The Dales: A lifelong romance

Husbands may come and go, but the beauty of the Yorkshire landscape never fades. What's more, you'll want for nowt in Pateley Bridge. Janet Street-Porter has spent the best part of her life trying to get back to the part of the world she loves above all others...

My love affair with Yorkshire started more than 25 years ago when I drove from Leeds to Richmond, taking back roads all the way. I was visiting my (then) husband, who was making a series of films about horse racing in the North. Before that day, North Yorkshire was a big blank to me - somewhere I'd passed through on the train en route to Northumberland or Edinburgh. I will never forget the joy of discovering a landscape I will never want to leave. A real place, not a theme park, with working farms, local pride, the best monastic ruins in Britain. And, best of all, miles of tracks and paths I could walk alone in silence.

A switchback route took me through Lower Wharfedale and Farnley Hall where Turner stayed and painted watercolours of the Cow and Calf rocks, Ilkley, and the River Wharfe near Otley. Those scenes are largely unchanged today. Then up and over Blubberhouse Moor, past the giant white golf balls (the Menwith Hill top-secret listening post), down into the pastureland of Nidderdale, through the bustling small town of Pateley Bridge, which is really just one street of grey granite-fronted shops and houses looking exactly as it did in the 1920s.

I climbed up the one in three hill at the end of the High Street and on to the high moor. For the first time I saw the terrain that makes this part of the country so unique - below 800 feet there are dry-stone walls snaking around fields, cattle and sheep, isolated barns and groups of farm buildings. Villages are clustered along the valley floors, following old drover routes, by rivers.

This isn't a place for great peaks, ridges or shapely fells. Most of the moorland undulates slightly around 800 to 1,000 feet, and is covered in heather that turns bright pink in late summer. You can see for 20 miles in every direction, spot Ripon and York cathedrals on a clear day. You can see the tops of Great Whernside, Little and Great Haw, Barden Fell and the lonely little summit of Meugher, miles from any road.

I can't begin to explain how exhilarating this huge expanse of nothing is, and in Upper Nidderdale, above the Scar House reservoir, is one of the largest bits of untainted countryside left in the North. It's home to grouse, plovers, kites, stoats and, of course, thousands of rabbits and sheep. Most of it is owned either by Yorkshire Water or by various landlords who shoot there for a few days each year.

From Pateley Moor I dropped down into Dallowgill, another sporting estate with wooded copses full of pheasants, through the pretty villages of Kirkby Malzeard and Grewelthorpe, the historic town of Masham, which was once the centre of the wool trade in the north, with a huge market square, and an award-winning delicatessen (Reah and Son).

Then I skirted the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey and stopped for tea in Middleham, where stable lads walked thoroughbred horses through the sloping square. Here the houses are three-storey Georgian, a sign of a prosperous past. Just outside Middleham a pretty toll bridge crosses the river Ure and I was soon in Leyburn, another distinguished small town with a tiny cinema and excellent supermarket.

Just outside Leyburn I took an unmarked road after Bellerby over the moors and through the Army firing range (lots of signs warning me about tanks turning) and emerged right at the bottom in Richmond, with the ruins of the castle high above.

I'd fallen in love, and within six months we'd bought a Georgian farmhouse in Nidderdale, complete with vegetable garden and conservatory. I have never spent more than four weeks away from Yorkshire ever since. It's a real place - unspoilt by tourism. A place where there are three cricket leagues, not one, in our valley. Where people might go to London for the rugby but never to go shopping. I even made a radio programme for the BBC using the catchphrase I picked up from my old gardener, Mr Bottomley: "You'll want for nowt in Pateley Bridge." This was his reply when I asked him if he'd ever been to London. He's only ever visited Leeds once - why leave paradise?

Yorkshire is an addictive drug. It's not easy having a house in Upper Nidderdale (after the husband and I went our separate ways I bought a tiny cottage further up the valley) and working in London. I know the GNER timetable intimately, and have spent more hours shivering on Northallerton station than I want to think about. But the moment I drive up from Masham, past Leighton reservoir and on to the moor, my spirits just lift and I feel absolutely regenerated. I can't wait to stick on a pair of horrible old sweatpants, muddy boots and a waterproof and go for a walk. And the worse the weather, the more I like it. I collect wild mushrooms and sloes, and my partner spends hours fishing for trout. I eat massive meals prepared with local produce, ribs of beef, partridge, wild duck, grouse and pheasant. Best of all, Pateley Bridge has two excellent butchers who both make top-of-the-range pork pies.

Pateley Bridge also boasts the Nidderdale Museum, a wonderfully crammed set of rooms just off the High Street in the former council offices. This award-winning establishment has been given so much stuff, from the contents of old chemist shops to loads of photographs and documentation about the construction of the Scar House reservoir in the 1920s (at that time the largest stone edifice in Europe), that it is well worth a visit. And it shows you comprehensively how industrial this valley was.

We are obsessed with preserving the past today, but a 100 years ago many of the Yorkshire Dales housed flax mills, coal, tin and lead mines, watermills and foundries. More than 5,000 workers lived in a town of wooden houses with their own chapel, canteen, laundry and shops, at the top of the valley during the construction of the dams, linked to Pateley Bridge by a railway that has long gone. Now you can spot the station houses as you drive up the dale, all highly desirable residences.

Nidderdale is not in the National Park, but has been declared an area of outstanding natural beauty. In a way this is a plus, because it means that the landscape is looked after without all the hordes of tourists that descend on places within the park, like Malham and Grassington, with their horrible souvenir shops. Pateley Bridge, Masham and Leyburn are, first and foremost, farming towns with a healthy income from walkers and visitors. But they have not been tarted up, the cafes are still full of locals, and they feel robust and throbbing with life. The annual Nidderdale agricultural show, held in Pateley at the end of September, is a great day out, with dry-stone-wall building competitions, cattle, poultry and sheep classes, cake and produce competitions and a tent of weird-looking rabbits.

Visiting Yorkshire in winter makes a lot of sense. You've got more excuses for eating massive teas - sheltering from the rain and rewarding yourself for completing a strenuous walk. There are fewer people and you get to see more of local life. I never go to Harrogate or York: what's the point of leaving London to spend time in another city?

Another plus is the abundance of horse-racing tracks - I could visit about seven without driving for more than an hour. A couple of years ago a group of us sponsored a race at Thirsk as a birthday present for a friend. We had lunch in one of the very few boxes there - a huge blowout of wine and steak pies. I've enjoyed racing at York (home to Ascot earlier this year) with its Pimms, seafood bars and high tea in the grandstand, but nothing really beats such smaller tracks as Thirsk, Ripon or Catterick.

A few years ago I made a television series in which I walked from Edinburgh to London in a straight line. It was drawn from the Observatory in Greenwich to its Scottish counterpart by the Ordnance Survey. To my great delight this magical line took me through West Whitton in Wensleydale, up and over Coverdale and down Nidderdale right through Pateley Bridge, where I was joined by Vic Reeves for a memorable walk over the moors and into his birthplace in Leeds. I promise you I didn't rig the route, but it was highly fortuitous. I could spend evenings in the bar of the Sportsman's Arms (see box) and it was all in the name of work.

Another year I made a programme for BBC2 in the series Travels with Pevsner, based on the architectural historian's guides to the English counties. I'm pleased to say that my contribution, about the North Riding, got the highest rating. I'm sure that the reason for the programme's popularity was absolutely nothing to do with my contribution as presenter, but everything to do with the sheer bliss of watching an hour of the best scenery in Britain in your living room.

I shall be spending my birthday in Yorkshire this year, putting up bunting in my village hall and cooking a meal for a group of friends. The weather will be foul, but we'll be playing pass the parcel and musical chairs. Next day a brisk walk through the heather will soon blow away that inevitable hangover.

It takes a few decades to get accepted as a local, but I'm working on it. Once you spend some time getting to know the Yorkshire that's off the beaten track, I'm sure like me, that you'll want to return over and over again.

For more information: Yorkshire Tourism (0870 609 0000; outdooryorkshire.com)

A ramble through Yorkshire: JSP'S TOP WALKS

THE BELLE OF THEM ALL

It is no surprise that Nidderdale has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. And there is a wonderful section above Pateley Bridge which it is possible to divide into short circular strolls that you can complete in a day.

THE PICTURE-PERFECT VILLAGE

Kirkby Malzeard is an unspoilt Dales village is strung out along one street. It stands on the edge of wild moorland. There are a number of circular walks within a mile or so of the village. And there are plenty of bed and breakfasts that can be used.

THE THREE-DAY YOMP

It is possible to do a great linear walk that will take you from Grassington up Wharfedale, heading in a north-westerly direction, and ending up in Hawes. It takes three days, stopping for two nights in bed and breakfasts. It's a top trek.

THE COAST TO COAST ROUTE

Wainwright's classic walk crosses the northern part of the Dales. The section of the walk that takes you through Swaledale, Muker and Gunnerside and down the dale to Reeth is fabulous. And there are plenty of places to stay en route.

THE FABULOUS RUINS

A World Heritage Site, Fountains Abbey, ruined 12th-century Cistercian monastery, is a breathtaking sight. And there are plenty of circular walks in the area which take in the surrounding parkland. Brimham Rocks, nearby, is also not to be missed.

THE NEW TREK TO TRY OUT

The bleak moorland around the remote Scar House Reservoir has been opened up to walkers by the new access legislation. Go west along Scar and then Angram reservoirs, cross a small bridge and then follow a wall up to the top of Great Whernside.

THE REMOTE ROAM

Colsterdale is a little-visited valley which is reached by driving out from Masham, a charming old town. From an old ford at the start of Colsterdale follow the Coal Road (a grassy track from the mining days) all the way up the dale to the high moors.

THE MEETING POINT

At the northern end of Wharfedale, at the confluence of two rivers, the small settlement of Hubberholme has one of the loveliest small churches in the Dales. You can walk along the river to Buckden and then over the moor and down into Litton for lunch.

My favourite place to stay

The Sportsman's Arms at Wath in Nidderdale, by a narrow packhorse bridge over the river Nidd, has comfy chintzy bedrooms and good food in both the bar and the restaurant. Mentioned in all the guide books, it makes the perfect base for walking.

The Sportsman's Arms, Wath, Nidderdale (01423 711306; www.sportsmans-arms.co.uk). Double rooms start at £50 per person per night including breakfast.

My favourite place for tea

How Stean Gorge Café near Lofthouse in Nidderdale with a mini gorge to visit. Ilkley and Harrogate boast Bettys Tearooms where a must-gorge are Fat Rascals buns. Stock up on their chocs and fruit cakes.

How Stean Gorge Café, Lofthouse, Nidderdale (01423 755666; howstean.co.uk). Bettys Café Tearooms, 32 The Grove, Ilkley (01943 608029; www.bettys.co.uk). Bettys Café Tea Rooms, 1 Parliament Street, Harrogate (01423 502746).

My favourite view

Middleham is just as famous for all the top racing stables in the surrounding countryside as the terrific castle where Richard III grew up. Driveon to the moor between 6.30am and 9am and you will see the horses on the all-weather track, with fantastic views on all sides. Then you can eat breakfast in the Nose Bag Tearoom in the square.

The Nose Bag Tearoom, Middleham (01969 625558).

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