Walk of the month

The Yorkshire Dales have a cosy reputation. But the stunning landscapes can be wilder than you think, says Mark Rowe

Thanks to James Herriot and the Calendar Girls, the Yorkshire Dales have a rather cuddly reputation. The reality is different, for this is a tough, remote landscape. The word "dale" comes from the Viking word for valley and is applied with good reason; hills here are steeper and valleys more dramatic than in the neighbouring North York Moors to the east.

The Dales have a gloomy beauty, nowhere more so than in Upper Wharfedale, in the eastern part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Here, north of Skipton, is a land of eroded gulleys, known as hags, and wind-battered limestone crags. The dales have a stepped aspect, a result of unusual geology, where shale and limestone alternate in a formation known as the Yoredale Series.

This walk, compiled by Peter Katic, the National Trust's local estates manager, is the classic walk of two halves. First, the climb through exposed moorland and raw, wild scenery to Buckden Pike, which requires a good deal of puff; then a long, leeward descent to the picturesque valley floor and an idyllic riverside amble.

Start in the car park in Buckden village, and here's hoping you get a brilliantly clear, crisp winter's day, rather than the furious storms of mid-January. Planning such a walk at this time of year is a gamble; the pay- off is that with a decent frost, the peat bogs are crisp underfoot, which takes the edge off the plodding, and the winter scenery is unsurpassed.

Follow the bridleway at the top of the car park, heading north towards the moorland and overlooking the typical dales landscape: a valley filled with meadows and fields divided by drystone walls and each with a field barn. The walls were first put up in the early 1800s, during the enclosures. The National Trust, which owns around 8,000 acres in Wharfedale, has reinforced about 1,000 metres against the elements. The Trust also repairs paths and gates, supports hill farmers and implements important environmental projects - the legacy of its hay meadows projects merits a return visit in summer when wild flowers cover the valley.

Where the track bends uphill to the right, go straight ahead, following a fingerpost sign and a waymarked blue post, and through a metal gate. Turn right, following the uphill path. Pass through another wooden gate and keep going uphill through open gateways in the drystone walls. Continue ahead to a steeper path of stone and gravel, constructed by the National Trust and the park authority.

Soon, you reach the summit of Buckden Pike at 702m, which represents one of the finest 360-degree views in England, with a large number of the country's distinguishing mountain landscapes lined up for inspection. To the west the Lake District's Coniston Fells, Scafell Pike and Helvellyn; to the east, the North York Moors (you can't quite see the sea but you can see Middlesbrough). The Peak District muscles up to the south and to the south-west lies a forbidding sweep of Bowland. The Yorkshire Dales' three peaks - Pen-y- ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside - are prominent in the middle distance.

Though the landscape looks truly wild, man's imprint is clearly visible. Scattered remnants of Bronze Age settlements can be picked out on the hillsides, while far below, pale channels - imprints in the fields - mark where the river Wharfe was once diverted. On the lower flanks of the hills, the low sun throws shadows across the humps and folds that represent yet more archaeological sites.

From the summit, continue along the wide moorland ridge, with the wall on your left, and cross a stile. At the southern end, cross a ladder stile to reach the Polish aircrew war memorial, a mournful spot where a Polish-crewed Wellington bomber crashed during a snowstorm in 1942. The sole survivor, who broke his leg, crawled away from the wreck and followed a fox track downhill to the isolated White Lion pub.

The memorial has remnants of the aircraft around its base and a fox's head in bronze. You can read more about this wartime heroism at buckdenpike.co.uk.

Head downhill, with the wall on your right. It can be slow going here if the ground has thawed, though the bogs are good places to spot a range of birds, including dunlin, golden plover and curlew. Eventually you reach a gate in the wall where you turn right and follow the track for two miles downhill to distant Starbotton. Lead mining used to be a huge employer hereabouts, and the fractured remains of the Starbotton Cupola Smelt Mill stand on the hill flanks to your left.

When the path becomes a concrete farm track, turn left and cross the bridge into Starbotton and walk though the village. At the end of the hamlet, cross the road and take the footpath by the barn to the river Wharfe.

Cross the river and turn right, following the Dales Way footpath beside the river for the two miles back to Buckden. After a mile and a half follow the fingerpost sign to the right and walk along the field edge back to Buckden.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

MAP

Explorer OL30, Yorkshire Dales, Northern and Central Areas.

DISTANCE

Seven miles.

FURTHER INFORMATION

A leaflet, Hill Walks in Upper Wharfedale, can be obtained from the National Trust estate office in Settle (01729 830416; nationaltrust.org.uk or malhamtarn@national trust.org.uk) and is also available at local tourist information centres. For more details on the Yorkshire Dales, visit yorkshiredales.org.uk.

Mark Rowe stayed at the White Lion in Cray (01756 760262; whitelioncray.com), which offers double rooms from £65 per room including breakfast. The pub is an excellent base for walks in the area.

Skipton can be reached by Virgin Trains (08457 222333; virgin.com/trains) to Leeds and Northern Rail (0845-700 0125; northernrail.org). A Dales Explorer bus connects Skipton and Buckden. For more details visit traveldales.org.uk.

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