Wensleydale : Waterfalls and Cheese

Wensleydale and its river are a slight cause for confusion. Swaledale has the River Swale, Wharfedale, the Wharfe, Ribblesdale the Ribble but there is no River Wensley. The dale of Wensleydale is formed by the River Ure which is sometimes pronounced Yore and rises high in the Pennines in the vicinity of the village of Hawes.

View of Wenslyedale
View of Wensleydale from near the Buttertubs Pass © Elise Simpson

Hawes derives its name from ‘Hause’ meaning a narrow neck of land. It is located at the southern end of the Buttertubs Pass, a natural pass with a steep roadside drop that un-nerves the motorists. The pass links Wensleydale to Swaledale in the north and the limestone features hereabouts are said to resemble tubs of butter.

Fossdale Beck is one of the streams that feed the River Ure at Hawes. It rises on Great Shunner Fell and further down its course, pours over a limestone cliff to form a 99 ft single drop waterfall to rival High Force in Teesdale.

This is the Hardraw Force or the Scaur, as it also known and is one of the most famous sites of Wensleydale. It may not be the biggest, or most powerful waterfall in England, but it is certainly the highest single drop fall in England. The word ‘force’ derives from ‘fors’ a Viking word for a small waterfall.

Hardraw Force waterfall
Hardraw Force waterfall © David Simpson

Hawes is the home to a factory or creamery which makes the famous Wensleydale Cheese. It is said that cheese making was brought to Wensleydale by French monks who settled at Fors near Aysgarth further down the dale, in 1145. The monks later moved to a new site in Wensleydale at Jervaulx, but they took their cheese-making skills with them.

Hawes, Wensleydale © David Simpson

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, the cheese making skills passed into the hands of local farmers and in the nineteenth century were eventually inherited by the present cheese factory at Hawes.

Hawes © David Simpson

Bainbridge and Askrigg

East of Hawes, the River Ure is joined from the south by the River Bain at Bainbridge. In historic times this was located within the forest of Wensley and was used as a hunting park by the Lords of Middleham Castle. A Shrovetide horn blowing ceremony at Bainbridge dates back to the time when hunters were guided back to the safety of the village by the blowing of a horn.

Bainbridge © David Simpson

The Romans had a lookout station close to Bainbridge, on a hill at nearby Addleborough and an Ancient British chieftain is thought to be buried in a cairn close by. Further up the Bain is Semer Water, a small lake, which according to legend once drowned the village of Bainbridge after the village refused charity to a beggar.

Semer Water
Semer Water © David Simpson

Across the other side of the river from Addleborough is Askrigg, a Viking place name which means the ‘ridge where ash trees grew’. It later became an important market town in the dale and a market charter was granted in 1587.

The neighbourhood of Askrigg was traditionally the home of the Metcalfe family who lived at nearby Nappa Hall. The hall was built in 1459 by a James Metcalfe to protect against the raids of marauding Scots that were a frequent problem for Wensleydale. Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned in Nappa Hall, before she was moved down the dale to Castle Bolton. The house is an impressive example of a fortified fifteenth century house.

Aysgarth Falls
Aysgarth Falls © David Simpson

Carperby and Aysgarth

Four miles east of Askrigg, is the village of Carperby, with a name deriving from Caipere, an Old Irish personal name. ‘By’ is the Viking word for a settlement, so the founder of this place was probably of mixed Irish-Viking origin.

Irish Vikings arrived in the dales and vales of northern Yorkshire via the Viking colony of Dublin from which they were evicted in the tenth century and they seem to have formed an important element of Yorkshire’s population in the Viking period.

Aysgarth Falls
Aysgarth Falls © Elise Simpson.

Aysgarth on the opposite side of the river to the south is of course famed for the Aysgarth Falls, a series of waterfalls stretching over a half mile section of the River Ure. The falls occur in three stages called the upper, middle and lower falls. Aysgarth is yet another Viking name deriving from ‘Ayks kerth’ meaning a gap in the hills where oak trees grew. It is one of the most beautiful spots in Yorkshire.

Wensley village
Wensley village, Wenlseydale  © David Simpson

Wensley and Castle Bolton

Wensley village to the east of Aysgarth gives its name to the whole of Wensleydale. Most Yorkshire Dales are named from their rivers, but for some reason Wensleydale is named from a village.

Wensleydale’s river is of course the Ure – an old Celtic river name related to the Gaulish river name Isura. In Anglo-Saxon times Wensley village was called Woden’s Ley from the pagan god and is thought to have been the site of a pagan shrine.

A Christian church was built here in the later Anglo-Saxon period after the people had converted to Christianity. It was later replaced by a new church (Holy Trinity) in 1245. Until 1868 Wensley’s church served as the parish church for nearby Leyburn. Memorials to the Scrope family of Bolton Castle can be seen in the church.

Bolton Castle, Wensleydale © David Simpson

Castle Bolton village to the north of Wensley is the location for the imposing Bolton Castle, which was built by Lord Richard Scrope in 1379 to guard Wensleydale. The village is thought to have been laid out at the same time as the castle. Richard Scrope had been knighted for his part in the Battle of Nevilles Cross near Durham in 1346.

From July 1568 until January 1569, Mary Queen of Scots was held prisoner in Bolton Castle and is said to have escaped for a few hours before her capture near Leyburn. Bolton castle remained in the hands of the Scropes – the name is incidentally pronounced Scroop – until 1630. After that time it passed to the Orde-Powlett family and suffered damage in 1645 during the Civil War following a Parliamentary siege. Today the castle is in the hands of Lord Bolton who is a direct descendant of the Scropes.


To the east of Castle Bolton is Leyburn where one of the best known features is the Shawl, a natural limestone terrace almost a mile long that overlooks the town. From the top of the Shawl there are excellent views of Wensleydale including Middleham Castle and Bolton Castle.

Leyburn © David Simpson

During a two hour escape from Bolton Castle, Mary Queen of Scots is said to have dropped her shawl near here which gave rise to the name of the feature. The dropped shawl betrayed her whereabouts and she was captured. In actual fact Leyburn Shawl’s name derives from an old word for Shielings or shepherd’s huts.

Middleham Castle
Middleham Castle © David Simpson

Middleham Castle: Richard III and Warwick the King Maker

Middleham, across the River Ure less than two miles to the south of Leyburn is famous for two things – the training and breeding of racehorses which has been carried out here since at least the eighteenth century and the historic Middleham Castle.

The first castle was built around 1070 on a site known as William’s Hill and is about 500 yards south west of the present castle. Its foundations can still be seen. It was built by Alan the Earl of Richmond who also built Richmond Castle and it belonged to the earl’s brother Ribald. Around 1170 the castle was dismantled and the present castle was built.

Middleham passed by marriage in 1270 to the famous Neville family whose family seats included Raby and Brancepeth Castles in County Durham and Sheriff Hutton near York. Middleham was however separated from the estates of Raby and Brancepeth in the fifteenth century. The junior branch of the family called the Earls of Salisbury inherited Middleham and Sheriff Hutton. Raby and Brancepeth went to the senior branch called the Earls of Westmorland.

The most powerful member of the Neville family was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, a descendant of the Earls of Salibsury, and was known as ‘the Kingmaker’.

Middleham Castle
Middleham Castle © David Simpson

Warwick the Kingmaker was the owner of Middleham Castle and earned the title of Kingmaker through his influential support of King Edward IV in the Wars of the Roses. He was one of the most important and influential figures associated with this era of history.

From 1465 to 1468 Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future King Richard III, stayed at Middleham Castle under the care of Warwick. Only a year after Richard had left Middleham, Warwick turned against King Edward and imprisoned the king in the castle. For some months during Edward’s imprisonment, Warwick attempted to rule the country in Edward’s name.

The ‘Kingmaker’ was eventually slain at the Battle of Barnet near London in April 1471. After his death Middleham Castle, along with Sheriff Hutton (also in Yorkshire), Barnard Castle in Durham and Penrith in Cumbria all passed to Richard Duke of Gloucester.

Middleham © David Simpson

Richard married Ann Neville, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter which confirmed his right to the estates. Ann, the kingmaker’s daughter would become Queen of England when Richard was crowned King in July 1483. After the defeat and death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Middleham Castle’s importance declined. By the seventeenth century it had fallen into disrepair, but the impressive ruins remain, overlooking the beautiful little stone town of Middleham.


A little to the east of Miidleham, near East Witton, the River Ure is joined from the south west by the River Cover. This forms the valley of Coverdale, an offshoot of Wensleydale.

Coverham which lies at the lower end of the dale near East Witton and Middleham was the site of a Premonstratensian abbey that was moved here in 1212 from Swainby (in the Swale valley south of Northallerton). Coverham was the sixteenth century birthplace of Miles Coverdale who was famed for his translation of the Bible in 1538.

Near Agglethorpe we find the curious and popular garden of follies and curious features called the Forbidden Corner on the Tupgill Park estate. Created by owner Colin Armstrong and architect Malcolm Tempest initially as a private folly, it has been open to the public since 1994. It is a popular attraction but due to National Park regulations can only be visited with pre-booked tickets.

Roads along the Coverdale valley head south west through some superb scenery. Villages along the valley include Agglethorpe Cadlbergh, East and West Scrafton, Melmerby, Carlton,  Gammersgill and Thwaite, all of which,  show some Viking influence in their name or spelling. The drive along the valley eventually culminates in a descent into the neighbouring valley of Wharfedale via the Cam Gill Road.

Scenery from the Cam Gill Road
Scenery from the Cam Gill Road enroute from Coverdale to Wharfedale © David Simpson

Jervaulx Abbey

The beautiful ruins of Jervaulx Abbey are another wonderful attraction of the Middleham area and have an interesting history. The story begins with Cistercian monks from France who established a monastery at Fors in Upper Wensleydale in 1145, where they were credited with introducing the making of cheese to Wensleydale.

The monks found the site at Fors rather bleak and wild and the abbey’s livestock was vulnerable to attacks by wolves. In 1156 they moved to a new, more appealing site at the eastern end of Wensleydale which they called Jervaulx. Jervaulx is a French name and literally means Ure Valley. Wensleydale is of course formed by the River Ure. At the height of Jervaulx’s power, almost the entire length of Wensleydale belonged to the abbey and its wealth could be compared to that of Fountains Abbey near Ripon.

Monks at Jervaulx Abbey are thought to have been involved in the training of racehorses for Henry VIII and this may have been the origin of the racehorse training associated with nearby Middleham. Despite this, Jervaulx’s sad fate was sealed during Henry’s reign. Jervaulx’s last abbot called Adam de Sedbergh was executed at Tyburn for his part in the 1536 Catholic rebellion against King Henry called the Pilgrimage of Grace. The Dissolution of the monasteries took place two years later and Jervaulx’s history was brought to an end.

Constable Burton to Crakehall

Places to note in the area to the east of Leyburn and Middleham include Thornton Steward just above the Ure, which belonged in the twelfth century to Wymar, a steward of the Earl of Richmond who is the steward commemorated in the name of the place. At around the same time, the village of Constable Burton, a couple of miles north of Thornton Steward, belonged to the Earl of Richmond’s constable.

Between these two villages are Finghall and Hutton Hang. Hutton Hang lies close to a hill called Hang Bank which was the meeting place for the Wapentake of Hang. This wapentake encompassed the whole valley of the River Ure and the south side of Swaledale but was divided into the Wapentakes of Hang East and Hang West in the thirteenth century, with Hang East encompassing the Masham, Bedale and Catterick areas. Despite its proximity to the wapentake meeting place, the peculiar and disputed name of Finghall does not seem to have its roots as a ‘thing’ which usually donates a meeting place.

As we head east, we increasingly enter lower lying terrain where the dales scenery gives way to the scenery of the vale. Here we find the village of Thornton Watlass, named from a combination of two vills in the thirteenth century. The absorbed vill of Watlass apparently has a Norse name ‘vatn-lass’ meaning waterless.

Church of St Patrick, Patrick Brompton © David Simpson

A couple of miles north of Thornton Watlass in a valley formed by a number of streams that feed the Swale near Bedale are Newton-le-Willows, Patrick Brompton and Great and Little Crakehall. The ‘le’ in ‘le-Willows’ is of course due to French influence, but the Patrick of Patrick Brompton refers to a ‘Hiberno-Norseman’ or Norse Gael (an Irish-Viking). A Ghile Patric (a Hiberno Norse name) was landowner here before the Norman Conquest.

Much of the colonisation of the Yorkshire Dales seems to have come from Norwegians, many of whom had colonised Dublin in Ireland as well as the Gaelic speaking Scottish isles, creating an intermixed culture.

The church at Patrick Brompton is naturally dedicated to St Patrick and dates from the thirteenth century. It is one of only two Anglican churches dedicated to St Patrick in Yorkshire, the other being at Patrington in Holderness, East Yorkshire, a town whose very name is perhaps linked to St Patrick.

Little Crakehall
Little Crakehall © David Simpson

The villages of Little Crakehall and Great Crakehall are respectively situated north and south of the Bedale Beck to the east of Patrick Brompton.  The name refers to a nook of land belonging to a Norseman called Kraki. From Norman times it was associated with the Counts of Brittany at Richmond.

Crakehall’s village watermill, on the site of an earlier mill owned by the Nevilles of Middleham Castle, dates from the seventeenth century and was restored as a visitor attraction in the 1980s. In times past the manor of Crakehall was held by the Crakehall family who took their name from the village. The present Crakehall Hall on the village green of Great Crakehall is an early eighteenth century house and was once the country home of the Duke of Leeds.

Great Crakehall
Great Crakehall © David Simpson


Bedale in the Vale of Mowbray is a pretty market town near the North Yorkshire administrative centre of Northallerton. In Anglo-Saxon times Bedale was Beda’s Halh, a secret corner or retreat belonging to someone called Bede, though probably not the famed Venerable Bede of Jarrow.

Bedale © David Simpson

Bedale is sometimes described as a gateway to the dales and is located just off the A1 (The Roman Dere Street) near Leeming Bar.  Just to the north of the village is a little stream called the Bedale Beck which is a tributary of the Swale. Many of the houses in Bedale are typical North Yorkshire Georgian and are located along the long market street that closely resembles the main streets of other North Yorkshire towns like Yarm and Northallerton.

A market has been held in Bedale since 1251. Compare the brick-built houses of Bedale which are so typical of vale-based towns and villages like Bedale in North Yorkshire with the stone-built houses of the North Yorkshire dales to the west.

Bedale church
Bedale church © David Simpson

Bedale’s fourteenth century church of St Gregory which dominates the northern end of the street is noted for its bell that was taken from the ruins of Jervaulx Abbey. The bell is thought to be one of the oldest bells in the country still in use.

Thorpe Perrow Arboretum and its bird of prey centre lie to the south of Bedale and east of Thornton Watlass. The Perrow part of the name comes from a family called Perrow who owned this area in the thirteenth century along with ‘Pirhou’ in Norfolk.

Askew and Leeming Bar

The Bedale Beck trickles its way past Bedale and separates the town from the village of Aiskew across the bridge to the east. Aiskew’s name derives from a corruption of ‘Eiki Skogr’ meaning oak wood. Close by to the east are the villages of Leeming and Leeming Bar on the old A1 which here follows the course of the Roman Dere Street.

The Bedale Beck separates Leeming Bar from the village of Leeming and RAF Leeming to the south. Leeming is an old Celtic river-name and was likely the old name for the beck. Indeed in its upper reaches the Bedale Beck seems to undergo a number of name changes on the map (Bellerby Beck, Burton beck and Newton Beck) but in the Finghall area it is known as the Leeming Beck even though this is some seven miles to the west of Leeming. The Bedale Beck eventually joins the River Swale just to the east of Leeming Bar after skirting the northern fringes of the RAF airfield.

Leeming Bar is named from a toll gate and toll house that once stood on the Great North Road here. It seems to have been removed in the 1840s.

A Wensleydale scene © David Simpson

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