Inspirational Trails 20: Wensleydale and Swaledale
Written By: SportsShoes
In part 20 of our Inspirational Trails series, fell and ultra-runner, Josh Westwood, talks about his passion and love for his local landscape in the Yorkshire Dales.
Many of us use the phrase: “good health is the most important possession you will ever have”. We also like to buy fridge magnets and little signs for our kitchens stating: “Home Is Where The Heart Is”. But how many of us actually believe in these phrases? Would we actually rather possess a flash car or happily relocate to a beachfront villa in the Mediterranean given the opportunity? It depends on where you call home of course, and also how much you value your health in comparison to other things in life.
Born and bred in Wensleydale, I have lived at the bottom, top and now middle of the valley. The Yorkshire Dales National Park needs no introduction to anyone with a passion for the outdoors. Its rolling green hills, heather moorland and dry-stone walls are world famous and a haven for runners, cyclists, climbers, walkers and more. My first proper solo explorations into the Dales were with a cheap mountain bike, OS map and a lunchbox full of snacks. I would ride for miles, discovering new areas all the time and getting my bearings in the landscape. On several occasions, I almost took it too far and got caught in bad weather with not enough clothing, or overestimated my map reading skills and strayed way off course. However, these mistakes all contributed to a greater understanding and respect for the outdoors, which I’d like to think I’ve taken with me into my running. That’s not to say I don’t still get lost and make the odd mistake occasionally!
Wensleydale and Swaledale lie parallel to each other at the Northern end of the Yorkshire Dales. Living in mid-Wensleydale on the Northern side of the valley puts me in a perfect position to explore some of the best parts of these two Dales from my doorstep. The village of Reeth is 5 miles over the hill from my house, and the journey to get there on foot is like a selection box of all the things we love as fell & trail runners. To begin with, the climb up to the top of the valley is a mile of gradual grassy climbing punctuated by plenty of mud patches. Curlew and Lapwing dive-bomb me as I huff and puff my way up the opening climb (it never seems to get any easier!). Near the summit, I pass one of many abandoned lead mines that litter the Yorkshire Dales- a scar on the landscape that now forms part of the romance of the area. The mine office of this particular one has been kept in good condition over the years and stands proudly overlooking Wensleydale. Reaching the top gate, the scenery transitions instantly from grassland to beautiful heather moorland and I begin the descent into Apedale- a little known valley but a real bonus feature on this route. Red Grouse now add themselves to the long list of wildlife on offer, and they chuckle at my breathlessness as I recover from that first climb. The entire Apedale valley is visible from the descent as I drop down to the bothy at Dent Houses, where the gravel track almost instantly kicks back up again to begin the climb up the other side of the valley. Looking back as I climb the track, the view is no less impressive than it was on the descent, and Wensleydale begins to show itself again, sending little Apedale back into its hiding place within the landscape. I pass rows of grouse butts and the remains of the small stone quarry at Greets Hill before arriving at the end of the main climb. Known locally as How Top, this fairly inconspicuous lump in the landscape offers incredible views across into lower Wensleydale and down into Swaledale. The imposing mass of Fremington Edge also appears in the distance now, giving a taste of what Swaledale has to offer the adventurous fell runner.
Still on heather moorland, I pick up one of many sheep trods that head off in all directions across the landscape. Sheep are some of the best trailblazers, and always seem to pick a brilliant line! One of the huge benefits of open-access land is that you can follow these sheep trods for miles and enjoy some great natural singletrack running. The descent into Swaledale is an ever-changing mixture of sheep trod, gravel track, muddy path, tarmac and heather ranging from singletrack to Land Rover track- and all at a variety of gradients. If I ever got a job as a running shoe tester, I’m very confident that I’d be able to conduct a thorough examination within a few miles of my front door! On the final drop into the village of Grinton, the moorland singletrack gently transitions back into grassland and then gravel before we hit the tarmac. Panoramic views of Swaledale are present throughout, and I can’t decide whether to keep my eyes on the trail or the scenery! Finally, it’s only a short trot down the lane to the cafe at Dales Bike Centre where I can refuel on top-class coffee and cake!
In one article, it’s impossible to fully justify the huge variety of off-road running on offer within my own patch of the Dales, never mind the National Park as a whole. That was just one example of a stunning route, of which there are so many just within this small section of Yorkshire I call home. Within a few miles of my doorstep, I could be running through the woods alongside the world famous Aysgarth Falls, traversing singletrack along the edge of the mighty Penhill, taking in the views along Leyburn Shawl, sweeping along moorland tracks or picking my way through the old mine workings in Swaledale. There are lung-busting climbs; plunging descents; narrow, twisting trails; wide open tracks; trails that follow the riverside through lush meadows and trods that traverse the skyline of the high fells. Also within easy reach are the Pennine Way and Coast-to-Coast path, as well as countless other breath-taking trails in the wider area. My girlfriend, Laura, still laughs at me for sitting for prolonged periods of time at home with my head in an OS map. I’m pretty sure she thinks it’s not normal behaviour, and maybe she’s right! But that’s how I’ve discovered so much about the local area over the years. I love to learn the names of different parts of the landscape, and still find new trails and bits to explore. It opens up so many options, not just for running but also when we head out for walks with our Airedale Terrier, Ivy. She’ll soon be old enough to join me for more extended runs too!
The Yorkshire Dales often fall short of people’s travel plans when organising a trip into the great outdoors. Many would, understandably, favour the fells of the Lake District. I love the Lakes as much as anyone and always look forward to my next trip across the county border, however it is getting increasingly hard to find total peace and quiet among the Lakeland fells- especially the more popular ones. In the Dales however, one can run off into the fells on a sunny bank holiday and see very few others. With the exception of ’big mountain’ days, this area can offer pretty much everything that the Lakes can: you just need to know where to look! There’s also something very comforting about the familiarity of home turf: a shout of “now then!” from a friendly local as I wind my way along the trail; the living history of the area and the memories of past experiences on these very same trails I explored as a child all add to the joy of running through this landscape.
So, in answer to the original question: yes, home really IS where my heart is, and the health which allows me to immerse myself in the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales really is my most important possession. Sure, the weather can be far from Mediterranean, and I’d love to treat myself to a new set of wheels at some point, but as long as I have a grippy pair of fell shoes and a reliable level of fitness to power them then I’m happy. To be honest, I love the variety that the unpredictable weather offers. A few short weeks (or even days at certain times of year) can make the difference between full waterproofs and thermals, or a vest, shorts and shades!
If you ever need any advice on the area - whether that be route choice or shoe choice- please don’t hesitate to drop me a message. I’m always happy to help, and I hope you discover as much love for the Yorkshire Dales as I have. If you begin your adventures in and around Wensleydale and Swaledale then I promise you, you haven’t chosen a bad place to start!
You can follow Josh and all his running adventures here.
Photos: Josh Westwood