Despite its quiet prevalence in films, literature and art, England’s Yorkshire dales has managed to remain a blissful mystery to most travelers.
It’s a strange sensation to feel as though you’ve been somewhere before when you’re certain you haven’t.
I’ve been walking for miles through the quiet moors outside of Haworth, England, encountering flocks of sheep with their ewes and enjoying the sounds of birds echoing songs back and forth to one another. Eventually, I come to a wooden signpost with the words Brontë Waterfall carved into it, and it gestures vaguely down a hill. I’ve never seen any of this in person, yet it all looks very familiar.
I follow what may or may not be a path and eventually stumble upon the waterfall, which is what I have been looking for all along. It was here, in this very spot during the 1800s, that the Brontë sisters sat and dreamed up the characters in their famous novels. Emily Brontë in particular loved these moors, spending as much time as possible outdoors. Farther afield, I can see the remains of Top Withens, the 16th-century farmhouse that is believed to have been the inspiration for the home in Wuthering Heights. As I take in my surroundings, it’s easy to imagine the characters from Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre wandering this land, brooding introspectively and contemplating the future.
Throughout history, a number of writers and artists have referred to this area of northern England as their muse. Little has changed over the years, so thankfully it’s still possible to see the landscape exactly as they did. A nice summer day here seems endless, with an average of 16 hours of sunlight. I watch as the sun casts a prism of dramatic colors around me and the wind rustles wild foxgloves taller than any I’ve ever seen. Their purple and lavender bells give off an otherworldly feel that reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is appropriate, given that he spent part of his youth in Yorkshire.
In spite of all of this, though, the Yorkshire Dales remain inexplicably off the main tourist track. It is a favorite area for English walkers and birding enthusiasts, but even in high season, the mobs of tourists haven’t truly found their way here. While Yorkshire itself is the largest county in the United Kingdom, the Yorkshire Dales are widely considered to be one of the last unspoiled and truly quiet areas of England.
Even without its literary connections, Haworth’s charm is undeniable, making it the perfect little gateway town to the Yorkshire Dales. The village is built on a sharp hill along the eastern slope of the Pennines, a mountain range that cuts through the Yorkshire Dales. The steep cobblestone streets of Haworth are dotted with old-fashioned establishments built at odd angles to accommodate the landscape. There is the sweetshop, an apothecary, several restaurants and a slew of quaint little stores. The town clears out at closing time, when a rush of people dart back to their stone row houses with beautiful outdoor gardens, out to the pub with their dogs or back to one of the many historic manor homes that now serve as hotels. It is an unusual sort of place, where traffic stops completely because nothing is open too late and hotel guests can help themselves to a drink after hours — on the honor system.
The next morning, as I head into the dales, quaint stone towns give way to rolling hills and trees. The dramatic ruins of Bolton Abbey, a 12th-century Augustinian priory on the banks of the River Wharfe, stand out starkly against the serene green landscape. Next is Skipton Castle, an incredibly well-preserved structure built by the Normans in 1090. Herein lies the real allure of the Yorkshire Dales: Very little has changed over time. Most of the idyllic hamlets and beautiful villages that dot the landscape are more than 1,000 years old, yet somehow they have managed to retain their conventional, intimate atmospheres as well as their sense of community.
in unique structures that have stood the test of time in valleys like Swaledale and Wensleydale. The centuries of livestock farming create a bucolic landscape in between the dramatic, rocky peaks of the barns. And the verdant fields outlined with twisting stone walls and etched with narrow, well-trodden paths made generations ago link the Dales together, both visually and figuratively.
Thus far today, the towns I’ve driven through have been quiet as a mouse, but as I pull into Hawes at midday on a weekday, the streets are heaving with people and colorful buntings are stretched across the road, connecting the pointed rooftops of shops and pubs. It only takes a moment to learn that it’s Market Day — as it is every Tuesday in this little village. Vendors come and sell their homemade or homegrown wares, which include everything from flowers to vegetables to crafts. And all the people who live in the neighboring villages come here to shop and socialize as they amble around the market.
Hawes is also known as the “cheesiest town in England,” because the Wensleydale Creamery is here. Wensleydale cheese has been made in this valley for centuries, since French Cistercian monks from the Burgundy region first settled in Yorkshire in the 12th century. Just last year, in fact, the European Union granted the crumbly white cheese a protected status, ensuring that no cheese producer outside of this Yorkshire area could brand its cheese Wensleydale.
Because Hawes is in the center of the Yorkshire Dales, it’s common to see cyclists or hikers along the roads. Outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts rave about the Yorkshire Dales — particularly hill walkers (as hikers are called in England) — because the landscape is unique and diverse, and you’re never too far from a village pub. The Yorkshire Dales National Park, which covers 680 square miles, was established in 1954 in order to protect the Dales’ natural resources. Today, it is home to a variety of wildlife and a gorgeous array of wildflowers. Glaciers shaped this terrain long ago, creating valleys in between broad uplands. Over time, the rivers that flowed in between the peaks wore down the land to cut deep valleys (or, dales). It would take months to fully explore this terrain and all of its hidden gems. A network of paths and trails intertwines caves, gorges, scars, waterfalls, rivers, pastures and country roads. If the weather holds up, you will see some of England’s most spectacular scenery. If it doesn’t, all it takes is the smallest amount of imagination to appreciate — preferably from the confines of a cozy pub with a roaring fire — the dramatic environment as the fog rolls in and the dales darken.
This is the England that has seeped into our collective unconscious from years of accidental exposure. The Yorkshire Dales has served as the background for countless movies (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Wuthering Heights, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and television shows (Downton Abbey, Emmerdale) that require the quintessential countryside full of rolling hills and stone cottages. This is a dramatic and moody area of the world that has provided the perfect setting for all kinds of emotionally charged scenery. On sunny days, it is a quaint and peaceful landscape full of indescribable charm. In the rain, it becomes dark, slippery and dire. After all, “wuthering” is a Yorkshire term for a particular kind of wild, blustery wind known to plague these valleys.
If You Go
Yorkshire Dales National Park
Brontë Parsonage Museum
Ashmount Country House
The Old Dairy Farm hotel
Askrigg Village Kitchen
The King’s Arms
Aysgarth Falls Hotel
Hillary Richard is a travel writer based in New York City. She has mastered the art of international travel and truly enjoys venturing off the beaten path.