How should the UK's long-distance footpath be launched? The answer: with a group hike. That is the initiation ceremony planned for the 38-mile Six Dales Trail across Yorkshire, which officially opens today.
Handily, the new route begins in Otley, a small market town where there just so happens to be a Walking Festival taking place this weekend. The trail, which traverses almost the entire length of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, takes in Wharfedale, Washburndale, Nidderdale, Colsterdale, Coverdale and Wensleydale, and finishes in Middleham.
The walk is designed to highlight some of the more neglected corners of the Yorkshire Dales. It was created by John Sparshatt, a retired scenes-of-crime officer for West Yorkshire Police. John is also the author of The UK Trailwalkers' Handbook for the Long Distance Walkers' Association. So when he offered to guide me on a three-day preview hike along the route, I knew I'd be in safe hands.
I met John in Otley, late on an unexpectedly chilly May morning. As we strode out past neatly tended flowerbeds and busying tea rooms, he explained how he became involved with the trail. John is a born-again walker, having "found" hiking in his 40s. Twenty-five years after that epiphany, he has an evangelical passion for it. He was "looking for something to do" in retirement. One day he was called to a meeting to discuss how Otley, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty covering Nidderdale and its surroundings, and a long-distance trail might come together. "It was like asking a child if they wanted to visit a sweet shop," he joked.
Now, 18 months on, the resulting long-distance footpath is agreed, the waymarking is nearly complete and a guide to the trail has been published – complete with a foreword by Nidderdale's best-known resident hiker, Janet Street-Porter.
"I deliberately took the trail off the beaten track and tried to incorporate a variety of terrain," John explained. The route wends around fields, moorland, river valleys, ruined abbeys and countless "squeeze bellies" (ancient stiles that are just wide enough for a walker but not for itchy-footed sheep). It is an ideal trail for walkers with short attention spans: just when you've got to grips with one valley you're up, over a watershed, and into a new one.
The first surprise came when we crossed a stile behind an estate of neat bungalows on the outskirts of Otley. Here we officially entered the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Suddenly we swapped surbubia's lawnmower buzz and herds of parked cars for open countryside, birdsong, bees and curlews. A little further on the first of many views opened out: Wharfedale in one direction and Washburndale (or the Washburn Valley as it's more commonly known) in the other, easily identifiable from its reservoirs. At one of these, Swinsty, we paused for an ice-cream. Here the trail joined a path managed by Yorkshire Water. It was a grey day and, despite an umbrella of feathery beech trees, only the hardiest locals were out walking their dogs.
From Swinsty we picked a path through anemones, primroses and bluebells, before crossing the busy A59 at the village of Blubberhouses and continuing along a gentle riverside path to Scaife Hall Farm – a working sheep farm around 10 miles from Otley that would be our stop for the night. The owner, Christine Ryder, has mastered that mix of warm hospitality and reassuring efficiency that makes for a great night's rest. With the local restaurant closed for the evening she even offered to run us over to nearby Timble to have dinner in the refurbished Timble Inn.
The inn's new owners used to run a cashmere company and the emphasis here is on luxury, from sage-coloured designer paintwork to the menu's posh parsnip and apple soup. "I don't think it's really a walkers' pub," whispered John, as he slipped his Ron Hill-clad legs under a smart wooden table and clasped a pint of Theakston's.
Back at Scaife Hall, I woke to a view that was stunning, despite a soft filter of drizzle. Under heavy grey skies was a classic Dales scene of stone barns, dry stone walls, rolling fields and some of Scaife's chickens ranging free below the farmhouse. "I've walked the trail in every season now – but late spring, with everything coming to life, gives you a real buzz," said John as we stepped out soon afterwards past bright gold gorse, tarnished daffodils, creamy primroses and the farm's newly arrived trio of Belted Galloway cows.
We may have been surrounded by leafy countryside but the landscape hasn't always looked this pastoral. As we walked John pointed out the remains of the area's industrial history – mossy goits (small canals that were dug to power mills) which have long since become foliage-tangled ruins. That the ancient-looking landscape we were walking through is continuing to change was obvious later on: the further we got from Otley, the more often we came across old stone barns reinvented as smart holiday cottages.
By lunchtime we were at the next watershed, looking down into Nidderdale and a landscape dusted with pockets of conifers, pale stone villages and fields, barns and walls. "We're sleeping by that reservoir tonight," said John, pointing to a glimmer of water on the horizon, around 12 miles from where we'd started out that morning.
On the way there, we wound into the valley through the stillness of Guisecliff Wood; stopped for a pot of tea at an old flax mill in Glasshouses; and stocked up on "Yorkshire Mix" at what professes to be the oldest sweetshop in England, at pretty Pateley Bridge. A couple of miles further on we reached Gouthwaite reservoir and our next B&B, Covill Barn. The surrounding scenery is so quintessentially Dales-like here that it has appeared on the opening shot of Emmerdale (which I suppose makes the walk the "Seven Dales Trail", if you count fictional ones).
The trail isn't just a way to showcase the hidden attractions of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, though. It's also a tribute to Otley's "Walkers Are Welcome" initiative, part of a national campaign to get towns across the UK to be more supportive of hikers. John is a leading light of the town's Walkers Are Welcome group; that evening, he and I dined with some other members to hear more about the trail they had created. One of them, Peter Corkill, highlighted the secret of the trail: it is a north-south path. "It means you come over the tops and get view after view. Nearly always long-distance paths follow valleys or rivers and don't go over this many watersheds, or open up so many views," he said.
Not that there were great views to be had the next morning when John and I set off up one of the ancient packhorse trails that scar the moorland above Gouthwaite reservoir. At 16 miles, the final day's hike was the longest section of the walk. With three dales to clamber up and down, it was also the toughest. The weather still wasn't on our side, and was positively bleak when we reached the open moor. Sheltering in a tiny barn next to oversized rocks at Comb Crags, which were like something from Alice in Wonderland, we warmed up with a flask of coffee. But then, finally, the sun came out, lighting up the Vale of York ahead of us – and the rest of the day.
Heading down into Colsterdale we passed a bucolic but deserted clutch of farmhouses. Then we climbed up and over another moorland to come down into wide open Wensleydale and Coverdale – and Brymor ice-cream parlour. Refuelling here, we carried on past the wide open parkland and ruined arches of Jervaulx Abbey to follow the river Ure, fringed with primroses, cowslips, forget-me-nots and campion. It led to our final destination, Middleham.
We rounded a bend in the river and climbed a grassy hill. The ground suddenly fell away to reveal the village's ruined castle – a dramatic full-stop to a journey that had taken us across six dales, and opened up countless views and newly discovered Yorkshire terrain.
There's a lot to be said for strolling down the Shambles in York, making a literary pilgrimage to Haworth, tucking into fish and chips at Whitby (or a fat rascal at one of Betty's Tea Rooms), lording it at Castle Howard or taking in the abbeys and castles of the Dales. But if you'd rather take a less well-trodden path through Yorkshire, walking the Six Dales Trail is a great way to start.
Travel essentials: Six Dales Trail
* Otley is easy to get to by train via Bradford. To reach Middleham, take a TransPennine Express to Northallerton, then bus 73 to Bedale, where you can connect with bus 159. On Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays there is a direct bus from Leeds.
* The Six Dales Trail will be officially launched in two stages with transport provided, the first today (Otley to Pateley Bridge) and the second tomorrow (Pateley Bridge to Middleham). For more details, call 01943 851166 or visit the Otley Walking Festival website ( chevintrek.co.uk ). The Pateley Bridge Walking Festival ( pbwf.co.uk ) will include group walks along the trail later in the year.
* Scaife Hall Farm, Hardisty Hill, Blubberhouses, Otley, West Yorkshire LS21 PL (01943 880354; scaifehallfarm.co.uk ). B&B costs from £45 single, £75 double.
* Covill Barn, Bouthwaite, Ramsgill, Harrogate, HG3 5RS (01423 755306; covillbarn.co.uk ). B&B costs £65 double, with a £5 supplement for single-night stays.
* Six Dales Trail: sixdalestrail.org.uk
* Yorkshire Tourism: yorkshire.com
*An ideal companion is the new Slow North Yorkshire by Mike Bagshaw, published this month by Bradt/Alistair Sawday (£14.99), which offers a mix of practical information, inspring itineraries and intriguing historical asides.