Walking: Journeying back through the ages to Yorkshire's monastic days
This fine circuit samples both flanks of Nidderdale, starting on the western side of the valley before crossing the River Nidd to traverse the eastern slopes by way of Smelthouses and Braisty Woods.
The ever-changing mixed terrain of fields, woods, streams and ancient farmsteads keeps interest maintained throughout.
Dacre Banks formed part of the medieval township of Dacre which comprised the manors of Dacre, Dacre Banks and Heyshaw. By the early 1100s, Dacre Banks – as with much of Nidderdale – had passed into the hands of the powerful de Mowbray family as part of their vast Honour of Kirkby Malzeard.
The Mowbrays were generous benefactors of the monasteries – Roger de Mowbray, the famed crusader, founded Byland Abbey – and they gifted many properties in Nidderdale to Fountains and Byland Abbeys, including two estates on this circuit, Smelthouses and Braisty Woods..
Dacre Banks rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution when the waters of the Nidd were put to good use powering flax-spinning mills. This tiny Dales outpost created its own bit of history in 1800 when it became the first place in the country where tow - short flax fibres - were spun by machinery invented by a local man, Charles Gill.
In 1825, Gill’s grandson established New York Mills on the Pateley Bridge side of Summerbridge to build on the family’s success..
note: Waterproof leather boots or Goretex canvas boots would pay big dividends on this walk as a tiny beck has to be crossed by makeshift stepping stones – or by simply stepping through the shallow water (walking poles could prove handy, too).
PARKING: Use the free car park opposite the Royal Oak pub in Dacre Banks. The car park is tucked away on the righthand side of the B6451 at the bottom of the hill on entering Dacre Banks from the direction of Otley.
DACRE BANKS AND SMELTHOUSES
5 ½ miles: Allow 2 ½ – 3 ½ hours. Map: O/S Explorer 298 Nidderdale
From the car park, turn left to enter the main road at red phone box. Cross the road and turn right, past medical centre, and turn first left along Grange Road (opposite village store). As street begins to turn left at a lamp post, turn right along ginnel between houses (arrow for Nidderdale Way).
Go up steps and turn RIGHT along a tarred lane and then go straight ahead along a gravel access drive (Birch Lane) for Birch Hill. Follow the track all the way to the properties at Birch Hill and go past righthand side of the buildings, through double wooden gate and onward through a metal gate. Now go straight across field, through gap in wall, and straight on to the next gap in wall.
Continue straight ahead to approach the trees when the Loftshaw Gill pops into view – spot the stile on far side of beck. Cross the beck via the make-shift stepping stones – or splash through the water – go over stile and then half left up the field aiming for the right side of the fir trees. Turn right round the corner of a Christmas tree plantation and go up to a stone stile.
Go half left over next field aiming for a gate in field corner. Just before the gate, you will enter the vehicle track to Harewell House – turn left along it to arrive at a giant boulder.
Go through a riders’ gate on your right just before cattle grid to bypass the cattle grid and immediately turn right over stile. Go half left over the field aiming for the right side of the properties (arrow out of line). As you approach a wall with gate just to the right of the properties, turn right to a gate giving access to Lead Wath Wood.
Follow the broad track down through the wood, sweeping left to enter a forest road and sweep right to a fork at a silo and old shed – take the right branch. Within yards, ignore a track going off left – keep on down the hill. Go through a gate and follow the vehicle track down to a wall and sweep left and press on to the farm at Harewell Hall.
1: Turn right through the concrete farmyard to a caravan and turn left, round the corner of a stone bungalow, and then turn right (arrow) past a corrugated barn on your left.
Exit premises via a gate at the farmhouse and go half right down the vehicle tracks, crossing over the bed of the old Nidd Valley Light Railway just before a gate.
The railway opened in 1862 and ran, initially, as far as Pateley Bridge, bringing in the first influx of Victorian tourists to admire the grandeur of How Stean Gorge. In 1908, the line was extended to Lofthouse, at the head of the dale, to carry in building materials for the Scar House and Angram reservoir projects. The line to the upper dale closed in the 1930s and the service to Pateley in 1964.
Go through the gate and turn left down to the River Nidd. Cross a footbridge, go up steps and up left edge of two fields to cross the B6165 Ripley-Pateley Bridge road and take the path opposite.
Climb the field to a stone stile at its top, cross it and turn left along a walled track to emerge in a minor road and turn right. Follow this quiet back road into Smelthouses and pass straight through the hamlet, crossing the road bridge over the Fell Beck.
Smelthouses is so named because it was here that the monks of Fountains Abbey built a smelt mill to process the ore taken from their lead mines atop Greenhow Hill above Pateley Bridge.
Continue on the road, ignoring fingerpost on your right for Low Laithe, and go up the slope. The road then eases off to pass a fingerpost on your left for Brimham and a house (Wysing House) and then – gulp! - it climbs again. Plod on!
At top of hill, turn first right at a millstone with a carved name for Braisty Woods (fingerpost) along a vehicle track. The vehicle track eventually sweeps left to arrive at the ancient farm of Braisty Woods with a 3-sided fingerpost on your right – STOP!
2: Here, turn LEFT on the track through the middle of the farm buildings, passing the main farmhouse first on your left (dating from the early 1600s) and then a lovely Georgian building and then a barn conversion on your right.
Braisty Woods was one of the properties given by the de Mowbrays to Fountains Abbey which built a grange here. The community was situated alongside the original road up the valley to Pateley Bridge. From monastic times up to the middle of the 19th century, it supported up to 125 souls who lived in a score of houses eking a living from agriculture and a tannery.
At end of buildings, sweep left with the track past a duck pond with barn on your right. At the barn, turn right past a large boulder (arrow on wall for Owenwell House) along a concrete vehicle track. Follow it to pass between properties and sweep right along a walled track along the bottom edge of Braisty Woods.
Press on to pass ancient Woolwich Farm, then a duck pond, go through gate and pass to left of a stone barn. Continue past black hay bags and an open barn and take the lefthand gate ahead with arrow. Keep on by wall on your right to arrive at a stone stile giving access to Old Spring Wood Nature Reserve. Within a few yards, the track bears right past a tree with twin arrows.
Press on, soon passing an information board detailing the wood’s history. Keep going to emerge in a clearing with house on your left and large pond on your right. Just beyond, you will arrive in the Summerbridge-Brimham Rocks road.
Now take care! Turn right down the road, single file and facing the traffic, into Summerbridge and continue down to the main road (B6165). Cross the road and go down Dobson Bank opposite, over the bridge spanning the Nidd and immediately turn left down steps at fingerpost and walk round edge of sports field.
Continue along bank of the Nidd, through two gates, for about 300 yards to spot a new metal walkers’ gate on your right with a prominent red sign asking people to keep to the footpath. Don’t overshoot.
Go through gate and half left (as per arrow) across the field. Go through a gateway and up next field by wall on your left, through gate at field end and up the wide track into Dacre Banks, through a gate. Turn left up a short tarmac lane and then turn right to the car park.