Airedale and Ribblesdale

Skipton canal
The Leeds and Liverpool canal at Skipton. Skipton is situated in the valley of the River Aire which flows to the south of the town © David Simpson


In the eastern sections of its journey, the River Aire flows through the industrial towns of Keighley, Bingley, Leeds, and Castleford but the western regions of its course are characterised by the quite different natural scenery of upper Airedale.

The Aire rises in secluded surroundings about twenty five miles north west of Bradford at Malham Tarn. Here the Pennine hills isolate Airedale from Littondale and Ribblesdale which lie respectively to the east and west. This part of Airedale is a relatively quiet dale, popular with walkers who wish for something off the beaten track.

There are impressive geological features worthy of exploring in the neighbourhood including Malham Tarn from which the Aire flows underground as far as the great natural theatre of Malham Cove. The nearby escarpment of Gordale Scar is also worth inspection.

Malham Tarn is the highest natural lake in the Pennines and is an interesting spot to study nature. Tarn House, a former shooting lodge that overlooks the lake is now utilised by the Field Studies Council. In times past it was the home of Walter Morrison whose visitors here included Charles Darwin and Charles Kingsley who was inspired to write the Water Babies during his visit.

Villages passed by the course of the Aire include Malham, Hanlith, Kirkby Malham, Airton , Coniston Cold and Gargrave before it reaches the town of Skipton. The term cold in Coniston Cold was given to distinguish the village from a place called Conistone in Wharfedale which was presumably a warmer place to live.

Gargrave means Gara’s grove – the grove belonging to Gara and here we find the most northerly stretches of The Leeds and Liverpool canal that link the famous Yorkshire Town with the Merseyside port. From Gargrave the canal heads south east to Skipton en route to Leeds or south west to Barnoldswick from where it continues through the Lancashire towns of Colne, Nelson and Burnley en route to Liverpool.

The town of Barnoldswick which is thought to date back to Viking times is in Lancashire today but was historically a part of the West Riding of Yorkshire. It is known as Barlick in the local dialect.

Skipton © David Simpson

Skipton in Craven

Skipton is the main town of a district of Yorkshire called Craven. In early Anglo-Saxon times Craven was a kingdom inhabited by the Ancient Britons. Its name derives from the Welsh Craf meaning ‘garlic’ and wild garlic still grows hereabouts.

Skipton is located within a Pennine pass called the Aire Gap and the A59 road passes through the town linking Yorkshire to Lancashire, but also linking the Yorkshire valleys of Wharfedale, Airedale and Ribblesdale. The name Skipton is Anglo-Viking and means sheep farm, and although it has been a town for centuries it is still an important centre for a wide agricultural district.

Skipton is a bustling Yorkshire Dales market town centred upon a busy but attractive High Street. It has lots of interesting stone houses, a beautiful Victorian ironwork shopping arcade and old inns including the Red Lion that dates back perhaps as early as the fourteenth century.

Skipton © David Simpson

John Wesley, who preached at Skipton in 1747 described the town as ‘all pent up’ between the hills but the town became more accessible after the completion of the Skipton to Bingley section of the Leeds-Liverpool canal in 1773. It was the first section of the canal to be built and could be navigated with relative ease as there were no locks in this particular section. The complete course of the Leeds-Liverpool canal would not be completed until 1816.

Skipton and canal
Skipton and its canal © David Simpson

Skipton’s most prominent features are its part-medieval church of Holy Trinity and of course Skipton Castle. Both are situated at the northern end of the High Street. The castle dates from Norman times when it was built by Robert De Romille some time after 1090 in order to defend against marauding Scots.

Skipton Castle
Skipton Castle © David Simpson

The powerful Clifford family, who originated from Clifford in Herefordshire were granted land at Skipton in 1310 by King Edward II and were appointed Guardians of Craven. It was this family that almost completely rebuilt the castle in the fourteenth century and it remained their principal seat up until the seventeenth century. Today Skipton Castle, with its impressive rounded towers is one of the most complete castles in England and will be enjoyed by adults and children alike. Skipton’s parish church of Holy Trinity is situated close to the castle and overlooks the town’s High Street to the south. It dates from about 1300.

Skipton Holy Trinity church
Skipton Holy Trinity church © David Simpson

Keighley and East Riddlesden

Keighley is the largest town between Skipton and the Leeds/Bradford area and is situated just south of the River Aire close to the point where it is joined by the River Worth that rises in the Pennines near Haworth to the south.

Keighley is home to one a station on the Keighley and Worth Valley Steam Railway and is a place of mainly of nineteenth century origin. It dates back to Anglo-Saxon times when it was the clearing of someone called Cyhha. Strangely and rather confusingly for the uninitiated, Keighley is pronounced Keithly. The town has held a market since 1305 when one Henry de Kighley, a Lancashire knight was granted a charter by King Edward I.

Just across the River Aire at Riddlesden to the north of Keighley is a notable seventeenth century property called East Riddlesden Hall which is now in the hands of the National Trust.

The hall was built in the 1640s by the Murgatroyd family whose business interests included milling and weaving. Later in that century the house passed to the Starkie family. There were some alterations in the late 1600s but little has changed since that time

Haworth: Brontë Country

The picturesque little town of Haworth lies in the Worth Valley just to the south of Keighley and is one of Yorkshire’s most popular tourist destinations due to its literary associations with the Brontë sisters. When the Rector Patrick Brontë came to settle at Haworth in 1820 he came with his five young daughters and a son. Two of the children Maria and Elizabeth died in childhood but the remaining children would achieve enduring fame.

Haworth is a haven for tourists on the Brontë trail © David Simpson


Charlotte (1816-55), Emily (1818-48) and Anne (1820-49) along with their brother Branwell (1817-48) shared lives that visitors come from far and wide to remember at Haworth. Their novels were set in the district and included Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, Charlotte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ and Anne’s ‘Agnes Grey’. The Brontës lived at Haworth Parsonage until 1861 and their home is now one of the most popular museums in the country with its rooms furnished in the style of the period.

Haworth itself is a charming little town full of tea rooms and souvenir shops and houses of dark greyish brown which can give the place a slightly sombre appearance on greyer days. Historically it was a weaving town but today tourism is the big industry. Haworth is centred upon a steep cobbled street and the Brontë Parsonage Museum can be reached at the top of the climb.

The moors beyond the parsonage provided inspiration for the Brontë’s literary talents. Here in a little valley and a waterfall that the young Brontës used to enjoy and which now commemorates their name. Here also is a huge stone called the Brontë Chair and a farmhouse called Withens which is said to have provided inspiration for Wuthering Heights.


The upper reaches of the River Ribble which form Ribblesdale are in Yorkshire but the river itself enters the sea near Preston in Lancashire where it forms the southern boundary of Blackpool’s Fylde peninsula. It is the only one of the Yorkshire Dales destined for the Irish Sea. All Yorkshire rivers except for the Tees and the Esk (although they too are east bound) are ultimately destined to join the River Humber and enter the North Sea. The Ribble has different ideas and heads west turning its back on Yorkshire for a journey through the land of the Red Rose.

Upper Ribblesdale has very different scenery to the Ribble valley in Lancashire. The river begins its journey in the wide boggy spaces that lie between the high Yorkshire peaks of Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent which are three of Yorkshire’s highest fells. The area can be reached from Ingleton near the Cumbria border in the west, from Settle in the south or by a back road from Hawes in Wensleydale to the north. This is one of the more remote parts of Yorkshire and also one of the most westerly. It is situated much closer to the Cumbria and Lancashire coast than it is to the coast of Yorkshire.

Ribblehead Viaduct
Ribblehead Viaduct and Whernside © David Simpson

Despite the bleak remoteness of the area, man has found his way through. A Roman Road passes this way as indeed does a railway in a rather spectacular manner. Here we speak of the impressive Ribblehead Viaduct. Also once known as Batty Moss viaduct, it was built between 1870 and 1874 to transport the Settle to Carlisle Railway through the difficult boggy terrain hereabouts.

It has 24 arches, is 104 feet high, 440 yards long and was built by a huge army of navvies (navigators). Many of these workers lost their lives during its construction as a result of accidents, disease or even fights and memorials to their lives can be found along the length of the line.

Ingleborough from Ribblehead
Ingleborough (on the right) pictured from Ribblehead © David Simpson

Geological features including numerous pot holes and caves are abundant around the Ingleborough area particularly to the west towards the village of Clapham. These include the Ingleborough Show Cave which is linked to the Gaping Ghyll Cave system. This famous ‘show cave’ is situated on the slopes of Ingleborough, one of Yorkshire’s highest fells.

Ingleborough fell has an impressive table-top summit and there on the top are the remnants of a walled hill fort known to the later Anglo-Saxons as a burgh (hence ‘borough’). The fort dates back to the Iron Age of ‘Celtic’ times though the element ‘Ingle’ strangely suggests some kind of English influence. The fell is commemorated in an old Yorkshire saying:

Ingleborough, Pendle Hill and Pen-y-ghent
are highest hills between Scotland and the Trent.

Pen-y-ghent pictured from Ribblehead © David Simpson

Sadly, this delightful little saying isn’t even close to the truth in its claim and really owes more to the distinct shape and familiarity of these three peaks rather than their height. The highest hill in the Pennines is in fact Cross Fell (2,930 feet) in the North Pennines of Cumbria where the South Tyne and River Tees rise.

Furthermore, the highest hill in the historic county of Yorkshire is Mickle Fell in Teesdale (2,585 feet) which is followed in the Pennines by Burnhope Seat in Weardale, County Durham (2451 feet).  For comparison Ingleborough at 2,372 feet and Pen-y-ghent at 2,274 feet are quite modest while Pendle Hill in Lancashire is a diminutive 1,827 feet.

Even Whernside (2,415 feet), which can be seen along with Pen-y-ghent and Ingleborough from Ribblehead is higher than its neighbours. Of course, outside of the Pennines all of these hills are eclipsed by seven of the Cumbrian mountains in the Lake District. These seven mountains  include Helvellyn (3,118 feet) and Skiddaw (3054 feet) but highest of all is Scafell Pike at 3,210 feet.

Settle and Giggleswick

The main town of Ribblesdale is Settle, which is famous as the starting point for the Settle to Carlisle Railway line that links Settle with that historic Cumbrian city. Settle is a town with interesting narrow streets and has many buildings of Georgian origin. Settle is the home to the intriguingly named Old Naked Man Cafe and a house in the market place once belonging to a Dr Buck was regularly visited by , the famous composer Edward Elgar who was a good friend of Buck. The town was the birthplace of Benjamin Waugh (1839-1908), the founder of the National Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).

The town of Settle in Ribblesdale © David Simpson.

Nearby is the village of Giggleswick. It has a Viking name meaning Gigel’s farm or village and a church dedicated to St Alkelda. Alkelda was an Anglo-Saxon princess who was apparently murdered by two Viking women. It is a rare dedication, although the parish church at Middleham in lower Wensleydale is dedicated to St Mary and St Alkelda. Giggleswick’s most famous historic feature is of course its public school, which was founded in 1553. A falconry display centre set in splendid surrounds can be reached via the A65 to the west of Giggleswick and is worth a visit.

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