Tramping across Ilkley Moor on a weekend you were unlikely to encounter anyone who was not city-bred like yourself - for confirmation you only had to glance at their mud-caked suede shoes. Long before the 680 square miles of the Yorkshire Dales were officially designated a National Park, Wharfedale was regarded as our municipal park. All it lacked was a bandstand and a silver jubilee drinking fountain.
During my youth it was a rare Sunday or bank holiday when I did not queue in Leeds City Square for the blue single-decker that would take me out to Ilkley, preferably with the girl of my choice, for all that that would double the shilling bus fare. I always set off in high hopes and with a spring in my step, but alas for teenage sex maniacs at that time, it was almost invariably better to travel than to arrive.
The journey was not so much an outing as a pilgrimage, with several fixed stations when you got there. First you would call in at Betty's Cafe for your morning coffee and toasted teacake. Then you would take the steep climb out of the little town to the Cow and Calf rocks, two great crags on the edge of the moor, glowering over the rooftops of the hydropathic hotels. Then you would strike out across Ilkley Moor - more properly Rombald's Moor - to Dick Hudson's pub, where after a three-mile hike across the bracken no pint of shandy ever tasted sweeter. Or on bank holidays you would head in a different direction for Harry Ramsden's, the famously great fish palace where you could eat your haddock and chips under twinkling chandeliers.
I put all this in the past tense but little has changed over 40 years on. Ilkley is still a largely unspoiled and refreshingly unassuming former spa town - despite 'Ilkla Moor baht 'at', the national anthem of Yorkshire, it has never sought the limelight, rather leaving that sort of thing to nearby Harrogate and Ripon, and tolerates rather than encourages the swarms of backpackers who clomp along its pavements. Betty's Cafe, founded not by Betty but by the son of a Swiss shepherd around the turn of the century, still dispenses toasted teacakes. Nobody knows who Betty was and there is a standing prize of pounds 250 for anyone who can enlighten the management as to her identity.
While crags do wear out they do it very slowly, and so the Cow and Calf still dominate the skyline like a northern Stonehenge, though these days they are sadly at the mercy of graffiti artists. In my pre-paint-spray era, if you wanted to deface this ancient limestone you had to take a hammer and chisel. Many must have done so, for the Cow and Calf sport a goodly clutch of initials.
Nobody any longer knows who Dick Hudson was either but his pub still stands and is still approached through a hole in the drystone wall at the far edge of the moor. So many pilgrims have beaten a path to Dick Hudson's door over the years that the track across the moor became a ditch, threatening to cause landslips, and the council had to re-turf it, or rather re-heather it.
As for Harry Ramsden's, they have come a long way since Grandfather Harry served his first portion of cod and chips from a hut at the Guiseley end of the moors. The glittering fish Mecca has been expanded and enhanced, with stained glass windows added to complement the Bohemian cut-glass chandeliers, and a franchise operation carrying the Harry Ramsden message ('cook in dripping') to the southern heathen. Ramsden's holds the world record for the greatest number of customers served fish and chips in one day - 10,182 of them who ate 183 stones of fish and 5,500 pounds of potatoes, cooked in 1,692 pounds of beef dripping. Now that is the townsman's idea of the country life.
There were other expeditions: to Otley, the smaller and nearer little town which is the gateway to the Dales, where you can still buy Yorkshire curd and local cheeses from the market stalls clustered around what is still called the Buttercross, for all that the original market cross was destroyed by lightning a century ago and has been replaced by a kind of open barn structure where we used to sit and eat our tomato sandwiches to give us the strength to climb the Chevin, an uncommonly steep beauty spot with panoramic views of the rolling moorlands. Or to Haworth and the Brontes' parsonage, to ruin our unsuitable footwear in the peat bogs while the boys in our little hiking group reincarnated Heathcliff and the girls Jane Eyre. Or to Bolton Abbey, where the priory ruins overlook the rippling Wharfe; at this point you can cross by stepping stones, where a girl I was once hopefully escorting fell in but still stubbornly refused to remove her wet clothes in the bluebell woods on the other side. Bolton Abbey, like much else in the region, is approached by a hole in the wall, just down the road from an excellent hotel, the Devonshire Arms. (The Devonshire Arms is of course named after the Duke of Devonshire: I could never understand why the Duke of Devonshire owned large tracts of Yorkshire or why there was no Duke of Yorkshire to own large tracts of Devonshire.)
But we were, and are, touching only the fringe of Wharfedale, where the moors meet the green fields and the green fields meet ribbon development. True, it was possible to stand on the highest brow of Ilkley Moor where what you supposed might well be curlews swirled, and you could imagine yourself on the roof of England, evoking that marvellous opening scene in Priestley's Good Companions where we are looking down on the distant mill chimneys, the dome of the sooty town hall and the glinting glass roof of the covered market. But to get into the heart of the moorlands - or rather into the heart of Wharfedale, for it is but the lowest of the five great dales, or valleys, which with their peaks of up to 2,000 feet above sea level reach to the Pennines - you needed a stout pair of walking boots or a bicycle. Or a ticket on one of British railways' occasional Rucksack Specials on meandering lines that no longer exist. Or the little country bus that wheezed up and down the hillsides from one market square to another; on one of these journeys, long ago, I saw a hill farmer buy a ticket for a live sheep - it had presumably strayed off its usual bus route.
Nowadays, of course, you would travel by car. From Ilkley or Harrogate you would follow the winding river along a necklace of enchanting little hamlets and villages normally encountered only in jigsaw puzzles, though lacking that village green and duckpond quaintness of the softer counties: Appletreewick, Burnsall, Linton, Grassington, Kettlewell, Starbotton, Buckden, Hubberholme, Oughtershaw, up and up, beyond which the Wharfe becomes a trickle, tarmac roads peter out into tracks and the one good road across the now bleak moorland leads you into Wensleydale, where the cheese comes from.
All this could be done in a day, if that should be your inclination, in which case you would get back to your hotel with a jumble of mental snapshots, not to mention photographic ones, of inns and cobblestones and the curving river, and ancient grey churches and chapels and drystone walls, and one humpbacked pack-horse bridge after another; and waterfalls and watermills and looming limestone crags and mini-Everest peaks, and stone cottages and village schools and disused lead mines and quarries and sturdy barns and the purple heather and the yellow ling. And sheep. And sheep. And sheep.
But it would be a pity not to linger in some of these little communities. I have happy memories of Linton-in-Craven (Craven being one of the many dales within a dale) with its beck crossed by three bridges - one for foot traffic, one for mules, and one for vehicles - and its handsome almshouses. I wonder if Linton's spick-and-span green still sports the column boasting that it was judged the loveliest village in the North in 1949 by readers of the now long-defunct News Chronicle. Then there is Grassington, with its warren of cobbled alleys leading into a busy market place; and Appletreewick, which surely would have won the News Chronicle's accolade if Linton hadn't; and Kilnsey, living in the shadow of a giant crag that makes it look, from afar - and there is a good deal of afar in these parts - like a rural Lilliput.
When I first roamed Wharfedale these were all pretty well working villages, not entirely unvisited by the twin predators of gentrification and the heritage industry, but still unspoiled. Not that they are spoiled now, not by any means, although there is a tendency towards cute bow-fronted shops selling Yorkshire humbugs, Old Mother Riley's home-made parkin and suchlike prettily packaged nonsenses. But the region is saved from tipping over into tweeness by the robust sturdiness of the characters who live and work there and, as much as the ageless crags and the ancient buildings, give it its continuity.
I remember once sitting outside Linton's Fountaine Arms - an old tavern named after a village undertaker who, with considerable acumen, took himself off to London during the Great Plague and made his fortune - with a gaitered shepherd whose Lakeland terrier had lately caught a fox. Foxes and other animals of prey, he told me, had been a nuisance to the sheep 'ever since t' owd lads were alive'.
It emerged that by 't' owd lads' he meant not his father or his grandfather but the Vikings and Norsemen.
Again, back in the days when I used to bring girls up to the dales in a vain attempt to lose my virginity and theirs, one was not much spoilt for choice when it came to food: there was either a cheese and onion sandwich in the pub (I wouldn't knock it - crumbly Cheshire in a Yorkshire teacake is delicious) or a plate of ham and eggs at some wayside cottage.
I believe there are now fancy country-house restaurants serving marinated bison and warm salads. For myself, I would stay with the pubs. As well as chicken in a basket and suchlike regional delicacies, many now serve homely Yorkshire fare suitably, or perhaps unsuitably, adapted for the tourist. I gather that the dinner-plate sized Yorkshire pudding - as served as a starter in working-class homes with the object of blunting the appetite before the roast, so that there will be a cut off the cold joint left over for tomorrow - is now ubiquitous, but apt to be dished up with a variety of fillings such as minced beef or, regrettably, curry. Sort of Pud-U-Like, I suppose.
These days there are craft museums and other diversions for those not up to climbing Great Whernside (2,310ft - just keep on going from the toe of Kettlewell's village street), but for my money the visitor who simply comes to stand and stare, or anyway to walk and stare, is the most rewarded. The sunsets and sunrises and the rolling mists are breathtaking.
There is never a dull day. Even in driving rain - best observed, granted, through the window of an inn with a sound pavement floor and a good fire blazing in the hearth - Wharfedale has an exhilarating freshness.
And it's beautiful. I once took a sophisticated Londoner of the theatrical persuasion up from Leeds, where he was doing something televisual, to the light and dark green patchwork quilts of Wharfedale where they touched the dark and sombre hills which in turn touched the Pennines and below us was the ribbon of the Wharfe all dazzling in the sun, and the sheep, and the distant clusters of
cottages, and little church towers; and the heather, and the climbing, winding road.
And my friend breathed: 'Wouldn't this be a marvellous spot to make a cigar commercial?' -
PLACES TO VISIT: Walks: follow the Dales Way, eight miles north of Grassington, for a choice of walks. North of Otley, take a circular walk around the reservoirs at Swinsty or Fewston, approaching them on the B6451. This route passes over the Washburn valley where Turner loved to paint, and joins the Wharfe again at Bolton Bridge. South of Otley, climb up to the Chevin ridge for a magnificent view.
Turner also painted Strid Wood and Bolton Abbey. Nature trails wind through woods of oak, beech and Scots pine, carpeted with wild flowers in spring and inhabited by 50 different species of birds. Where the river has formed a deep limestone chasm known as The Strid stand the haunting ruins of Bolton Priory, established in 1145. For spectacular views over the Wharfe valley, climb up to Simon's Seat from the Cavendish Pavilion. Location: north of Ilkley on the B6160.
Brimham Rocks, extraordinary wind-eroded formations set in open moorland, look over Nidderdale. Location: Summer Bridge, off the B6165, 10 miles north-west of Harrogate.
The monastic ruins of Fountains Abbey, founded in 1132, provide a dramatic focal point to the 18th-century landscaped garden and deer park at Studley Royal. Location: four miles west of Ripon on the B62565 road to Pateley Bridge.
HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS: *Old Swan Hotel, Swan Road, Harrogate, N Yorks, tel: 0423 500055. Atmospheric Victorian hotel. Double room, pounds 128. Excellent food and wine is served in the restaurant; pounds 35 a head. Harry Ramsden's Fish Restaurant, Larwood House, White Cross, Guiseley, tel: 0274 874 641.
PUBS AND INNS: *Sportsman's Arms, Wath-in-Nidderdale, Pateley Bridge, Harrogate, N Yorks, tel: 0423 711306. Delicious traditional English fare. pounds 20 a head. Immaculate bedrooms, double pounds 50.
*Angel Inn, Hetton, Nr Skipton, N Yorks, tel: 0756 730263. The Angel's superb reputation means that it's wise to book for the restaurant at night. pounds 20 a head.
Dick Hudson's Country Pub, High Eldwick, Bingley, N Yorks, tel: 0274 652554.
Betty's Cafe, The Grove, Ilkley, tel: 0943 608029.
*Listed in Egon Ronay Guides.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Information Centre, Leeds City Council, Otley Area Office, 8 Boroughgate, Leeds LS21 3AH, tel: 0532 477707.
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