Not bad for scenery
Masters of understatement, the locals come close to being effusive when they use such language. The Yorkshire Dales make up a stunning region. This is a stoically old-world place of picturesque villages, hills and rivers, and cattle- and sheep-grazed pastures divided by ancient drystone walls. Technically, the Dales are a collection of limestone valleys with moorland and fells between. In recognition of this phenomenal scenery, the Yorkshire Dales National Park (www.yorkshiredales.org.uk) was established in 1954, comprising only part of the Dales proper: Howgill Fells in the north west, Nidderdale in the east and the Forest of Bowland to the southwest were left out, the latter two being later recognised as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Which is the fairest of them all?
Each to his own: every dale has its own distinct character and appeal. In the centre of the region, Wharfedale and smaller Littondale and Langstrothdale offer a mix of rough moorland, rugged hills and rolling pastures. Just to the west, lovely Malhamdale has fabulous limestone features including the natural amphitheatre of Malham Cove. If you visit today, you'll find the annual Malham Show taking place just outside the village of Malham (www.malhamdale.com).
Magnificent Wensleydale to the north presents wonderful variety with high fells, riverside meadows and charming villages. Askrigg, for example, looks barely changed since the 1940s and may be familiar as the setting for much of the TV series All Creatures Great and Small, based on the books of James Herriot. Wensleydale's annual show – with running ducks, heavy horses, a brass band and terrier racing – also takes place today, at the town of Leyburn (www.wensleydale show.org.uk).
North again, strikingly beautiful Swaledale is dotted with isolated stone barns and snug settlements. To the east, narrow Dentdale, just 11 miles long, is perhaps the most hidden of all. Its charming, cobbled village of Dent makes a great base for walks along the River Dee or up the steep surrounding fells. The Dentdale Show, with fell races, Morris dancers and even African drummers, is staged at Dent this weekend (www.dentdaleshow.com).
Out for nowt?
The area is laced with footpaths. Four long-distance trails cross the Dales, with a host of bridleways and smaller paths providing links between them. The glorious 53-mile Nidderdale Way is a circular route from Pateley Bridge and takes in Gouthwaite and Scar House reservoirs to the north, and the extraordinary outcrops of Brimham Rocks spread over 60 acres of wild moorland to the south. Or follow parts of 70-mile Ribble Way, which runs parallel with the river between Ribblehead high in the Dales and Preston in Lancashire. Alternatively, the Dalesway offers 76 miles of superb walking between Ilkley, on the southern fringes of the Dales, and Windermere in Cumbria, most of it across the Dales' moors, limestone pavements and valleys. And the 270-mile Pennine Way passes through the western side of the Dales from Thornton-in-Craven in the south to Milthrop in the north.
For those who prefer wheels to legs, there is an extensive network of bike routes. These are detailed on www.cyclethedales.org.uk for relatively easy cycling and information on where you can hire bikes and join organised tours; while www.mtbthedales.org.uk offers tougher, stamina-challenging mountain bike routes.
Take me to water
The most compelling feature of the Dales is water: this is river-carved country – both above and below ground.
To see spectacular cascades head to the village of Aysgarth in Lower Wensleydale. Beyond the Church of St Andrew, the river Ure tumbles in a series of limestone steps, which are set against a backdrop of ancient woodland. Gaze at the Aysgarth Falls from the old stone bridge here or from the well-marked footpath, then stop by the Aysgarth Yorkshire Dales Park Centre (01969 663 121), housed in a converted railway cottage, where you can learn how the falls came into being and about the attendant wildlife (open daily in the summer daily 10am-5pm; winter Fridays and weekends 10am-4pm).
Somewhat eccentrically, to visit England's highest waterfall you need to go to the pub in Hardraw, further west in Wensleydale.
The Green Dragon (01969 667 392; www.greendragonhardraw.com) is a delightfully rambling inn with old settles and creaking beams. Its grounds contain Hardraw Force which falls a spectacular 99ft down a magnificent limestone gorge.
Since the pub maintains footpaths to and around the falls it charges a small fee for entrance to the grounds (adults £2; children £1; open daylight hours), payable at the Parlour Bar.
The most celebrated of the area's waterfalls lie further south at Ingleton. From this bustling old town a circular four-and-a-half-mile trail leads through wonderful woodlands and over dramatic hills passing at least eight groups of waterfalls on the way.
The Ingleton Waterfalls Walk was constructed in 1885. Complete with bridges and pathways, it allows the public access to lovely areas previously hidden from view.
The original entrance fee was 2d, and is now £4.50 (£2 for children), payable at a kiosk at the start of the trail – which is open all year daily, 9am until dusk (www.ingletonwater-fallswalk.co.uk).
A taste of local life
Head to Wensleydale, spiritual homeland of that laconic cheese-eating Yorkshireman Wallace and his valiant dog Gromit, and in particular make for the market town of Hawes. Here you can watch the prized local cheese in the making at the Wensleydale Creamery on Gayle Lane (01969 667 664; www.wensleydale.co.uk; viewing gallery and museum open daily 9am-5pm; adults £2.50; children £1.50). Stop by the large u o shop here, well stocked with the original cheese and an amazing range of variations on the theme: oak-smoked, made with ewes' milk; infused with ginger and more.
Hawes also offers the absorbing Dales Countryside Museum set in the town's former railway station (01969 666 210; www.yorkshiredales. org.uk/dales_countryside_museum; open daily 10am-5pm; adults £3, under-16s free). Here you'll learn more not only about cheese but also local farming and wildlife through lots of interactive exhibits. Meanwhile, the entire history of the Dales, from prehistoric times to the present day, is displayed in buildings by the former platform while a video of rural working life is shown in old railway carriages beyond.
Further north, Swaledale also has a gallery of rural life. Set in the former Methodist school in Reeth, The Swaledale Museum (01748 884 118; www.swaledalemuseum.org; Wed- Fri, Sundays and Bank Holidays 10.30am-5.30pm; adults £3, under-16s free) has an eclectic range of displays, from Victorian to samplers to pre-war photographs and a great show of local trades such as tinsmithing and stonemasonry.
To market, to market
The Dales are liberally dotted with stalwart old towns where traditional markets continue to do brisk business on set days of the week. In the northern Dales, pretty Reeth is set at the junction of Arkengarthdale and Swaledale and hosts a market on Fridays – or head here next Wednesday, 27 August, for the annual agricultural show complete with brass bands and sheep dog trails (www.reethshow.co. uk; £5 adults, £1 children).
To the west, Bedale has held a market charter since 1251 and continues to draw stallholders and attendant crowds on Tuesdays. On a more contemporary note, every June Bedale hosts a small rock festival in Bedale Hall Park.
To the south, Skipton holds markets on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays, and a farmers' market on the first Sunday of the month. Further west, Ingleton offers cafes, galleries and craft shops – and an open-air market on Fridays.
Kirkby Lonsdale in the lovely Lune valley has a Thursday market – and an annual Country Fair that this year takes place on 6-7 September (www.kirkbylonsdale.co.uk).
It faces stiff competition from Sedbergh, a few miles north, where the Sedbergh Festival of Books and Drama will be held from 5 to 21 September (www.sedbergh.org. uk). After the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001, this charming old rural centre took the bold step of re-inventing itself as England's book town (in tandem with Hay-on-Wye in Wales and Wigtown in Scotland) and there are now nine permanent bookshops here.
There is a lively buzz in Sedbergh on Wednesdays, when shoppers (and potential book buyers) descend for the weekly market.
A grand day out
Four miles from the tiny city of Ripon, on the eastern fringes of the Dales, Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Gardens are now a World Heritage Site.
The abbey was founded by Benedictine monks in 1132 and was all but destroyed during the Reformation. Today, it is a huge and picturesque ruin where you can lose yourself amid the remains of ancient passages and cloisters. The surrounding estate contains a glorious Elizabethan manor house, a medieval deer park, a 12th-century water mill and sublime water gardens laid out in the 18th century.
Run by the National Trust, the property is open daily 10am-5pm (01765 608 888; www. fountainsabbey.org.uk). Tickets cost £7.90 per adult, £4.20 per child.
In contrast to dreamy ruins, Skipton – known as the southern gateway to the Dales – is home to one of the country's best preserved medieval castles. Bristling with battlements and towers, Skipton Castle (01756 792 442; www. skiptoncastle. co.uk) is an absorbing site to explore: from 14th-century kitchens to dungeons, fighting chambers and more. It opens daily 10am-6pm (Sundays from noon). Tickets cost £5.80 per adult; £3.20 per child.
Where can I sleep?
Hotel chains and branding – of the corporate variety – are pretty much unknown here. Instead, you'll find a good choice of old inns and guest houses. Those in the know make a bee-line to the Kearton Country Hotel in the tiny village of Thwaite in Swaledale (01748 886 277; www.keartoncountryhotel.co.uk) – the "hotel" tag doing little to convey the genial spirit of this family-run, 12-bedroom haven.
Under old beams, the accommodation is surprisingly bright and contemporary while downstairs you'll find the village pub and a restaurant with views out to gorgeous green hills. Food is clearly a passion, the menu dominated by locally sourced produce such as Swaledale ham and seasonal veg. B&B costs from £70 double.
In Dentdale, The Sportsman's Inn at Cowgill is a no-nonsense, 300-year-old pub with five bedrooms sharing bathroom facilities (01539 625 282; www.thesportsmansinn.com). The setting, right on the Dalesway, is superb and the food suitably wholesome. Guests automatically have a table reserved for them by the fire of the pub restaurant. B&B is from £30 double.
On the southern side of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the New Inn Hotel in the pretty village of Clapham is an atmospheric, 18th-century coaching inn with 19 bedrooms (01524 251 203; www.newinn-clapham.co.uk). Classic Yorkshire dishes are served in the restaurant. B&B costs from £100 double – and you can bring your dog for an extra £5.
For something altogether more chic, head to the Devonshire Fell Hotel at Burnsall (01756 729 000; www.devonshirefell.co.uk). Owned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, this is the sister property to the luxury Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel nearby. Offering just 12 bedrooms, the Devonshire Fell Hotel is a cool boutique outfit behind a solid Edwardian exterior, its decor ranging from lime-green sofas to black-and-white check headboards. Double rooms with breakfast from £145.
Art of the matter?
An "environmental art trail", featuring a number of large-scale public art installations is due to be unveiled in the Yorkshire Dales National Park on 27 September.
Called the "Slow Art Trail", it will begin at Skipton and continue along Bolton Abbey Estate's Strid Wood. The trail encompasses work by six artists, among them Jane Revitt, whose recent commissions include large-scale installations for the Royal Festival Hall; Laura Ellen Bacon, who creates woven sculptures in willow; and "kinetic sculptor" Johnny White, who intends to use water power to animate a woodland scene.
The trail will be open daily until 13 October, between 10am and 5pm. For more information, contact Chrysalis Arts (01756 749 222; www. chrysalisarts.org.uk).
I'd like a place of my own
Among the choice of holiday home rental companies, two local specialists stand out. Dales Holiday Cottages (0844 847 1340; www.dales-holiday-cottages.com) has some 200 properties across the region. Three-bedroom Briardene, for example, is an old, stone cottage snugly set in the heart of Nidderdale at Bewerley, a short walk from Pateley Bridge. It costs from £377 per week (from £599 high season).
Country Hideaways is on an altogether smaller scale, a family-run company with just under 40 properties on its books (01969 663 559; www.countryhideaways. co.uk). Sleeping from two to 10, the accommodation is in a choice of old cottages, mill houses, a post office, former school and more.
Perhaps most charming of all is the accommodation available at the old Waiting Rooms of Wensley Station. Sleeping four, this Victorian building has been beautifully refurbished to capture the spirit of the 1870s when the North Eastern Railway Company laid down tracks here. There are stone hearths and cast-iron fireplaces while the platform outside is now a garden area. The Waiting Rooms cost from £281 per week to rent (rising to £552 in the summer).
Where can I find out more?
There are 19 tourist information centres scattered across the Dales (www.yorkshiredales.org). Locations include Sedbergh, 72 Main Street (01539 620 125); Pateley Bridge, 18 High Street (0845 389 0179); Hawes, at the Dales Countryside Museum (01969 666 210); and Skipton, 35 Coach Street (01756 792 809).
Besides its waterfalls, the Ingleton area is also home to a breathtaking series of caves where you can see subterranean waterfalls, weird rock formations and striking galleries of stalactites. Claiming to be the "King of Caves", the White Scar Cave complex is a mile and a half north of Ingleton, and its underground trail is open daily from February to October and on weekends from November to January from 10am to 4.30pm, although closing times vary (adults £7; children £4.50; 01524 241 244; www.whitescarcave.co.uk).
For more views of an astonishing underworld, visit Ingleborough Cave near Clapham (open daily until early November 10am to 5pm; adults £6, children £3 ; 01524 251 242; www.ingleboroughcave.co.uk). Or take a trip further east to Stump Cross Caverns near Pateley Bridge in Nidderdale (daily 10am to 6pm until 1 December; adults £6; children £3.95; 01756 752 780; www.stumpcrosscaverns.co.uk).
You're in for a treat: steam to diesel, there's an inspiring range of public transport in the Dales. The 72-mile Settle-to-Carlisle Railway is arguably Britain's most scenic train route (0845 748 4950; www.settle-carlisle.co.uk). It runs through the western side of the Dales, with particularly notable sections over the 24 arches of the Ribblehead Viaduct (above) and up to remote Dent – at 1,150 feet, England's highest mainline station.
The Wensleydale Railway Association has been largely responsible for the reopening of part of the old 40-mile track between Northallerton and Garsdale. Currently a 17-mile section of the Wensleydale Railway (0845 450 5474; www.wensleydalerailway.com) is in operation between Leeming Bar in the east and Redmire in the west. The line has services year-round. The 50-minute journey is usually made in diesel cars from the Sixties; however, during August and early September steam trains are also run.
There's more steam on offer to the south. The Embsay and Bolton Abbey Railway operates a nostalgic service between the eponymous stations every Sunday of the year (01756 710 614; www.embsayboltonabbeyrailway.org.uk). In summer it also presents daily steam and diesel options.
Rail is not the only scenic, sepia-tinted transport option. Wensleydale Vintage Tour Bus (01765 635 273; www.dalesbus.org/wensleydalevintage.html) runs between Ripon and Garsdale in vehicles from 1949 and 1961, from March to the end of October on Tuesdays and weekends.
Cumbria Classic Coaches (01539 623 254; www.cumbriaclassiccoaches.co.uk) operates a number of summer services in vehicles from the Forties and Fifties. Routes in the Yorkshire Dales are offered between Kirkby Stephen and Hawes, and from Hawes to Ribblehead. Elsewhere, the Dales are laced with modern-day bus routes: for details see www.dalesbus.org.