Walk of the month: Swaledale - a winter’s tale of nature in fifth gear

From Richmond in North Yorkshire, Mark Rowe traces a fascinating trail beside the fastest-flowing river in England

When the rain never stops, and the fields are flooded, a swollen river is a stirring example of nature in fifth gear. Cue the bulging river Swale in full spate: the fastest-flowing river in England is hurtling its way towards the North Sea. Mallards sail backwards, as randomly hapless as their toy rubber duck counterparts in this full-throttled, uncorked torrent. They play dodgems between fallen branches of ash trees that are swept along, though even these substantial chunks of wood look as powerful as a smattering of twiglets.

I’m walking a stretch of the Swale out of Richmond, North Yorkshire, and it’s a route that really hits the ground running. From the town’s sloping handsome market place, all cobbles and Georgian townhouses, I’ve descended steeply to Green Bridge above the river, a strategic crossing point, over which the brooding outline of Richmond Castle has glowered for almost 1,000 years.

It’s deep mid-winter and the season holds Swaledale tight in its grip. I’ve a favourite waterside path here, that stutters across the limestone and involves some gentle boulder hopping at the best of times. Now, though, it is semi-submerged, the river inching tide-like higher. So instead I take the high path through Billy Bank woods, past remnant quarries that provided some of the stone for the castle. In no time I’ve recaptured high ground and look out over the Swale as it hangs a fiendishly sharp left-hand turn.

But the river is the place to be on a skittish day like this and I quickly return to the water’s edge, splashing through chicane-like rivulets that branch off from the Swale. Here, having spent the past few thousand years putting the finishing touches to a valley carved out at the end of the last ice age, the Swale is busily nibbling away and loosening the soil around the riverbank trees, exposing gnarled, toe-like roots.

I turn a corner and am momentarily dazzled by the sun settling on the wet sheen of closely-grazed grassland. There’s a flash of white: a dipper spiralling determinedly above the spitting river, as if trying desperately not to ditch. Jackdaws, more judicious, perch patiently on the outer reaches of oaks. The path follows a sweep of meadow, a floodplain when the river gets really over-excited. I look upwards, but there is no rainbow to be seen from deep inside high-sided, north- facing Swaledale. The limestone gorge is coated with oak, beech, sycamore, elm and hazel. The specimens of ash here are thought to be 400 years’ old.

Hudswell Woods beckon, a magical, mature, semi-natural woodland. Looking among the oaks I pick out the cobalt flash of a nuthatch, while a flinty-looking treecreeper chisels away in the corrugated ridges of a sycamore tree. I follow a hauntingly beautiful and undulating path that unexpectedly threads past a succession of small, sandy beaches. They are overlooked by beech trees – beeches on beaches – mantled in lichens and mosses.

Any reverie is soon dispelled as I reach the base of Hudswell Steps, where more than 300 of them zip almost vertically up the limestone scars. There’s a handrail and a couple of brief level spots to pause, but it’s all worth the effort as just a couple of fields away in the village of Hudswell is a real gem – the George and Dragon. Not only is this Yorkshire’s first community-owned pub, rescued from closure in 2010, but it has a Fijian chef, Ellie Tuvotu, who serves up dishes made from cassava and taro. Ellie’s unlikely journey from Fiji involved following her soldier husband who was posted to the UK and the nearby Catterick Garrison.

I return to Richmond across the top of Calfhall Woods. Once again, the views across and down into the valley, unencumbered by leaves, are thrilling. The top of the woods are just as wet as the riverside. I slip and slither my way down to the Swale. I’m keen to climb the other side of the dale, so I cross the river and briefly follow the Reeth Road before climbing steeply – for the last time – through fields to a lane that leads back to Richmond. From here,  I can see the adjoining brows of Wensleydale to the south, and eastwards, the Vale of York. Closer by is Richmond Castle.

The castle is stirring, though a visit does make for a slightly doleful end to a day of sheer magic. Even the briefest exploration of the castle exposes the sheer misery extended to so many here. This predilection for unhappiness reaches into modern times too. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the castle served as a jail for 16 conscientious objectors.

Far below its ramparts, the ever playful Swale hurtles on, slicing through the lengthening shadows of a winter’s mid-afternoon.

Start/Finish: Richmond market square

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: Three hours

OS MAP: 304, Darlington & Richmond

Directions From Market Place, Richmond, place follow New Road downhill to Green Bridge. Turn right along the river bank and fork left uphill. Drop down steps to follow the riverside path past Round Howe bridge to Hudswell Steps. At the top of the steps walk through two fields and turn left for the George and Dragon. Return to the steps and walk along the top of the woods and down to the Swale. Cross the river to Reeth Road. Turn right and take the second road left after the cemetery. Go through the gate, up fields and over a stile. Turn right along the lane (Westfields) aiming for the Market Place via Newbiggin.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Mark Rowe was a guest of CrossCountry (crosscountrytrains.co.uk), which serves Darlington from Edinburgh, Newcastle, York, Birmingham and the West Country. Darlington is on the East Coast line from King’s Cross (eastcoast.co.uk).Regular buses (arrivasapphire.co.uk) connect Darlington to Richmond.

Staying there

Mark Rowe stayed at Natural Retreats Yorkshire Dales near  Richmond (0843 636 7033; natural retreats.co.uk), which offers three nights’ rental of a three-bedroom residence from £410, or a week from £658.

More information

richmond.org/tic

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