The Ribble Way: Everything you need to know
Although Lancastrians might like to claim it as their own, the River Ribble actually springs from limestone high on Cam Fell in the heart of Three Peaks country, in the Yorkshire Dales. Gathering water from the countless streams that spill from this sombre upland, the river quickly asserts its identity as it forces a passage between high, rugged moorland hills.
The idea for a long-distance footpath along the course of the River Ribble originated in the 1960s with the members of the Preston and Fylde group of the Ramblers’ Association. The original survey suggested a mainly riverbank route from the mouth of the Ribble, where it flows into the Irish Sea, to its source far above Gearstones. This plan immediately ran into difficulty, however, as more than half the proposed way relied on the use of private fishermen’s paths.
It was not until the 1980s that an alternative route adopting existing rights of way attracted official support. The first leg of the path, covering just over 40 miles (almost 65km) between Longton and Gisburn Bridge, was opened by Mike Harding, president of the Ramblers’ Association, and Derek Barber, chairman of the Countryside Commission, on 1 June 1985.
Several factors determined the start of the path. Industrial land and Preston Docks dictated that the path begin along the river’s southern bank; however, starting from Banks on the coast requires an early 5-mile inland detour via Tarleton to cross the Ribble’s lowest tributary, the River Douglas. So, in the end, the Dolphin Inn at Longton was chosen as the most westerly accessible start point beside the river. Dating from the early 19th century, when it was a lonely farm known as Lower Marsh Cottage and selling beer as a sideline.
But things did not stand still and almost as soon as the Ribble Way opened, it was extended east beyond Gisburn Bridge right to the source of the river, the route devised by the late Gladys Sellers, author of the first Cicerone guide to the Ribble Way.
The 72-mile (116km) route that has evolved does not always run beside the river, as was first envisaged. Nevertheless, it remains within the broad confines of the valley, and proponents of the original scheme might concede that an advantage of this occasionally elevated course is the expansive views it offers over the surrounding countryside.
Walking the Ribble Way
A one-week walk across Lancashire into Yorkshire from Preston to the source
Guidebook to walking the Ribble Way, a 72 mile route following the Ribble valley, from the estuary mouth near Preston to the river's source on Cam Fell in the Yorkshire Dales. The book contains OS map extracts and full route description split into 7 convenient stages, with suggestions for day walkers.More information
How long is the Ribble Way?
The Ribble Way is 72 miles (116km) long. It begins in Longton and concludes at Ribblehead. See the Stage Summary below for an accurate look at each stage.
How difficult is the Ribble Way?
No stretch of the Ribble Way is overly demanding, and most reasonably fit people should not experience undue difficulty in completing each section. However, if you are unused to walking any distance on a daily basis, it is sensible to undertake some preparatory training beforehand.
It runs through countryside for virtually its entire length, but the path is rarely far from ‘civilisation’, and only in its higher reaches does it pass through a wild landscape.
For the most part it is gently pastoral, although this does not mean that the challenge it offers should be underestimated. Countryside walking can be as physically demanding as hillwalking, particularly after heavy rain or during the summer at the climax of vegetation growth.
When should I walk the Ribble Way?
When to walk the Ribble Way is a matter of personal choice and preference.
Spring and Autumn are perhaps the best times of year to enjoy the colours of the landscape, while a good Summer can be idyllic.
Winters are generally mild, although the higher reaches of the walk are subject to the extremes of British hill weather.
Excessive rainfall can be a problem at any time of year. Very heavy downfalls or prolonged wet periods can significantly raise the level of the river to the extent that sections of the path can become flooded and impassable.
What to Pack
Substantial boots, waterproofs, appropriate clothing and a comfortable pack are necessities, and gaiters are indispensable on wet days. Shorts are rarely a good idea unless you have hardy legs, and in summer remember to take suncream and a hat.
Some route sections offer limited opportunities for refreshment during the day, so food and drink should be carried. It is also a good idea to have a small extra ‘emergency ration’ in case of an unexpected delay.
These are the main access points served by public transport:
- Longton – Bus
- Preston – Bus and rail
- Ribchester – Bus
- Hurst Green – Bus
- Clitheroe – Bus and rail
- Sawley – Bus
- Gisburn – Bus
- Rathmell – Bus
- Settle – Bus and rail
- Horton in Ribblesdale – Rail and infrequent bus
- Ribblehead – Rail and infrequent bus
Bed and breakfast, pub and hotel accommodation, as well as several convenient campsites and bunkhouses, are scattered along the route, enabling a range of possible itineraries. While some establishments, particularly at weekends, are reluctant to take bookings for a single night, staying an extra day here and there opens opportunities to explore the surrounding countryside and bag some of the splendid hills that stand beside the route.
For more detailed breakdowns of each stage, including routes, relevant maps, facilities and landmark information, buy the Walking the Ribble Way Guidebook by Dennis and Jan Kelsall.
Stage 1 - Longton to Penwortham Bridge
- Distance: 8¼ miles (13.3km)
- Total Ascent: 190ft (60m)
- Time: 3½ hrs
Beginning along the edge of the marsh overlooking the confluence of the River Ribble and the River Douglas, the walk later turns beside the Ribble to follow it in an almost dead-straight line towards Preston.
Stage 2 - Penwortham Bridge to Ribchester
- Distance: 12¼ miles (19.7km)
- Total Ascent: 720ft (220m)
- Time: 5¾ hrs
The route past Preston is a surprising haven of calm compared to the frenetic activity of the nearby city centre. It follows quiet streets and passes through pleasant parks along the banks of the river, and also heralds a change in the character of the Ribble valley, for it marks the point at which the river breaks free from the surrounding hills.
Stage 3 - Ribchester to Brungerley Bridge
- Distance: 12½ miles (20.1km)
- Total Ascent: 900ft (275m)
- Time: 6 hrs
For the next few miles the Ribble Way follows the river more closely, winding with it through a succession of lazy bends amid attractive countryside. Further on, having climbed away from the river above a bend, you might return briefly along the opposite bank to look at the Sale Wheel, a noted local beauty spot.
Stage 4 - Brungerley Bridge to Gisburn Bridge
- Distance: 9½ miles (15.3km)
- Total Ascent: 760ft (230m)
- Time: 4½ hrs
For the first part of this leg the Ribble Way follows the river quite closely, often shadowed by a similar path on the opposite bank, and even the extensive quarry workings north of Clitheroe have little impact on the beauty of this stretch of water.
Stage 5 - Gisburn Bridge to Settle
- Distance: 12½ miles (20.1km)
- Total Ascent: 740ft (225m)
- Time: 5¾ hrs
The route follows a pleasant path through Gisburne Park, avoiding the busy A682 along a path in the bordering field. Beyond Paythorne the nature of the countryside changes once more as the slopes enclosing the valley move back, leaving the river to pick its own course across the base of a broad, flat vale. At last, on Paythorne Moor, you enter Yorkshire.
Stage 6 - Settle to Horton in Ribblesdale
- Distance: 7¾ miles (12.5km)
- Total Ascent: 890ft (270m)
- Time: 4 hrs
Settle lies at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, one of the country’s most popular walking areas. The hills, up until now seen only from afar, quickly close around the valley and usher you into true Dales country. Below the town the broad, flat-bottomed vale of the Ribble rapidly dwindles to a relatively narrow gap, yet for a time at least the valley retains its gentle pastoral charm, a patchwork of lush woodland and bright-green riverside fields.
Stage 7 - Horton in Ribblesdale to the source and back to Ribblehead
- Distance: 17 miles (27.4km) *
- Total Ascent: 2020ft (615m)
- Time: 8¾ hrs **
* including 6¼ miles (10.1km) back to Ribblehead
** including 3¼ hours back to Ribblehead
At the head of Ribblesdale is a vast moorland wilderness, distantly bounded by Whernside, Crag of Blea Moor and Cam Fell. Here the river changes both course and identity, abruptly turning onto the moor and successively assuming the names Thorn Gill, Gayle Beck, Long Gill and ultimately Jam Sike in tracing its course to the source.
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