Hidden Gem – Nidderdale, a Yorkshire Dale often overlooked

Nidderdale – not necessarily the first name you would think of when visiting the Yorkshire Dales, and yet it is no less worthy than its better-known neighbours of Wharfedale and Wensleydale. Hanging off the far south eastern end of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the river Nidd begins as Nidd Head Spring on the slopes of Great Whernside and flows east, and then south through Pateley Bridge and Knaresborough near Harrogate before joining the great River Ouse at Beningbrough.

Inspired by a television programme recently, we decided to devise a three-day bike ride around the southern Yorkshire Dales, and particularly wanted to explore upper Nidderdale, which had been featured in the programme. The Yorkshire Dales are well known as one of the best, and possibly more challenging regions for cyclists – a labyrinth of small and relatively quiet country roads provide legendary steep up-hill climbs and glorious downhills, while for the walker, the delights of the region offer year-round pleasure; spring flowers and lambing time merge into gentle warm summer days, glorious heather-clad moorlands and cold crisp winters.

From our home just outside Kendal we are very familiar with the western dales of Barbondale and Dentdale. Our route then took us up to the head of Dentdale, then down to the Ribble Viaduct where we turned south east away from familiar territory and on to Horton in Ribblesdale, Stainforth, Malham, Arncliffe and overnight in Kettlewell. The following day took us from Grassington to Pateley Bridge via the unassumingly named Greenhow Hill, with a steep descent into Pateley Bridge.

Pateley Bridge is a good centre for walkers. It’s easily accessible from Leeds, Bradford, Skipton and Harrogate and is possibly best known as the gateway town for upper Nidderdale, and for its proximity to Brimham Rocks – a dramatic landscape of sculpted cliffs and outcrops of bare Gritstone forming amazing shapes, considered to be among the most notable of their kind in the country.

Dennis Kelsall describes how the Brimham Rocks were formed:

The bedrock at Brimham was deposited some 320 million years ago, when the area lay in the delta of a great river that washed gritty sands from mountain regions far to the north. Rippling currents and slight differences in the sediments created cross-bedded planes of varying hardness, which, since laid bare by the last succession of ice ages, have been sculpted by the delicate erosion of wind-blown sand and winter freeze-thaw into fantastic shapes that defy the imagination and, in some cases, gravity too. Wander amongst the rocks and you will see their grotesque and surreal forms resolve into creatures, seemingly frozen into the landscape. It is little wonder that in the past they were imbued with supernatural forces and the place believed to be a Druid temple.

We now joined the River Nidd and headed north west into Upper Nidderdale. The valley floor is relatively flat, dotted with isolated villages, with farmland rising into the steep hillsides where sheep graze on open moorland. Dominating the lower section of the valley is the Gouthwaite Reservoir. Constructed between 1893 and 1901, its waters and shore provide a notable haven for birdlife and wildlife, and it’s designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

For us on the day in question it seemed to be the day that Yorkshire’s entire population of mosquitos had hatched, as we cycled through thick clouds of the little darlings, so dense that it felt as if you were in a severe hailstorm!

Arriving at the hillside village of Lofthouse you sense that you are now in a remote upper valley. Above are two further reservoirs, but the lanes are narrow, and all is quiet save for occasional cyclists and walkers on the Nidderdale Way, many of whom visit How Stean gorge, a small tight gorge cutting its way through the limestone with caves, paths and foot Bridges. There is also a cafe, camp site and an outdoor activity centre that caters for all ages.

The 53 mile Nidderdale Way starts and finishes in Pateley Bridge, and explores the dale on both sides of the river, visiting as far south as the village of Ripley with its castle, and north to Scar House Reservoir. The route is mostly low level, although some sections follow gritstone edges and venture above the valley for fine views. Much of the upper section above Lofthouse is covered in a walk described in Dennis and Jan Kelsall’s guidebook to Walking in the Yorkshire Dales: North and East.

For cyclists, the main challenges in the southern and eastern dales are Trapping Hill, otherwise for ever known as the ‘Cote de Lofthouse’ – so named after this climb was used in the Yorkshire Dales stage 1 of the Tour de France in 2014, and Park Rash which climbs 230m north out from Kettlewell. Both are extremely steep and frequently feature in the annual Tour de Yorkshire cycling event.

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