For Americans who fell in love with the England of buttered scones and Agatha Christie, a visit today can be jarring. London has become a city of vaping millennials and unfortunate skyscrapers, while even provincial capitals such as York have embraced Colonel Sanders and BabyGap.
It’s a better place, on balance, than when my wife and I lived there 35 years ago — more vibrant and open-minded. Yet even so, one sometimes yearns for the postcard version, the England of tea and tweeds.
And so we found ourselves one foggy night in the North Yorkshire village of Kettlewell, sipping a pint of Tetley’s at the King’s Head pub and drying our boots before a Tudor fireplace as wide as a two-car garage.
We had come to the Yorkshire Dales for a quintessential English holiday — walking — in a quintessentially English locale. North Yorkshire is a place of breathtaking beauty, a landscape of deep, winding river valleys and high rolling fells — the green hillsides so steep that even horses step carefully, the crests so high that their rounded tops disappear into wisps of fog. It’s the most beautiful place in England, for my money, and one of the prettiest spots on Earth.
It’s also a place of great continuity, where sheep have grazed the same meadows for 300 years and an inn can stay in the same family for four generations.
If the American West is the landscape of opportunity — the unknown around every corner — then Yorkshire is the landscape of history, a place that wraps you in tradition and enfolds you in comforting familiarity.
Because we wanted to see several towns in just a few days, we chose a “sherpa” travel service. They give you a walking itinerary, book your accommodations and then ferry your luggage from one inn to the next while you are out testing yourself against nature. Our package called for three days of hiking, about 11 miles a day, along the beautiful valley known as Wharfedale. (The word “dale” is derived from Old English and Norse words for “valley.’’)
Fortified by breakfast
Thus on Day 2, fortified by an English breakfast of poached eggs, broiled tomato, bacon, beans, smoked salmon, black pudding, tea, coffee, sausages and toast with marmalade, we set out from Kettlewell to ascend Yew Cogar Scar, a high, wooded fell that rises just east of town. Mist shrouded the valley as we set out, lending the woods a hint of mystery and coating every mossy rock with a dripping wet that put us in mind of woodland fairies and Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins.
About halfway up the hillside we stopped in a tiny bower to catch our breath. We took swigs from the water bottle and tightened our bootlaces, both of us silently thinking: “Nine more hours of this?”
But the summit rewarded our exertions. The fog had cleared so that, looking west, we could see clear across the valley of the River Wharfe to the vast hillside on the far side, its green meadows quilted by gray stone walls and dotted with white sheep. Turning east, we could see our path zigzagging down a long hillside of rusty bracken and descending into Littondale, a valley of stone-built villages and Norman churches.
After an easy descent, we made our way into Arncliffe (from the Norse for Eagle’s Cliff), a tiny village straight out of Emily Bronte. Though it consists of little more than a modest green, a church and a clutch of fieldstone houses, it is home to a well known 18th-century pub, the Falcon. At tiny tables around a coal fire, we refueled with a Ploughman’s Lunch and cauliflower soup while the barman and his aunt debated Brexit.
By midafternoon we had gained the summit of a second fell, this one more windswept and lonely. Although Yorkshire’s valley bottoms are green and friendly, the fell tops can be desolate — places where you have only the sheep for company, and sometimes even they desert you. After a three-hour hike along the ridgeline we arrived at the head of a dramatic, boulder-strewn ravine that descended steeply to the lip to Malham Cove, a spectacular limestone gorge that climbs 260 feet from the valley floor.
From there, a footpath led into the village of Malham and our accommodation for the night, Beck Hall, an elegant 18th-century stone cottage with king-size bathtubs and a sign that read: “Dogs and muddy boots welcome.”
Unsure, despite the maps
One test of a good vacation is the question: Would we do it again? If that means heading back to Yorkshire for more hiking, we would do it in a minute. If that means using a sherpa service, the answer is not so clear.
On balance we were happy with the company we chose, Contours Walking Holidays. The itinerary was well designed, including some of the Dales’ most picturesque sights, and the accommodations, except for one rather drab B&B, were beautiful and comfortable.
If we had a nagging complaint, it was with the daily sheet of hiking instructions. Each day’s packet came with a page or two of detailed directions (“There is a clear path to follow marked by obvious stiles, toward the left-hand side of the limestone outcrop on the horizon’’). Except that the grassy paths weren’t always clear, the stiles weren’t always obvious, and distant landmarks could be decidedly ambiguous.
More than once we found ourselves at the edge of a meadow, utterly flummoxed about how to cross it and quite unsure whether our destination was just around the corner or another four hours away. After the first day, my wife downloaded an Ordinance Survey app onto her iPhone, which proved invaluable at moments of doubt.
Then, too, budget-minded travelers should consider the cost. We paid about $900 for a package that included four nights’ accommodation, with breakfasts so hearty they doubled for lunch, as well as a packet of maps, a useful introduction to hiking in the Dales and the luggage transfers.
It’s true that hiring an expert can bring peace of mind. On the other hand, if you have some familiarity with Yorkshire, you could save money by booking your own accommodations, mapping your own walks and using one town as a base for day hikes.
Tiny Malham (population 238) is a popular hiking destination because of nearby scenic features such as Malham Cove and Gordale Scar. It lies at the confluence of several excellent footpaths and has several inns as well as a working smithy where the blacksmith gives demonstrations and sells her wares. Nearby Grassington, the metropolis of the region with a population of 1,100, has hotels, provisioners, hiking outfitters, gift shops and innumerable teashops lining a pretty village green.
One afternoon outside Grassington, hopelessly lost near a beautiful limestone ravine called Conistone Dib, we encountered an English couple who were happy to give us directions. We fell in with them on the trail for a couple of miles and they explained that they had been coming to Yorkshire every year for more than a decade. My first thought: Every year? Wouldn’t it get boring?
By the time our third day’s hike was finished and we were packing for home, that skepticism had been swept aside by a deep infatuation with the Dales. Would I do it again? I’d go back tomorrow.