Walking: Swaledale - a Yorkshire Dales wonderland

WALKING HEAVEN: The lonely road into Whitsun Dale.
WALKING HEAVEN: The lonely road into Whitsun Dale.
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Magnificent is the only word to describe this expedition round the head of Swaledale, entering the unknown Whitsun Dale and calling in at lonely Ravenseat Farm, home of the Owen family and their seven children and made famous by the ITV programme about the Yorkshire Dales featuring Adrian Edmondson.

There, at the farm, a cream tea awaits!

I urge you to do this walk now – during the long days of high summer – but, please, tackle it on a day of glorious sun (yes, there will be one!) and you will have an experience to last for many a year. The scenery throughout is absolutely blistering and the paths are good, even over the rarely-visited high ground around Clumpstone Hill.

Keld, the last outpost of Swaledale, is a weathered community surrounded by some of the most dramatic scenery in the Dales. Its history began more than 1,000 years ago when the Norse invaders, pushing eastwards from Ireland, the Isle of Man and Cumbria, came upon a sheltered hollow with a life-sustaining spring (a kelda, hence Keld) and built their homestead around it.

The Normans, arriving a century or so later, claimed the village as part of the new earldom of Richmond and it was incorporated into a vast hunting forest. The Normans policed the area with forest wardens – in 1307, William de Keld was brought before the courts charged with poaching the Earl of Richmond’s deer “without his leave or licence”.

Surprisingly for such an out-of-the-way place, Keld had its own chapel by the early 16th century. It was described by the Tudor historian John Leland on his tour of the Dales in 1540. This chapel had fallen into disrepair by the late 1600s when records show that one shilling was spent on walling up the door of the building.

It was restored through the Herculean efforts of a remarkable man, Edward Stillman, an itinerant preacher who spread the gospel from ramshackled field barns around the Dales in the 1780s. To raise money, Stillman set out for London on foot, begging coppers along the way and returned with £700, a staggering sum for those days. It is said he used only sixpence for his own expenses.

Stillman rebuilt Keld Chapel in 1789 and remained for 48 years as minister. The chapel was again rebuilt in 1860 and continues in use to the present day as a United Reformed Church.



7 ½ miles: Allow 3 ½ – 4 ½ hours. 
Map: O/S OL30 Yorkshire Dales 
Northern and Central areas

Use the car park (honesty box) in the centre of Keld. From the car park, re-enter the village – tearoom on your left for later – and turn right along the road and follow it out of the hamlet, sweeping left up to red phone box.

Enter the main road (B6270 to Kirkby Stephen) and turn left with Kisdon Hill to your front left. After 200/300 yards, ignore a fingerpost on your left for Muker – continue up the road for another 100 yards or so and enter field at next fingerpost (for Angram).

Go a quarter left across the field to a gap stile and then go a quarter right over next field in line of fingerpost (not the yellow arrow) to a gated stile. Go through next gated stile, follow wall on your left, through next stile and onward in same line, over footbridge and then slightly left over field, through a gate and on to gated stile.

Press on – all obvious – to fingerpost and then follow wall on your left to a barn and sweep right to next gated stile to left of opening in wall where a vehicle track passes through. Go a quarter right to a gap stile to the left of a collection of gates and barriers.

Note: On our visit, this stile was blocked. Stride over (or lift) the iron bar and slide the wooden pallet to one side – as we did – or detour to the left round the barn to arrive at the same spot. On passing this blockage, follow the vehicle track up to a gate to left of house to enter the B6270.

Turn left to red phone box and bear right up minor road for 20 yards and then turn right at fingerpost, go past left side of sheep pen and continue by wall to an old kiln and go through gate to its right. Sweep left up the hill for about 30 yards and then bear half right over the brow (shallow runnel at side of path; concrete installation to your right).

The path is just visible over the ground at all times and leads up to a wall and gate (yellow tape). Continue by wall on your right and, when wall finishes, go a quarter left to a gap stile. Continue on a vague path, go down into a shallow valley and up the other side and then go straight ahead to a wall and half-hidden gated stile.

Now go half left – the ravine of the Ay Gill opens up to your right – to a broken wall and a fork in the path. Take the right branch which becomes a green trod – always stay on the main path – sweeping right and then left and closing with a wall on your right.

On arriving at the wall, spot the not-too-obvious gated stile on your right (just past yellow tape on a post). Pass through and turn left along wall. Go through another gated stile, past a redundant stile, and straight ahead over Clumpstone Hill with, to your front left, Nine Standards Rigg and its satellite summits above Kirkby Stephen. To your right is the limestone cliff of Cotterby Scar.

1: Again, the path is just visible and leads to a wall and gated stile (yellow tape). Press on, gently descending, eventually passing between shooting butts to gain the Blackburn Beck. Cross the double-log bridge and climb up to a vehicle track. Cross the vehicle track half right to a tiny cairn and continue over the moor on a vague path which soon curls left.

Soon – don’t overshoot! - there is the vaguest of forks with quad-bike tracks going off left – take the single-trod right branch. This path improves within a few yards – spot the two large sandy patches on the hillside in the far distance. The Kirkby Stephen road then pops into view and then a ladder stile to right of a barn.

Cross the ladder stile, go half right to next ladder stile and on in same line to third ladder stile. Continue in the same line down to the River Swale to enter a vehicle track (camping site) and turn right to enter the road at High Bridge. Turn left over High Bridge and walk along road for 50 yards to a parking area on your left and turn right through gap stile.

Put your back to the stile and go slightly right across the field aiming for a huge tree in field corner. Cross stile just left of tree and go straight across field to a wall with yellow paint blob and turn left along wall, past barn and through stile at top of field. Keep on by the wall and, when it turns right, go straight on along vehicle tracks with the impressive gorge of the Whitsundale Beck at How Edge Scars to your right.

Go up to a barn, pass to its left, go through gap stile ahead and then go slightly right over the field before turning half right to gain a wall end with yellow blob (small barn behind the yellow blob). Go past the yellow blob, up to a stile to left of the barn, and then continue by wall on your right and follow it all the way to a ladder stile. Cross it and continue by wall to enter the dead-end road leading to Ravenseat.

Turn right past a house (Black Howe) into tiny Whitsun Dale and continue to the road end at the cluster of buildings around Ravenseat Farm (teas), home of the “Yorkshire Shepherdess”, Amanda Owen..

Ravenseat once supported eleven families who lived in cottages long since converted into barns. Most of the menfolk worked in the coal mines at Tan Hill and they walked the three miles to work and the three miles back every day, summer and winter, leaving before daybreak and returning after nightfall on the shortest days by the light of lanterns.

Just before the farm, go over a packhorse bridge and turn right, over a wooden vehicle bridge and go up to a house to a fingerpost and turn right for Keld, soon with the Whitsundale Beck on your right.

2: Climb up to a pair of barns, pass to their right (yellow blob) and press on past the next barn and onward along the obvious path, soon above the spectacular gorge of the Whitsundale Beck at How Edge Scars. The path is obvious throughout – keep on in a mainly-straight line. Occasionally, the path falters – just press on and it soon picks up again.

Eventually, go past a Coast-to-Coast fingerpost and then a second fingerpost to the abandoned farm of Smithy Holme and bear left along vehicle track along the farm wall. Go through a gate and descend, past a house, to next gate, go through to an immediate fork and take the LEFT branch.

This next section of three-quarters of a mile requires no description as it contours the fields in a straight line above the road and above the hidden Cotterby Scar. On emerging in road, Stonesdale Lane – the road to the Tan Hill Inn – turn right for a few yards and then, as road sweeps right, go off left (fingerpost: Ivelet Side and Tan Hill).

Follow the vehicle track down hill, over a beck and sweep right, up the hill, and then continue on the level with Keld soon to your front right. Go past Keld – there is no direct access to the hamlet from this point - to arrive at a farm and fingerpost. Turn right, between the buildings, through a gate and descend steeply to the picturesque East Falls.

Just before the falls, turn right at Pennine Way fingerpost and descend a stony track to cross footbridge over the Swale. Turn right, up steps, and then struggle up the slope to a cross path and turn right into Keld and the finish.