The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)
43. HERRIOT WAY
North Yorkshire, England
Distance: 88 km
Time: 4-5 days
James Alfred ‘Alf’ Wight (Herriot was a pen name) was born in Sunderland in County Durham in 1916 and grew up in Glasgow where he attended Glasgow Veterinary College, graduating as a veterinary surgeon in 1939 at the age of 23. The following year he took a veterinary position in the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, a traditional market town and now gateway to the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Alf Wight would remain in the Yorkshire Dales and the heather-clad moorlands of the North York Moors for the rest of his life. He achieved world-wide fame as an author in 1972 with the publication of his best-selling book All Creatures Great and Small which, along with his numerous other titles, tapped into the public’s seemingly insatiable desire to read about his lifetime of animal-related incidents and anecdotes.
The Herriot Way passes through Wensleydale on the east side of the Pennines, famous for its cheese and - for fans of Richard III - Middleham Castle, the childhood home of the hunchback king; and through the green meadows, drystone walls and glacier-cut slopes of Swaledale - a land of wild flowers, waterfalls, and the dark brooding moors of fiction. These are the dales that form the backdrop to Herriot’s simple tales, what he called ‘my little cat-and-dog stories’, through which you pass on a walk that is itself something of a rarity - a multi-day hike that is also circular. Beginning at its considered starting point in Aysgarth (although Grinton or Hawes also make acceptable starting points) it can be walked anti-clockwise, which will take you out across open moorlands towards Apedale, or clockwise, following the River Ure past rolling meadows, paralleling an old rail line and arriving in Askrigg.
Presuming you choose the anti-clockwise option there are four stages to your journey: Aysgarth to Hawes (21 km), Hawes to Keld (21 km), Keld to Grinton (23 km), and Grinton to Aysgarth Falls (20 km). From Aysgarth you follow the River Ure past the Aysgarth Falls and through farmland to the 14th-century Bolton Castle, a wonderful example of a quadrangular castle which was a temporary home/refuge to Mary, Queen of Scots after she fled Scotland in the aftermath of the Battle of Langside. A steep climb over open moorland then takes you to Apedale and Apedale Head, a rather desolate former mining area. A track over expanses of heather skirts Grinton Hill before descending into the town of Grinton, known locally as the ‘Cathedral of the Dales’ because its St Andrew’s Church, largely a 15th-century rebuild over earlier 12th- and 14th-century remains, was the only church serving all of upper Swaledale for hundreds of years. (Note for Herriot fans: this is the church that was featured in the All Creatures Great and Small episode ‘Brotherly Love’).
Leaving Grinton you pass through the pastures of the Swale to the market town of Reeth, home to another well-known author: Ruby Ferguson, whose romantic writings were so beloved by the Queen Mother that she was invited to dinner at Buckingham Palace. Once through Heelaugh you’re into some of the finest heather moorlands in England before dropping down into the town of Keld, at the crossroads of two of England’s most-travelled long distance trails - the Coast to Coast, and the Pennine Way. Here you follow the Pennine Way to the picturesque and unspoilt village of Thwaite, before girding yourself for the climb up Great Shunner Fell, the Yorkshire Dales’ third-highest mountain (716 m) with the Pennine Way passing right over its summit on a flagstone path.
From here it’s a straightforward descent into Hawes, Yorkshire’s highest trading town, first recorded as a marketplace in 1307 and home to the Wensleydale Creamery of Wensleydale cheese fame; the method for making this was first brought here by French Cistercian monks in 1150 and was continued by local farmers after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. While in Hawes also be sure not to miss Gayle Mill, a restored 19th-century sawmill with Victorian machinery still driven by water-powered turbines. Back on the Pennine Way you make your way to Hardraw (old English for ‘Shepherd’s dwelling’) and the Hardraw Force waterfall, at 33 m England’s largest single-drop waterfall, within the grounds of the 13th-century Green Dragon Inn and its public bar that, it is claimed, dates to the 14th century.
Hay meadows, farmland, and quiet laneways then lead you into Askrigg, the ‘Darrowby’ of the television series, before following the banks of the River Ure through the Wensleydale Valley and to a final, short ascent back to Aysgarth. And the circle is complete.
For lovers of the All Creatures Great and Small television series there are of course the countless urban sites that, despite being otherwise a tad nondescript, will leave you suitably breathless and likely add hours to any Herriot Way circumnavigation: places like Finghall Railway Station (aka Darrowby Station), the Church of St Mary and St John in Hardraw (the Darrowby church), the Kings Arms Hotel in Askrigg (The Drovers’ Arms), Cringley House, now renamed Skeldale House B&B, also in Askrigg (the building was used as the exterior for the veterinary practice), the village green in Redmire (the Darrowby bus stop), and the road between Feetham and Langthwaite Bridge, seen in the series’ opening title sequence. And of course you’ll want to visit the marvellous World of James Herriot Museum located in his former surgery at 23 Kirkgate in Thirsk, the real Skeldale House.
The Herriot Way can be walked in winter, too, depending upon how much snow falls on its higher elevations. The route between Aysgarth and Hawes is low enough and rarely is snow an impediment there, but the trail over the gently sloping Great Shunner Fell could slow one’s progress. Most winters, however, all you’re likely to get is just wet.
As a memoir of these four lovely days you might consider purchasing a copy of his book James Herriot’s Yorkshire (1979), a sumptuous and very personal pictorial tour through the dales so beloved of the author that is beautifully photographed by Derry Brabbs, one of England’s finest photographers.