The best things to do and see in Wensleydale
A land of hills, crags, ruined abbeys and waterfalls where time seems to have stopped, this area of the Yorkshire Dales is ripe for antiques shopping
Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote in The Secret Garden that, ‘It is a Yorkshire habit to say what you think with blunt frankness’. Famously proud of their county, Yorkshire folk will tell you plainly there’s no finer place on Earth. After visiting Wensleydale – one of 20 different dales in the Yorkshire Dales National Park – you may be inclined to agree.
Driving through Wensleydale, it feels so sparsely populated you wonder if more sheep live here than people. Not much seems to have changed for centuries. But with two magnificent castles, a Cistercian abbey, several spectacular waterfalls, and wind-battered crags aplenty, you won’t be short of things to see and do.
In Lower Wensleydale, the impressive cobbled squares of market towns Middleham and Leyburn are home to some charming shops and places to eat, while Masham boasts two breweries.
‘Up dale’, as they say here, you can sample the area’s famous eponymous cheese at the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes, and if the village of Askrigg looks familiar, that’s because it doubles for the fictional town of Darrowby in Channel 5’s recent remaking of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small (a second series has returned).
But don’t just come for the stunning scenery, the beer and the cheese – there is also much to tempt antiques enthusiasts.
Places to visit in Wesleydale
Privately owned Jervaulx is possibly the prettiest ruined abbey in England. For the last 50 years, the Burdon family has tried to maintain the site’s tranquillity – over 200 species of wildflowers and plants have been recorded growing around the walls, and birds’ nests in the nooks and crannies. You’ll feel like an 18th-century Romantic rediscovering the magical abbey for the first time.
How to choose between Wensleydale’s two medieval castles? More intact Bolton Castle near Leyburn offers historic re-enactments, tours and falconry demonstrations. Our personal favourite is the roofless Middleham Castle, the childhood home of Richard III, where you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure up its past glories, but the spectacular vistas of Wensleydale from the viewing platform will take your breath away.
Places to shop in Wesleydale
Cellar Antiques, Hawes
Ian’s superlative selection of country oak antiques ranges from early bible boxes to 20th-century Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson pieces. Descend into the atmospheric stone-flagged cellar and you’re greeted by a roaring fire in the huge range and, appropriately enough, a selection of kettles, coal scuttles, skillet pans, spinning wheels and fireside stick-back chairs.
Sturmans Antiques, Hawes
With five separate showrooms, Peter sells traditional antiques in tip-top condition, including silver, clocks, lighting, art and furniture. We particularly liked the extensive display of barometers (£99 and up) which line the staircase, and the friendly lesson on how to set and read them (no tapping required!)
The Little Antique Shop, Hawes
Jordan, an entrepreneurial local postman, has filled his tiny shop with big antiques: cast-iron fireplaces, early enamel signs, copper cauldrons and vintage milk churns. We chose two c1900 salt-glazed chimney pots from the large selection on offer – good value at £140 for the pair.
The Curious Merchant, Masham
Alison, formerly a wardrobe mistress for rock bands on tour, has artfully used decorative antiques such as a French hip bath and overhead clothes airer to style her Grade II-listed shop. The new and vintage pieces, all in earthy tones, include French linen, galvanised planters and wooden chests.
Country Cupboard Antiques, Middleham
Prepare to be blown away by John’s exceptional collection of kitchenalia – bread boards, butter stamps, rolling pins, lard slabs, lemon reamers, herb choppers, Cornishware, and even butcher’s dummy sausages and hams. Old display cabinets and advertising are used to maximum effect in his recently opened shop, which feels like stepping into a Victorian greengrocers.
Tennants Auctioneers, Leyburn
Although Tennants is one of the UK’s leading auctioneers, it’s a hands-on family business and the down-to-earth staff make this a welcoming place to visit. The large gallery spaces spread over two floors display star lots from upcoming sales. With 80 auctions each year across multiple specialisms, there’s bound to be something you’ll want to bid on.
Places to stay in Wesleydale
The Ruin, Grewelthorpe
A Georgian folly, this exquisite Landmark Trust property was originally designed as a faux-ruined banqueting house. It perches in splendid isolation above Hackfall wood, a wooded gorge landscaped in the 1730s by John Aislabie (who also designed the nearby Studley Royal Water Garden at Fountains Abbey). After an afternoon discovering Hackfall’s water features, mock temples and grottoes, retire to The Ruin’s terrace for spectacular views over the woodland’s canopy.
Low Mill Guest House, Bainbridge
Neil and Jane have transformed an abandoned 18th-century corn mill into a warm and characterful B&B. The mill’s beamed ceilings, exposed stone walls and original machinery are colourfully juxtaposed with bright patchwork sofas, felt rugs and cosy brass beds. Choose the room called The Workshop and you’ll sleep beneath the mill’s enormous cogs and pulleys (still in perfect working order, thanks to Neil’s skilful restoration).
Places to eat in Wesleydale
Black Sheep Brewery Bar and Kitchen, Masham
In the early 1990s, Paul Theakston, a fifth-generation brewer, split from the family firm and set up the aptly named Black Sheep Brewery, a stone’s throw from rivals Theakstons. After touring the brewery, you’ll be ready for a hearty Yorkshire steak-and-ale pie and an obligatory pint. Will you succumb to one of the wacky new beers such as Choc and Orange Stout, or settle for a pint of the more traditional Best Bitter?
Samuel’s Restaurant, Swinton Park, Masham
Classy estate-to-plate restaurant Samuel’s makes the most of its location on Swinton Park’s vast acreage. Menus are created using seasonal ingredients from the 20,000-acre estate, which includes a four-acre walled kitchen garden. The opulent dining room (remodelled by Bradford textile magnate Samuel Cunliffe-Lister when he bought Swinton in 1882) offers lovely views over the parkland as you tuck into rabbit, smoked trout or venison.
Don’t miss…Plan an autumn trip next year to coincide with Masham Sheep Fair, usually held on the last weekend in September, which brings together rare-breed enthusiasts from across the region. The market square is filled with pens of prime sheep; a reminder of past centuries when over 70,000 animals were sold here every year.
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