Swaledale is the most epic of the Yorkshire Dales. If Wensleydale is a Mozart concerto, and Wharfedale a Sibelius symphony, Swaledale is a Richard Strauss opera. An intense elemental-forces tale of love, conflict, separation, nine-child families and sheep. And cream teas with squirty cream. Our Yorkshire Farm, you could call it, or perhaps Unsere wunderschön gelegene Bauernhof in den Yorkshire Dales, die keine mehr Schlagobers serviert. (Strauss had a thing about cream.)
Anyway, I was riding round Swaledale as fieldwork for this guidebook I’m updating, the Bradt Slow Travel Guide to the Yorkshire Dales. I got the train to Northallerton and cycled to Grinton, to stay a couple of nights in one of England’s most remarkable youth hostels, a former hunting lodge that looks like a grim, haunted mountainside castle from that Strauss opera. (It was very sociable and pleasant, thanks to some lovely fellow guests, by the way. Perhaps a bit too harmonious for Strauss.)
En route I went through Richmond, famous for its ruined castle and ruined market square: while it’s the ravages of time that degraded the castle, it’s the ravages of unfettered car parking for the square. Several cafes and the microbrewery in the old station have closed, but I found suitable replacements.
From there a splendid moortop road goes to Grinton. I’d not ridden it before, and there were lovely views up Swaledale. A welcome feature of this updating work is that it’s taken me to places I’ve not been to before. Bus shelters, for instance: it was tipping it down and I had to dodge the downpours now and then.
So, today I rode the Swale Trail. It’s ‘family friendly’, so long as your family members are all skilled technical mountain bikers and have a BTech in opening gates. Much of it is bumpy bridleway, some is narrow tarmac lane; and while the eastern half is pretty flat as it follows the river, the western half near Keld definitely isn’t.
But the scenery is all good, and it’s well worth the occasional mild jeopardy of the stony farm tracks, because you won’t get better views from a leisure cycle route in England.
Halfway along the Trail, I encountered a hunter (not a poacher: I think he was all legit). He had a rifle and a couple of freshly, humanely-dispatched rabbits hanging from a shoulder-pole. We exchanged cheery helloes and he offered me one of the rabbits ‘for the pot tonight’.
It was tempting – the hostel has a good kitchen and I happened to have brought spices, veg and sauce fodder with me – but I wondered about the practicalities of having a dead animal in my pannier all day, next to my research notes and clean clothes. So I politely declined.
Several Dales cafes have closed: victims of the lockdowns, business trends, utility bill hikes, retirement or a combination thereof. Reeth is especially badly hit: once boasting six cafes round the green, as of today, even adding up generously, there’s only about three-quarters.
But Keld, busting the trend, has a new and excellent place recently opened: Keld Green Cafe, at the top of the village. Full breakfasts, lunches, cakes, the lot. The 1930s-Dales-house-front-room vibe is particularly appealing, and it was nicely full of appreciative visitors when I dropped in. Hats off to Quinn and Sally, the live-in owners: I hope you get the success you deserve.
I headed back down the valley to Grinton, visiting everywhere visitable with notebook in hand, and eventually got back to Reeth for a pint and thence Grinton’s hostel for my rabbitless dinner.
Next morning I had an easy day, simply heading up Arkengarthdale to the Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest, where I had another assignment. The remote moortop pub – 500m up on a wild fell several miles from the nearest place to buy a pint of milk or loaf of bread – must be one of the few that has its own snowplough and caterpillar-track vehicle.
If NASA ever do establish a colony on Mars, they should get the Tan Hill Inn lot to run the catering and entertainments. Eighteen months’ journey from earth it may be, but even in the biome on Olympus Mons, they’d somehow manage to organise plush B&B accomm, cask ales and craft beers, splendid pub food and live music.