Walking: Take this Yorkshire escape route to a more laid-back world

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Want to get away from it all? Fancy a corner of the Dales where you can soak up the quiet ambience of an unknown landscape?

This is it – a peaceful journey along the southern border of the Yorkshire Dales National Park through rarely-visited settlements where people and traffic are at a premium. This truly is the land that time forgot.

Airton, nestling in mid-Malhamdale, provides an attractive starting point. From there, the tempting route would be to head north by the fledgling River Aire to join the crowds at the overflowing fleshpot that is Malham. But let’s resist that temptation and, instead, head south to the forgotten communities of Bell Busk and Otterburn which rarely see a visitor from one year to the next. This is a sleepy day out – take it at a relaxing pace and enjoy the total tranquillity.

Airton can trace its origins to the 7th or 8th century when the area was settled by the Angles pushing westwards from the North Sea. Its name means farmstead by the River Aire. In Domesday Book of 1086, the manor was in the hands of Roger of Poitou, son of a more famous father, Roger of Montgomery, who was created Earl of Shrewsbury in 1071 for his staunch support in establishing William of Normandy on the English throne.

Roger of Poitou was a soldier-adventurer who lost many of his estates in rebellion against the Crown. His lands at Airton were forfeited and came into the possession of the Percys who later gifted them to Bolton Priory.

The monks built a corn mill by the banks of the Aire and this was mentioned in a deed of 1198. Down the centuries, the corn mill was enlarged and improved and converted to produce linen and, by the early 19th century, cotton. Airton Mill has now been turned into homes.


6 ½ miles: Allow 3 – 4 hours. 
Map: O/S OL2 Yorkshire Dales Southern and Western areas

Park round the village green in the centre of Airton or park at the bottom of the Otterburn road. Wherever you park, please do so with consideration and, please, do NOT encroach on the green.

Start by walking down the side of the village green towards Calton with green on your left and soon descending past a house with 1696 date and the initals EWA.

The initials EWA 1696 represent William and Alice Ellis. William was a prosperous linen weaver and proprietor of the nearby Airton Mill. He was an early Quaker and took part in lengthy preaching missions to America. He also built the village’s Quaker meeting house opposite his home.

At bottom of village, cross the road bridge over the infant River Aire – less than two miles old at this point - and immediately turn right (Pennine Way fingerpost) alongside river. After a few hundred yards, spot an old metal feeder on your left at the point where the riverside meadow broadens out. Here, leave the riverside and walk along left edge of field, by the trees, and then go straight across the meadow to a wall with stone-step stile.

Cross it and turn right, past telegraph pole, to a stile and marker post to rejoin the river. Cross the stile and one just ahead and follow wall on your left. At field end, go through gate – stile to its right – and follow the river across the field.

On crossing field, you will find a stile next to a huge tree 50 yards left of a road bridge (Newfield Bridge). Turn right over bridge, ignore immediate fingerpost on your left and continue along road for about 150 yards to road junction at a stone telephone exchange.

Turn left along the Bell Busk road for 50 yards and then turn right at fingerpost for Kirk Syke. Go straight across field (wall on your right), through gateway and on by wall. When the wall finishes to become a wire fence, go slightly left over the field (no path) aiming for the farm buildings at Kirk Syke.

A gate pops into view as you cross the field. Pass through and cross the field aiming to the right of a huge barn on far side of field – there is a stile between the barn and farm buildings.

Enter unmade Kirk Syke Lane and turn left, soon passing a barn complex on your right where an enterprising young lady is serving tea and coffee at weekends – drop in for a chat and a cuppa.

1: When the walled track finishes, plough on by wall, soon through a gate and then passing a barn on your left (Well Head Laithe). Keep straight on to pass through a gate and continue with wire fence on your left - Haw Crag (676ft) with its trig point on lefthand skyline - to arrive at gate and fingerpost.

Go through and follow fence down field, avoiding any wet ground on the left. Pass to left of barn and follow vehicle track over bridge spanning the Otterburn Beck. Continue on vehicle tracks, soon through a gate, and press on to arrive in road at Bell Busk. Turn right, soon walking through the tiny hamlet.

The scattered farming community of Bell Busk didn’t appear in official records until 1585 and it wasn’t marked on early, primitive maps until 1627. In 1781, Peter Garforth – the Garforths later took over Coniston Hall at nearby Coniston Cold – built a huge silk mill on the Aire at Bell Busk and this provided employment for scores of people from miles around. Garforth erected cottages for his workers and a communal wash-house. The cottages still stand.

In the 19th century, as the mill jobs came to an end, a new industry, the railway, offered further employment. The Leeds-Morecambe and the Skipton-Settle-Carlisle line runs across the western edge of the community, which had its own station, sadly no longer in use.

Continue along the road – the southern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park - past a back entrance to Coniston Hall, with rail line on your left. Follow this quiet country back lane for nearly a mile and a half - a really delightful interlude in the company of the Otterburn Beck – to arrive in the remote outpost of Otterburn. Walk through village to T-junction (bridge to your left), cross the road and go straight ahead past a fingerpost for Kirkby Malham.

Otterburn’s history goes back to the people of the Bronze Age who left behind a number of round burial mounds in the area. One of them, measuring some 30 yards round, lies half a mile west of the hamlet, alongside the road to Hellifield. When opened in 1885, two large cremation urns complete with bones were revealed. Other artefacts included a dagger – denoting a warrior – potsherds and a bone needle.

Otterburn – the “stream of the otter” - is a Saxon farmstead styled Otreburne in Domesday Book of 1086. The Poll Tax returns of 1379 record 14 families in the hamlet, two of them wealthy enough to employ servants. One of these was the blacksmith John Bollington.

The lands around Otterburn were split between Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory. It is believed one of the abbeys had a tiny chapel or cell at Otterburn because mention is made of a clerk of holy orders living there in the reign of Henry III (1216-1272).

Go through ornate metal gates into property and straight ahead, past gable end of house, and onward, past cow sheds/barns. At the last shed/barn, go off slightly left along vehicle track with a wall on your right, soon through gate across the track.

2: Press on with the Otterburn Beck to your left. On arriving at two gates and a fingerpost for Kirkby Malham, go through the righthand gate – and STOP! The tied-up fingerpost is a bit out of line – go diagonally across the grass aiming slightly right of the fingerpost arm to gain a prominent telegraph pole. There is a vehicle track beyond telegraph pole leading up a slope to a wood on skyline.

Go past the telegraph pole, up the vehicle track and aim for right corner of wood at top of slope. Go past the wood corner – keep the wood on your left – to a waymarked gate and then go straight across field to a wall corner and follow wall on your right towards a gated stile in field corner. Just before gated stile, cross a stone-step stile on your right.

Now go across the huge field slightly left, aiming for left side of a stand of fir trees in the distance. Pass to left of firs (old quarry) to a prominent gate ahead. Go through gate and slightly left over next field (no path), over the brow, and then drop down to the far field corner with animal pens and a road to the left.

Enter road, turn right to Airton nameplate and then, as road sweeps left, go off right through double wooden gates (fingerpost). Go past house (Low Croft) and then, when house drive sweeps left, go straight ahead through gate and onward along right edge of field.

At field end, go through gate and continue with wall on your left, through two gates to arrive in Otterburn road and turn left. Follow the road to the centre of Airton. Regain your vehicle.