Long before there was Yorkshire, there was ice. For millennia, thick, endless sheets of it covered the area – now the Pennines – while active glacial tongues scoured away ancient river courses, remodelling the geomorphology of the land surface.
Wensleydale was at the heart of this chaos and today’s River Ure flows in an over-deepened, over-widened vale. Its myriad higher tributaries cut down through the geology to achieve parity with the main valley, redefined as the last glacier melted some 12,000 years ago.
The happy result is an abundance of falls, chutes and cataracts that together make Upper Wensleydale the epitome of Yorkshire’s beguiling waterfall country. And at its heart is delightful Hawes, a miniature town, major market centre and locus for countless rambles to magical falls amid the cocooning hills. The town is garlanded by precipitous scars, side valleys and wooded micro-dales, each one enlivened by the throaty voice of tumbling waters. Liquid tendrils writhe and plunge from the high moors and fells to boost the Ure’s flow as it surges over its own exquisite sets of falls, clustering at Aysgarth and Redmire further downstream.
To best appreciate the setting, variety and beauty of Wensleydale’s falls, the opportunity offered by Hawes is unsurpassed. Generally gentle, undemanding walks thread along paths, tracks and lanes from the town to reach widely differing foaming cascades. This satisfying, easy-going route is a ramble of two halves, encountering powerful secluded falls, village-centre cataracts and England’s highest single-drop spout, with Hawes’s pubs, tearooms and cafés a blissful halfway pivot.
Hawes, Aysgill Force and Hardraw Force walk
7 miles/11.3km | 5 hours |moderate
1. Bold beck
From the broad, bustling main street, find the pleasant Victorian Gothic church of St Margaret’s on its mound.
At the rear of the churchyard, join the Pennine Way and amble up across pasture to skirt the substantial buildings of Wensleydale Creamery, home to Wallace and Gromit’s favoured delicacy, Wensleydale cheese. Save a visit for later in the day and turn up the road into the centre of nearby
From the bridge in the heart of this picturesque settlement you will see the first falls of the walk, a rake of natural limestone steps over which Gayle Beck rumbles and tumbles.
Immediately downstream is the eye-catching Gayle Mill, a sturdy Georgian cotton mill built around 1784, powered by water diverted along the leat from below the bridge. It is currently undergoing structural renovation.
2. Dales and fells
Take the narrow footpath heading upstream from the bridge (beck left, cottages right) and join the gently rising Gaits lane beyond. Just past the last cottage on the left, seek the path to the left, joining a well-worn field track towards the narrow, wooded dale cut by Gayle Beck. Views ahead are already striking, up secluded Sleddale to the great arc of moors and tops of Wether and Dodd Fells. Follow the beck-side path upstream; in places it is a ledge along the steep valleyside, so tread carefully.
This part of the Dales is renowned for red squirrels. While these arboreal rodents are more reliably seen in Widdale, sightings here in Sleddale’s sparser woods are also possible, so eyes peeled.
3. Sound before sight
You can hear the power of Aysgill Force before you see the majestic curtain of water splaying nearly 15m down into the tree-shrouded plunge pool below. Take time to appreciate the string of lesser falls just above, then continue upstream.
Advance past footbridges and a barn to reach a field track. Turn right along this, veering right beyond a gateway to join a gently undulating route along the flank of Sleddale. Views now stretch north across Wensleydale to the magnificent line of limestone crags and scarps that fringe Stags Fell and Abbotside Common. Pass by two farms and then, just around a sharp-left bend, join the Pennine Way to your right. Now, accompany this well-marked National Trail back via Gayle to Hawes.
This engaging little town has a wealth of places to eat and drink, from the Wensleydale Creamery café to teashops and grand Yorkshire pubs. There is a bustling street market every Tuesday. At the eastern end of the centre (walk against the one-way system) is a lively, stepped waterfall immediately above a bridge.
4. The way to the weir
Where the one-way system rejoins east of the bridge, look for the road signed for a business park/industrial estate. Walk this (also the Pennine Way) over the old railway to find the business park road on the left. Locate the Pennine Way handgate and walk the field path to rejoin the road at a bend. Keep ahead, cross the bridge over the River Ure and continue for 200m to a gate (left), marked for Hardraw.
The field path soon squeezes between the river and trees, then joins with the higher Pennine Way at a gate. Head left here – the well-defined path rises gently, with superb views towards Widdale and Great Shunner Fells – to reach the single street in Hardraw hamlet beside an old bridge over Hardraw Beck, above which are a series of fish weirs.
5. Art and literature
Opposite is the medieval, stone-floored, heavily beamed Green Dragon Inn. And behind this is the entrance to the deep and narrow gorge (entry fee payable) that slinks up to the foot of Hardraw Force waterfall. Featured in a dramatic painting by JMW Turner and lauded by Wordsworth, this slender curtain is the longest single-drop falls in England, at about 33m (100ft). Sometimes gossamer-like, other times a thundering force of nature, the precipitous, wooded limestone cove here featured in the 1991 blockbuster film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when Robin (Kevin Costner) takes an au naturel shower amid the towering cascade.
A footpath passes behind the falls, offering a memorable view down the tight dale; an extraordinary perspective after heavy rains.
6. Pennine return
Rejoin the Pennine Way and follow it back the 1.5 miles to Hawes, indulging in some fine views to shapely Yorburgh and Wether Fell.