Review: Walking in Yorkshire, God’s own county
- Credit: Archant
GIVEN my general state of fitness, my choice of a walk of average difficulty through the Yorkshire Dales was perhaps a mite ambitious.
As we came to the bottom of our descent of Malham Cove, a 300ft rock face, via a rough-hewn man-made stairway, my legs were close to giving way, aching in places that had not seen active service in decades.
At that moment, I could have killed for a ride into the impossibly picturesque stone-built village of Malham, where our walk began and ended. Strike that, I would have happily thumbed a ride with someone who looked like a serial killer by this point.
The village lay just a few hundred yards off, down a stubbornly car-less road. But, somehow, those last few steps seemed infinitely harder than the eight-mile leg-stretcher which had taken in some stunning delights of the dales.
The coach ride in had revealed one or two licensed hostelries in Malham which had caught our attention, and we dived into the nearest, which declared a welcome to muddy-booted wanderers.
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We fell in the door like shell-shocked soldiers returned from a five-month campaign on the front, rather than a five-hour hill walk, and gratefully eased into some seats with a drink.
It had been brutal, but we had taken on our little portion of the dales and won. I was too tired for exhilaration, but it was a proud moment.
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When T A Leonard founded a co-operative called the Holiday Fellowship, now shortened to HF Holidays, 100 years ago this year, his aim was to bring workers living in towns and cities back into contact with the natural world and improve their health and fitness.
A century on, his organisation continues to honour his legacy. HF Holidays is a co-operative with more than 33,000 members. It’s the UK’s largest provider of walking holidays, sending 50,000 people on walking holidays every year. These it bases around 20 country houses across the UK, and partner hotels in Europe and around the world.
Our walking weekend in March was centred around Newfield Hall, a former country home converted into 4* Visit England guest accommodation, near the village of Gargrave and about seven miles from Skipton.
Those who work for HF Holidays are rightly proud of its work, and of its unique brand of activity-based breaks. These are based mainly around walking but also including a range of other pursuits from cycling to pilates, and sprinkle in that vital element of fellowship which its founding father saw as so essential to the mix.
The stays contain many of the pluses of youth hostelling, including the laid-back social interaction, but have a more adult feel and come minus the bunk beds and the chores in the morning.
In fact, the rooms contain en suite bathroom facilities, televisions and wi-fi connections, and good, fresh food is laid on for tired walkers, from breakfast, through to a packed lunch and a sit-down evening meal. There’s a well-stocked bar, and some sedentary social activities in the evening for footsore guests.
The walks are pitched at different abilities and tastes, and HF’s own employees and volunteers are on hand to ensure that everyone returns safely.
Snow was threatening as we set off in the coach after a hearty breakfast on our first morning. The sky was a chilly white and the air clammy and cold.
Tony, our driver, dressed smartly in a three-piece suit, took the wheel. He steered our large coach with calm ease down narrow twisting lanes edged by stone walls. At pinch points, the coach slowed like a royal train, waiting patiently as cars eventually gave way before us.
Malham is small, but it is clearly geared for walkers and visitors. There is an ample coach park, public toilets and a scattering of businesses, some open, some closed during our visit in March. These have sprung up to cater for the steady stream of climbers and walkers headed for Malham Cove, a 300ft rock face covered in climbers which at one time was home to a waterfall arguably more magnificent than Niagara Falls. It was also a backdrop to the last Harry Potter film. Also among the area’s highlights are Janet’s Foss waterfall and Goredale Scar, a limestone ravine with two waterfalls and overhanging limestone cliffs 100m high.
Our guide, Chris, was clearly a seasoned campaigner but she took her time and never forced the pace.
We crossed silvery streams and pale green fields, and passed through warming woods. We went up wet, rocky inclines and round corners which exposed us to the full blast of an Arctic wind bearing sharp flakes of snow which bit into our faces.
From waterfalls and smooth-rocked streams, we made our way through cushions of tussocky golden grass, studded with shining silver slabs of limestone. We speed-picnicked by Malham Tarn, England’s highest lake, sheltering from the wind behind a drystone wall, and were grateful to get started again in an effort to keep warm.
It was inspiring, and it has certainly spurred me on to think again about walking holidays - an option I had honestly never considered, and had thought was beyond me. The HF staff made it all possible, bringing the hills and dales within reach, and for that, I’m very grateful.
HF Holidays is the UK’s largest walking and leisure activity holidays provider and a co-operative society with over 33,000 members. Newfield Hall, owned by HF Holidays, is a grand 19th century Country House in extensive grounds with views of Yorkshire Dales. Prices start at £259 per person for a three night break inclusive of full-board en-suite accommodation and a full programme of guided walks and sociable evenings. 0845 470 7558, www.hfholidays.co.uk