Why Yorkshire is the leading county for long distance walking

On the Pennine Way near Malham

On the Pennine Way near Malham - Credit: Alamy

Terry Fletcher explores some of the many long distance walking routes that criss-cross the county

A seasonal walk in Wensleydale puts a spring in your step

A seasonal walk in Wensleydale puts a spring in your step - Credit: shutterstock

When 2,000 ramblers and their supporters gathered on Malham Moor in the Yorkshire Dales on a chilly April morning in 1965 to mark the opening of the 270-mile-long (435km) Pennine Way few of them could have imagined what they were starting. It had taken 30 years of hard campaigning since a young journalist, Tom Stephenson, had first proposed ‘a long green trail’ along the spine of the Pennines from Derbyshire to Scotland to make it a reality. Yet just four brief years later Yorkshire had a second national trail, the Cleveland Way that traces a 106 mile (171km) horseshoe around the North York Moors from Helmsley to Filey.

Today the county plays host to a third of England’s national trails with the addition of the 79-mile (127km) Wolds Way in 1982 and more recently the Pennine Bridleway, meaning four out of a dozen are either partly or wholly within the county.

Yet even this is only the pinnacle of a growing network. Yorkshire also claims the lion’s share of the country’s most popular long-distance route, Alfred Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, which stretches 178 miles (286km) from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay. Despite its popularity it has never been officially adopted as a national trail. Nor has the lovely Dales Way from Ilkley to the Lake District, much to the annoyance of its many supporters who would like to see the government putting up the money to maintain it.

Now not a year passes without new trails being created and few, if any, counties can rival Yorkshire for the sheer number and variety of routes. Vet-turned-author James Herriot has one named after him in North Yorkshire, as does the Victorian ‘Railway King’ George Hudson on the Wolds, while the formidable Tudor landowner, Lady Anne Clifford, is remembered in the Highway, that links her various castles. Others may prefer to link pubs following writer Mark Reid’s Inn Ways, described as some of England’s most picturesque pub crawls, or the Minster Way, Ebor Way or Centenary Way not to mention umpteen Millennium Ways.

Rivers like the Nidd, the Ribble and the Esk have their own walks as do several local authorities with paths like the Calderdale Way and the Kirklees Way. Various towns and cities, including Leeds and Sheffield, have devised circuits of their boundaries, though these tend to be walked in day stages rather than as multi-day expeditions.

The Pennine Bridleway

The Pennine Bridleway - Credit: Joan Russell

Simon Leck, a director of the Long Distance Walkers Association and a former chairman of its North Yorkshire branch says: ‘We are very lucky in North Yorkshire that we have two national parks, the Moors and Dales, which means there are plenty of rights of way that can be linked together to create longer routes.

‘There’s something very special about doing a long distance walk like the Coast to Coast or the Pennine Way. You can get away from reality for a week or more. You are completely focussed on the walk and that’s all you need to think about. You reach your day’s destination, go to bed then wake up in the morning and all you need to do is to get to the next place. Life becomes very simple.’

It’s a view echoed by Saltaire-based walk creator and guide book publisher Chris Grogan, who devised the Dales High Way, which although not a national trail is now officially signed all the way from Saltaire to Appleby in Cumbria. She says: ‘You’re not walking round in a circle like most day walks. You’re on a journey, setting off from one place and getting to another. It is not just the satisfaction of the achievement you get from thinking “I did that 80 or 180 miles” but a whole different mental attitude.

‘On a day walk you might be thinking about having to make the tea when you get home or do your emails but on a long distance walk you forget about home. You just slow down and feel yourself travelling through the landscape. It’s the most relaxing feeling even when it’s difficult and challenging and tiring. Even if it’s on ground you know it’s a completely different experience to a day walk. That’s why people keep doing them and go looking for more.’

It’s also a very different and more lucrative experience for communities along the route. Instead of hikers turning up, doing a walk and then perhaps buying a cuppa or a pint before driving home, long distance walkers need accommodation and food and some pay to have their bags transported from stop to stop. Between them they pump millions of pounds into rural economies struggling with rapid changes to agriculture. ‘Walking a long distance path is not necessarily a cheap holiday,’ says Chris.

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But with so many walks already available in Yorkshire can there really room for any more? Simon Leck is convinced there is plenty of scope. ‘The sky’s the limit and there’s a real appetite for these routes, both to walk them and to create them,’ he says.

‘Computer technology and changes in publishing mean that enthusiasts can create a route and then produce a guide quite easily. We have something like 1,500 walks on our national data base and more are being created all the time though others do fade away. I’m sure there are plenty more to come.’ w

To find a route near you, a group to walk with or more information on long walks in Yorkshire and around the country, go to the Long Distance Walkers Association website, ldwa.org.uk.