay alert! – you will strike a narrow, but definite, cross path arriving from the shoulder of the moor on your right and heading into Spicey Gill on your left. Do not miss this turn!
Turn left into Spicey Gill, step across the beck (easy) and go half left up the other side and follow the good path as it works its way up the slope ahead with the bowl of a former quarry on your right. The path then bears right, round the head of the quarry, when it widens to arrive at a fork – take the left branch, passing a boulder on your right within ten yards.
2: Go up the slope ahead, over the brow and straight on to strike a strong cross track with a bench (an important marker!) visible ahead. Do NOT take the path to the bench; instead, turn left along the cross track and aim for the brown hill (Cranshaw Hill) in the distance to right of a wood.
Stay on the main path at all times, avoiding any offshoots. As you approach the wood, the path goes half left for a short distance before straightening to pass over the aforementioned brown hill. Go past a large cairn and straight on – The Quarry at the Cow and Calf Rocks is visible ahead – to arrive at a fork at a low wooden marker peg.
Take the left fork, descending towards the Cow and Calf and with Rocky Valley (the outward leg) opening up on your left. There are several lines of descent – pick the easiest. Follow the path down to the Backstone Beck, re-cross it and continue on the good path of the outward leg back to the Cow and Calf, arriving on the rim of the moor overlooking the car park.
Regain your vehicle.