Wensleydale is one of the few Yorkshire Dales not named after its river, the Ure. Instead it takes its name from the village of Wensley. It was originally called ‘Yoredale’, however, a name that is shown on older maps of the area.
Wensleydale is steeped in history with evidence of prehistoric occupation, roman forts, Norman Castles and ruined Abbeys. There are also many stunning natural attractions like Aysgarth Falls, Hardraw Force and the enchanting Forbidden Corner. Hawes is the home of the Wensleydale Creamery where Wensleydale Cheese is made.
Landscape … and a bit of history
Wensleydale is one of the most beautiful of the Yorkshire Dales characterised by a glacial shape, limestone outcrops, pastures, grazing dairy cattle and sheep, limestone walls and traditional stone buildings. The River Ure, cascading over the soft limestone, gradually formed some wonderful natural attractions. These include:
- Hardraw Force, the highest unbroken waterfall in England
- Aysgarth Falls, which has three levels, is famous for their beauty and featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- Whitfield Gill Force
- The Forbidden Corner in Coverdale, featuring underground and overground passages.
Prehistory, the Romans and the Vikings
Evidence of prehistoric occupation has been found in the valley where earthworks can still be seen, while the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes exhibits many artifacts from the Bronze and Iron Ages found locally. The Romans established a fort at Bainbridge, and, of course, the area didn’t escape the Viking invaders. Many of the names of the towns and villages in the area have Norse origins.
The Norman conquerors were given lands here after their 1066 victory and much of the upper dale forests became a royal hunting ground, with both this and the sheep-farming lands owned by Middleham Castle and Jervaulx Abbey.
The local economy
No one industry dominated over the centuries. Farming was always important for the people of the valley but coal and lead mining, dairying, quarrying and the wool trade also played their role in due course. Many of the Dales people hand knitted stockings and “guernsey frocks” to be sold at the local markets.
With the coming of the railways and the Victorian love of travelling and taking holidays, tourism in Wensleydale developed. Today it is vital to the local economy.
Towns and villages – an overview
A short distance outside Hawes are are beautiful natural attractions like the waterfalls Hardraw Force and Aysgarth Falls, made famous in the film, “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves”.
Thousands of visitors have been coming to admire the Falls for 200 years and they have featured in films like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and TV programmes like the BBC’s Seven Natural Wonders.
This is a great base from which to explore the nearby attractions of Bolton Castle where Mary, Queen of Scots was imprisoned, Constable Burton Hall Gardens and Thorp Perrow Arboretum. Or you can walk up Leyburn Shawl, a dramatic limestone escarpment associated with Mary, Queen of Scots.
Middleham Castle, Richard III’s ancestral home overlooks and dominates the town. The castle is now a well preserved ruin, as is the site of the first Norman castle at Middleham at William’s Hill.
Nearby visitors can enjoy Fountains Abbey and Jervaulx Abbey, which wielded enormous political and religious power in the middle ages before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.
1 © Copyright David Dunford.