From the late 1970s until 1990 there were 90 episodes of All Creatures Great & Small aired on the BBC. This enchanting show was based in the idyllic Yorkshire Dales and starred Christopher Timothy as the main man, James Herriot, Robert Hardy as Siegfried Farnon, and Peter Davison as Siegfried’s haphazard younger brother Tristan Farnon.
It was based on the books of the vet Alf Wight who wrote under the pseudonym James Herriot about the challenges and rewards he faced through the seasons working in this remote rural community, with its idiosyncratic farmers and land owners. And pretty much everybody loved it at the time.
There’s a new version now, and the first series was on Channel 5 last year, with the next much-anticipated series starting this September. I have watched it and love it – remakes don’t always hit the right notes, but this one is just as entertaining as the original.
In love with the landscape
The author fell in love with this landscape when he came down to join the practice in the 1930s and he went on to become the most famous standard bearer for the region. I was born in 1977 so started to enjoy the programme in the late 1980s, but a family camping holiday to Swaledale high up there in the northern Dales sowed the early seeds of attachment to this glorious landscape.
When I discovered in recent years there is such a thing as the Herriot Way, based on a route in Wensleydale and Swaledale the author walked with his son and a friend some 70 years ago, I was hooked. I bought the guidebook and studied the form. I’m lucky enough to have a small group of resilient friends who indulge me by allowing me to plan a multi-day walk so I set to work.
According to the guide the official Herriot Way starts and finishes in Aysgarth, of waterfall fame, but in his original account Herriot started and finished in Leyburn, the small market town at the eastern end of wide, sweeping Wensleydale, the greenest of valleys. I thought if it was good enough for the great man then it must be good enough for us, so Leyburn became our start and end point.
Originally we were meant to undertake this 58-mile four-day walk in May 2020, but we were all locked in our homes then so we postponed it until the second Bank Holiday weekend in May this year.
Leyburn to Hawes – 20.2 miles
By far the longest day saw five of us start walking from Commercial Square in Leyburn at 9am. Within a minute of leaving the hustle of the Friday market the sheer majesty of eastern Wensleydale is unveiled from the top of the Leyburn Shawl. The path heads west from town along the top of this limestone escarpment, and it offers a series of panoramic views of this green and pleasant land which won’t be beaten in this dale.
In folklore the Shawl is named after the shawl dropped by Mary Queen of Scots in 1568 as she attempted to flee captivity in Bolton Castle, just a few miles west. In more mundane reality it’s probably a derivation of a Norse or old English word describing the landscape. Either way the views are quite sensational, but we soon left them behind as we passed through the first two villages; tranquil Preston under Scar, and then Redmire with its double green.
Shortly after Redmire the path heads up hill to imposing Bolton Castle with the confusingly named Castle Bolton village lying in its shadow. Today it’s a tourist attraction and a wedding venue, but it was built on the junction of Bishopdale to the south and Wensleydale for strategic reasons.
With some benches around the castle it’s a convenient place for a refreshment break but with 20 miles to cover we couldn’t linger long. From here it’s a half an hour walk downhill through the farm at West Bolton to Carperby. It was at The Wheatsheaf here that Herriot and his wife spent their honeymoon all those years ago, working to vaccinate cattle during the day and enjoying the simple pleasures of an old English pub by night. Of course the world has moved on in many ways since then, but walking through the dales today it is still more than possible to forget about corona virus, crypto currencies and social media.
A pint with Tristan?
From Carperby it’s just a 20-minute stroll to Aysgarth Falls, through a sequence of magical flower meadows hemmed in by the archetypal network of drystone walls. This series of wide falls where the River Ure has carved through the rock over the ages is famous for the scene in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves when Kevin Costner’s Robin battled Little John. It’s a popular tourist attraction and is one of the points on the Herriot Way when the peace is disrupted slightly, but it’s also good to see the falls and there are some picnic benches which are useful for lunch. We ate our home-cooked ham sandwiches with English mustard and thick fresh white bread as a light drizzle became slightly more persistent. It couldn’t have been more British.
The onward four miles loosely follow the old railway on the northern side of the river Ure, and it’s largely pleasant and easy walking all the way to Askrigg, one of the jewels in the crown in Wensleydale. There’s no doubting the attraction of the village, and the inside of the King’s Arms pub was used as the Drover’s Arms in the original All Creatures Great and Small. There are lots of photos on the walls of this ancient hostelry of the cast enjoying pints of ale, so it only seemed right for us to stop and enjoy the pleasures of a pint of Black Sheep. In fact we had made such good progress that we extended that to a second pint. As we were enveloped by the cosiness of the pub and the beer, it wasn’t hard to drift off into a parallel universe with James Herriot and Tristan stood at the bar and farmers supping ale all around. But when I came out of my reverie I remembered we still had some five miles to walk to get to Hawes.
Along this last section we made the brief detour to the enchanting Mill Gill Force (that’s a waterfall in case you were wondering) and we even had the distinctive Dales pleasure of being held up by 150 head of cattle plodding half a mile into the farm for afternoon milking. The kindly man herding them in explained to us that he was actually on his annual holiday from Kent. The charms of the Mediterranean and the Caribbean are not for everybody.
Finally at nearly 6pm we walked down the hill from Sedbusk and were treated to the welcoming sight of Hawes ahead, nestled into the valley right in the heart of the Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. A couple more pints and a fine supper in the White Hart Inn preceded a good night’s sleep in Dales House B&B right in the middle of this thriving market town and tourist honeypot.
Hawes to Keld – 14.3 miles
After an ample breakfast courtesy of Nina, the owner of the B&B and in the company of her golden retriever William, the team were ready for departure by 9.15am. A pleasant start down and across the valley to Hardraw precedes the long climb up Great Shunner Fell. At 716 metres this is the third highest point in Yorkshire, after Whernside and Ingleborough, and it certainly feels like it. The first half an hour or so is the steepest, but this is followed by another hour and a half of gentle uphill over the peaty moorland. Thankfully there are long sections which have been slabbed. This may feel like cheating but anyone who has waded through thick boggy moorland for more than 100 metres will know it can be intensely draining.
We were blessed with perfect weather as the skies cleared to allow incredible views and the temperature stayed cool enough to remain comfortable. As you climb there are excellent views of the road over the Buttertubs Pass to the right. This epic route has been a Top Gear favourite over the years, and it was at Simonstone Hall Hotel at the foot of the pass where Jeremy Clarkson had his famous meltdown and punched a producer on the show. The road was also a seriously challenging section of the Tour de France when it made a detour to Yorkshire in 2014.
Views of Ravenseat
At the top of Great Shunner there is a cross-shaped head-high stone shelter with benches against each of the eight sides to provide protection from the wind whichever direction it’s coming from. It’s the obvious spot to eat lunch so we took our time to eat and absorb the views. To the north the remote road over to Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria is clearly visible, as is tiny Whitsundale where Ravenseat Farm is nestled away in its remote spot. This is the home of Amanda and Clive Owen and their nine children who star in the wonderful Our Yorkshire Farm on Channel 5. From this viewpoint it’s easy to see why this resilient family need to be so self-sufficient. They are a very long way away from the nearest shop.
The three-mile walk down from the summit to Thwaite is hard work on a rocky bridleway and I wasn’t the only one who found it less enjoyable than the ascent. Walking downhill is hard on the feet, knees and hips. However, it served a purpose and we soon dropped into magnificent Swaledale, which looks quite different from Wensleydale because it is a lot narrower and generally has much steeper sides. It is also a lot more remote, with just one road linking its villages and a lot less amenities. But it is also a camping paradise with seemingly endless grassy meadows open for campers down by the banks of the river.
Wild swimming in the Swale
We quickly passed through the pretty village of Thwaite and the fabulous Usha Gap campsite with Straw Beck gurgling away in the background. And within a mile we were in Muker, which is one of the most well-known villages in the whole National Park. With its bridge over the beck on entry, position up near the head of the dale and patchwork of world famous wildflower meadows, it’s not hard to see why it’s so famous. And so it proved on this sunny Bank Holiday Saturday just after another tranche of Covid restrictions had been lifted. In fact it was so busy we couldn’t get a seat at the Farmer’s Arms, but a table in the tea rooms was a fair substitute before we made our way north to follow the Swale through the flower meadows.
The unusually cold April meant everything was a little late this year so, apart from buttercups, the meadows were a little devoid of colour. Even so this is a dramatic landscape with the Swale surrounded by steep slopes as it meanders around from Keld to the north west, which was our destination this afternoon. Along the way we made a welcome detour to Kisdon Upper Force where some of us enjoyed a brief dip in a deep pool of cold water which comes straight off the high Pennines to the north and west.
Keld Lodge is strategically placed on the intersection of the Coast to Coast long distance path, the Pennine Way and the Herriot Way and it started life as a youth hostel where James Herriot stayed. These days it’s quite a lot smarter, but retains the communal atmosphere engendered by small groups walking long distances. Tales of blisters, peat bogs, foggy mountain tops, driving rain and blissful moments abound on the patio outside, while dishes of delicious and hearty food at dinner and breakfast replace calories burned on those hills.
Keld to Reeth – 12 miles
We had a thoroughly enjoyable time with like-minded walkers at Keld Lodge and we were sad to leave in the morning. But our route would coincide with the Coast to Coast path on this day, so we bumped into a few friendly faces along the way. The clear blue skies and blazing sunshine were welcome as we crossed the Swale and took the high route past the ruins of Crackpot Hall clinging to the edge of Beldi Hill on the way to Gunnerside Moor beyond. From the ruins of the old farmhouse the view south towards Muker is one of the finest on the Herriot Way.
After Crackpot Hall the path dips down into Swinner Gill and then begins a steep climb up the East Grain towards the grouse moor. As a result of the steep slopes, wild weather and geology of the area, some of the landscape looks distinctly lunar in places here, which provides a good contrast to the green of Wensleydale and the heights of Shunner Fell on the previous day.
Once we reached the top of the East Grain the path took us over the heather of Gunnerside Moor and soon we descended into Gunnerside Gill to the impressive remains of the old Blakethwaite lead mine and peat drying house. There’s a stone footbridge over the beck and as we basked in the sunshine this spot seemed as close to paradise as we were likely to find on this earth. Inevitably after the descent into Gunnerside Gill we were faced with a steep climb to continue our way east over the moors and occasional patches of rocky terrain towards the memorably named Surrender Bridge.
Along the way we passed more derelict lead mine buildings at Old Gang and stopped for lunch on the grass near the old smelting mill just above the bridge. From Surrender Bridge the path gradually drops off the moorland towards and through Healaugh before the final walk across the meadows to Reeth where we arrived before 3pm. It’s not a long day’s walking, but with one serious climb and a second shorter but equally steep ascent out of Gunnerside Gill we had earned our rewards.
Reeth is the market town of rural Swaledale, but it’s no more than a village with a population of just 700. However it does have three pubs, a smart hotel (The Burgoyne) and a number of shops and tea rooms, all congregated around the vast green which dominates the settlement and gives it a special identity. We enjoyed a drink on the lawn of the Burgoyne before checking into the King’s Arms and then walking the short distance to the excellent Bridge Inn at Grinton for dinner.
Reeth to Leyburn – 10 miles
Our final day walking in Herriot country saw us head out of Reeth at 9.15am to cross the Swale at Grinton and then gradually climb the steep hill past the famous Grinton Youth Hostel. This rest place for weary walkers sits like a castle high above Grinton and is protected from the elements by a stand of tall trees. Herriot actually fell in love with the Dales for the first time whilst driving from Leyburn to Grinton on Whipperdale Bank very near here. But our route today took us off the road and high up on to Grinton moor, past yet another old lead mine along the way. Lead mining was a huge industry in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale in the 1800s and the population in the area was much greater then, so it’s no surprise there are so many relics of that hard underground toil. I find them a useful reminder of our own transience and the reality that land use and employment changes with the ages.
On Grinton moor we reached the high ground and kept heading south as Wensleydale came back into view for the first time since we left the peak of Great Shunner two days previously. There is something uniquely satisfying and exciting about crossing from dale to dale on foot over the high ground. And it was no different on this occasion. Having passed through an old quarry we went over a small bank and were suddenly greeted with that sweeping vista of Wensleydale, with the river Ure meandering along for miles on end towards Hawes around the corner in the far distance. It was a fitting reminder of how far we had walked, and we were soon back in Preston under Scar and retracing our steps for the three remaining miles to Leyburn. It was a short last day, but that’s the best way, particularly on a sunny Bank Holiday in May.
Because most of this walk is within the Yorkshire Dales National Park the scenery and settlements have been extremely well protected since it was established in 1954, which was also the era that James Herriot wrote so evocatively about. As a result this walk through dramatic landscapes of rivers, waterfalls, drystone walls and mountains, and the quaintest of villages with ancient cosy pubs and stone farmhouses is packed full of comforting charm. If walking is your thing then there are few better ways to spend a long weekend.
The beautiful Herriot Way visits many locations that were used in the filming of the TV programme All Creatures Great & Small, based on a series of books written by veterinary surgeon Alf Wight under the pseudonym James Herriot in the 1970s. Find out more about the Herriot Way and other long distance routes in the National Park on our website.
Series 2 of All Creatures Great & Small starts on Channel 5 on Thursday 16 September.