Natural Wonders: The Yorkshire Dales

In the final part of our series on national parks, Rhiannon Batten explores the valleys of the North

Billowing from Skipton to just south of Kirkby Stephen and from Settle to Richmond, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is classic late summer and early autumn territory. It was established in 1954, as a patch of territory about the size of Greater London.

Today, the National Park is home to pretty tearooms, quaint museums, cosy pubs and crumbling abbeys. But the real attraction is the countryside that surrounds it all: a sprawling but scenic mass of rolling fields and valleys, dry-stone walls and ancient barns. The most popular way to see this – and the best way to escape the crowds that many of the picture-perfect villagesattract – is on foot.

Classic Dales walksinclude a ramble along the River Swale, a hike around Malham Cove and Malham Tarn and the 8km stroll along the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail (01524 241930; ingletonwaterfallstrail.co.uk). Access to the latter costs £5 (£2 for children). For maps, guides and more generalinformation on these and other day walks, there are National Park Centres at Aysgarth, Grassington, Hawes, Malham and Reeth (01969 666210; yorkshiredales.org.uk).

For more strenuous leg stretching there areRibblesdale and the Dales' Three Peaks – Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent. Each year, thousands of walkers take up the challenge of topping all three in 12 hours or less. For more information on this or to become a Friend of the Three Peaks and help protect the area around them, see www.ind.pn/qguLFu.

Or combine walking boots and books at Richmond Walking and Book Festival, which runs from 23 September to 2 October this year (01748 824243; booksandboots.org). The festival kicks off with a talk by Mike Parker and Colin Speakman (£8); the latter is Chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Society and a real authority on walking in the area. Be inspired by thisintroduction and then set off on one of the festival's many guided walks.

Running with the theme, this year is also the 10thanniversary of the Black Sheep Brewery's Boots & Beer Festival, 9-11 September. The participation fee of £27.50 includes access to 14 self-guided walks designed by local walking expert, Mark Reid (01765 689227; www.ind.pn/oDA8nI). The beer part comes in on the Saturday evening, at various festival social events that incur an additional fee.

You don't have to be a walker to enjoy the Dales, though. Thanks to the Augustinians and Cistercians, the National Park and its surroundings are home to some of the country's most impressive abbeys (though thanks to Henry VIII all now lie, albeit photogenically, in ruins). These include 12th-century Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale, which offers restaurants, cafés, shops and family activities as well as ancient architecture (01756 718009; boltonabbey.com; admission £6 per vehicle).

Castles are another quintessential element of the Dales. Medieval Bolton Castle (01969 623981; boltoncastle.co.uk) in Wensleydale was built by Richard Le Scrope, Lord Chancellor to Richard II. Mary Queen of Scots was infamously imprisoned in it from 1568 to 1569. It is now owned by Lord Bolton, adirect descendant of Le Scrope. The castle has been transformed into a contemporary tourist attraction over recent years; admission £8.50 for adults and £7 for children. Attractionsinclude falconry displays, wild boar feeding and archery demonstrations on offer alongside conventional tours of the castle and gardens. New this year is an exhibition on beekeeping through the ages.

The Dales Countryside Museum, in Hawes, offers a more modest approach to the area's history. The museum (01969 666210; www.ind.pn/qQLlZ4; adults £3.50; children free) is managed by the National Park Authority. The displays provide a primer on Dales life through the ages, with exhibits on school days, home life, leisure, religion, transport, tourism, farming and local crafts and industries.

If you're a fan of Wensleydale cheese, stop off at the nearby Wensleydale Creamery which was saved from closure by Dalesman Kit Calvert in the 1930s. It boasts a newly renovated visitor centre (01969 667664; wensleydale.co.uk). Admission to the museum and viewing gallery costs £2.50 for adults, £1.50 for children but many visitors skip the tour and head straight to the cheese shop or restaurant.

If you want more than dairy-based sustenance, the Artbar Gallery in Appersett, just outside Hawes, has been recently revamped and now runs acoffee shop on weekends serving homemade cakes and scones (01969 667782; moirametcalfe.co.uk).

For something even more substantial, try the Farmers Arms, in Muker (01748 886297; farmersarmsmuker.co.uk). It changed hands late last year and is now independently run by an enthusiastic local couple.

The menu includes homemade beef casserole (£7.95) and Swaledale sausage-topped giant Yorkshire puddings (£6.95). Or take a pew on one of the benches in front of the pub to toast your tour of the Dales with a pint of local Muker Silver ale.

For more information on the area see yorkshire.com and yorkshiredales.org.uk.

Three places to stay: Yorkshire Dales

THE LION AT SETTLE

This 17th-century coaching inn lies just inside the south-west boundary of the National Park. Original features such as an Inglenook fireplace and candle nooks in the walls have been preserved in a recent revamp; but it now also offers 14 smart bedrooms and food made with good local ingredients, such as haddock in Thwaites beer batter. Doubles start at £85, including breakfast. Duke Street, Settle, BD24 9DU (01729 822203; thelionsettle.co.uk).

SHEPHERD'S HUT

Amanda Owen was the envy of many a small business owner when her Shepherd's Hut featured on ITV's recent series "The Dales". The publicity means there are few available nights left this year at the hut in question – painted green, and looking rather like a railway wagon. The location is a working farm called Ravenseat at the head of the River Swale, west of Keld. It may be the halfway point on the Coast-to-Coast footpath but it's an off-the-beaten-track location. Doubles start at £60, including breakfast. Ravenseat Farm, Keld, Richmond, DL11 6LP (01748 886387; ravenseat.com).

YOREBRIDGE HOUSE HOTEL

This boutique bolthole just outside the village of Bainbridge is one of the region's most stylish hotels. It was voted the most romantic hotel in the UK earlier this year. A former school – and, latterly, the headquarters of the National Park Authority – it reopened as a hotel three years ago and now boasts 11 chic rooms (four with private outdoor hot tubs), a bar and restaurant. Doubles rooms start at £180, including breakfast. Bainbridge, North Yorkshire, DL8 3EE (01969 652060; yorebridgehouse.co.uk).

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