Opinions seem to vary as to the actual length of the Dales Way, which traditionally starts in the West Yorkshire town of Ilkley and follows the course of several rivers through the Yorkshire Dales, skirting around the Howgill Fells before heading through Cumbria to finish above Windermere and the popular tourist town of Bowness. Of course, it can be walked in the opposite direction, but most people prefer to end the walk in the Lake District and it's not difficult to understand why. My guidebook for the route (the excellent "Dales Way Complete Guide" by Colin Speakman, founder of the walk) states a total distance of 80 miles. The direction sign at the starting point, however, disagrees, giving a distance of 82 miles. In various places along the way we saw the distance given as 83 miles. We kept a record from Tom's GPS watch and at the end of the week we'd notched up a total of 90.75 miles, although this did include a few (intentional) diversions. None of the walk was particularly strenuous, but then our intention was never to be challenged. We simply wanted to walk from one place to another, enjoying the scenery, wildlife and places of interest along the way, leaving us with the sense of having completed a journey. To escape from everyday life, with nothing more pressing to occupy our time each day beyond putting one foot in front of the other. And to enjoy a stay in a different place each evening. A "challenge" would be the Pennine Way. In comparison the Dales Way is a ramble. And a very enjoyable one at that.
As with our Yorkshire Wolds Way walk, I'm going to be writing a day-by-day account of our experiences on the Dales Way, but for now I'm starting with a brief overview, including reviews of our accommodation along the way.
Unlike the Yorkshire Wolds Way, the Dales Way is covered by the Sherpa Van Project, a baggage transfer service which will carry your luggage from your last destination to the next for a very reasonable fee. They also provide the option of booking your accommodation for you and have an excellent website listing all the establishments between which they will carry luggage. Although I can certainly see the advantages of using this service, it wasn't for us. Part of the fun, for me, is plotting an itinerary based around places I'd particularly like to stay and then working it all out for myself. Also, we prefer to carry everything we need. It feels more of an adventure that way. Along the way most of the other walkers we encountered were using the Sherpa service and we were often met with surprise when checking in to our accommodation carrying our large rucksacks. "You're carrying it all yourself?" one barman asked us. "Hardcore!" Not really. If we were going to go the whole nine yards then we'd be carrying tents and camping every night, but even so, there was a certain amount of satisfaction in being reasonably self-reliant. For us, anyway. It's definitely not for everyone. And those rucksacks do chafe a bit after 18 miles!
When I began planning the walk, back in January, I had a couple of specific places in mind where I would like us to spend a night. It therefore made sense for me to book these first and then work the rest of our itinerary around them. Towards the beginning and end of the route there are plenty of options for accommodation but in the middle section the options become fewer. For this reason I started planning in the mid-point and worked my way out in both directions. This did create a slightly uneven itinerary but, in the end, it worked out very well.
Our schedule, along with the approximate distances we walked each day, was as follows:-
Day 1: Ilkley to Addingham (3.25 miles)
Day 2: Addingham to Grassington (16 miles)
Day 3: Grassington to Hubberholme (12.5 miles)
Day 4: Hubberholme to Ribblehead (13 miles)
Day 5: Ribblehead to Sedbergh (18.5 miles)
Day 6: Sedbergh to Burneside (16.5 miles)
Day 7: Burneside to Bowness-on-Windermere (11 miles)
The distances given above include a few diversions along the way. For example, on Day 7 we turned off the route to visit a cafe in Staveley which added an extra mile and Day 4 includes an extra mile and a half from the trail to our accommodation.
Our first day was very short for a reason. First of all, we had to get to Ilkley, travelling by train and arriving at 2.30 p.m. I specifically wanted to stay the second night in Grassington but didn't fancy walking over 19 miles on our first day, so starting with a gentle amble from Ilkley to Addingham not only shortened the second day for us, it meant that we had an easy start to get used to the weight of our packs with the added bonus of being able to stay in a really nice pub (The Crown Inn, Addingham). I also wanted to spend a night at The Station Inn, Ribblehead, so it made sense to spend our third night at Hubberholme which was almost exactly halfway between Grassington and Ribblehead. This turned out to be an excellent choice.
Once I'd worked out the schedule I then set about booking accommodation, starting with the two places where I especially wanted to stay - Grassington and Ribblehead. Once those two were booked I then worked outwards, booking Hubberholme, Addingham and Kendal in that order.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I previously listed Burneside for our sixth night, not Kendal. Well, at this point in my scheduling I made a bit of a silly mistake. For some reason I had it fixed in my mind that the Dales Way passed through Kendal and so originally I booked us in to the Premier Inn, which was reasonably priced and situated smack-bang in the middle of Kendal. It was only actually two weeks before setting off that I read my guidebook again and realised my error. To stay in Kendal would have added almost an extra two miles to an already quite lengthy day. As it turned out, having realised my mistake, I was extremely fortunate on two counts. First of all, an amazing bed and breakfast establishment in Burneside (which is usually booked solid months in advance) just happened to have a spare room that evening and secondly, the conditions attached to my Premier Inn booking allowed for cancellation right up to 1 p.m. on the day of arrival without having anything to pay.
This leads me to our accommodation choices and, as with my Yorkshire Wolds Way blog, I'm now going to provide a review for each of the places we stayed.
Day 1 - The Crown Inn, Addingham
There are just two guest rooms at The Crown, a former coaching inn dating from 1769 which is situated on the main road through the centre of the village. Our room was very clean and comfortable, with an excellent en suite stocked with really nice quality toiletries. The staff were very friendly indeed and the bar, which was obviously popular with locals, served an excellent choice of beer. Unusually, the only food served here is pie and mash. But what a choice of pies! We went for the highly delicious chicken, ham and cheddar pie, served with mashed potatoes, mushy peas and gravy, washed down with a glass of Dark Horse beer. It was all excellent. After a fantastic night's sleep (which surprised me, given the short distance we'd walked), we chatted to the pub's owners over a very enjoyable breakfast. I can certainly recommend starting the Dales Way from The Crown, particularly as I've heard mixed reviews of some of the accommodation in Ilkley.
Day 2 - The Black Horse Hotel, Grassington
We'd stayed at The Black Horse before, when we did the Mossdale Scar walk in August 2013, and based on the excellent time we had back then, I particularly wanted to stay here again. Unfortunately, this time it was a tiny bit disappointing. As I had remembered our room had been a bit on the small side when we'd stayed here before, this time I paid extra for a "king sized" room. It really wasn't much bigger. In fact, it was rather cramped. Having said that, it was clean and comfortable and, after all, it was just for one night. But, at the same time, we had much better accommodation in the week for quite a lot less (although, to be honest, I don't know how the price compared with other establishments in Grassington - it may well be cheaper). I remembered having a lovely meal in the hotel's restaurant on our last stay and so we decided to dine here again. Sadly, this meal was not very nice at all. We had slow roasted belly pork, which was tasty, but I still have absolutely no idea what it was they served up with it. The best description I can offer is a compressed square of some sort of vegetable matter. It was very weird and tasted strange too. Thankfully, the beer (Grassington Bitter) was top notch! The biggest shock about the Black Horse though was to discover that, at the time of checking in, we were the hotel's only guests! Later that evening we were joined by a lone cyclist who, out of all the bedrooms available, was checked in to the one next to ours, which reminded me of those people who park right next to you in an otherwise empty car park. The staff at the Black Horse were very friendly and, as both ourselves and the cyclist were keen to make an early start, they served breakfast half an hour earlier than the advertised time, which was greatly appreciated. It seemed ironic that out of all the places I booked, this was the one I was most looking forward to and yet it proved to be our least favourite. I guess we'll have to go back another day and allow the place to redeem itself. Because I know it can be a lot better.
Day 3 - The George Inn, Hubberholme
I could sum up The George with one word. Wow! Naturally though, I have to expand on that, starting from the moment we stepped through the door of this charming, delightful little medieval inn nestling by the side of the Upper Wharfe. I already knew that the owner was a friendly man, from the pleasant email exchanges we'd had at the time of booking. As we stepped through the door we were greeted with a cheery "Good afternoon! You have reached your destination". The owner, Ed, then proceeded to walk round from behind the bar to shake both our hands and introduce us to everyone else in the pub. As my eyes adjusted from the brighter light outdoors I could see that there were several other customers sitting at tables, some of them clearly being Dales Way walkers like us. We instantly felt at home as Ed went on to describe the various ales he had on offer, pouring us a glass of the very tasty Wensleydale Dub. Our room at The George was above an outbuilding and had low beamed ceilings (which made contact with Tom's head several times!), a good sized en suite with excellent shower and comfy beds. Our evening meal of steak pie and chips followed by apricot crumble was superb and breakfast the next morning (served at the much appreciated early time of 7.30 a.m.) was of an equally high standard. We were sorry to be leaving as Ed set us on our way with a really good (and very reasonably priced) packed lunch, wishing us well for the rest of our journey. We promised him we'd return before long for a slightly longer stay, which is something I look forward to with much pleasure.
Day 4 - The Station Inn, Ribblehead
In November 2013 Tom and I spent a weekend in Dent, culminating with a climb of Whernside. After the walk we called in to the Station Inn for a drink to discover that they were holding an open day to celebrate the refurbishment of some of their bedrooms. Tom stayed in the bar while I went up with the landlord to have a quick tour of these rooms and I was very impressed, particularly with a room named after my particular hero, The Wainwright Room. It wasn't an especially large room, but it was nevertheless well equipped and nicely decorated with the most amazing view over to the Ribblehead Viaduct and Whernside. I left The Station that day with a stay in that room placed high on my (very modest) bucket list. Foolishly then, in January when I booked us a room at The Station, I omitted to mention that I would like to book the Wainwright Room. A couple of days before setting off I read some very mixed reviews for The Station, depending on which room a guest had been allocated. As we approached the inn I commented to Tom "Oh heck...I wish I'd asked for a refurbished room". The guy checking us in must have thought I was a bit loopy, because when he said "We've put you in the Wainwright Room" I practically jumped over the bar and hugged him. We weren't disappointed. It was a lovely room. A little on the small side, but very comfortable and clean. And the view! Our evening meal at The Station was top notch, followed by a game of pool and several pints of Main Line from the nearby Settle Brewing Company. In the morning we decided to have the continental buffet breakfast, which was very enjoyable. I later heard from others who stayed at The Station that their experiences were a bit mixed, but I can happily report we had the most enjoyable, relaxing stay there and wouldn't hesitate to return.
Day 5 - The Dalesman Country Inn, Sedbergh
In a complete reversal of our previous night's accommodation, I was rather disappointed with our room at The Dalesman. I had visited their website before booking and had seen some images of very nice looking rooms. Ours, unfortunately, wasn't one of them. It wasn't particularly bad in any way, it's just that there were no windows (just a couple of skylights) and the walls were painted in a rather gloomy shade of grey. Added to this the fact that the bed was crammed into a small space (we had to shuffle to the end to climb in and out) made the whole experience rather claustrophobic and resulted in something of a restless night's sleep for me. This, however, was the only (rather pedantic, I suppose) negative point of our stay. The bar and dining area were lovely, the staff were very friendly and our meal was without a doubt the best we had all week (suet crusted steak pie with twice-cooked chips, followed by sticky toffee pudding and ice cream). The bar served an interesting range of beers and our breakfast was first class. We later spoke to others who had stayed here and learned that their rooms were very nice, so I suppose we were slightly unlucky this time. (I can't have all the luck I guess!) We would certainly stay here again.
Day 6 - Lakeland Hills, Burneside
As I mentioned earlier, I had previously booked a night at the Premier Inn in Kendal for the sixth night of our walk, but was lucky enough to be able to cancel this and book a night at Lakeland Hills instead. And "lucky" is very much the right word to use here. Lakeland Hills is owned by Tony and Caroline Hill, providing two rooms (one twin and one double) almost exclusively for Dales Way walkers. Having read the outstanding reviews on Trip Advisor just two weeks before our departure, I tentatively sent them an email along the lines of "I don't suppose you have anything available at this late stage?" and was both surprised and delighted to receive a reply from Caroline to say that they did, in fact, have a twin room available. I booked it like a shot! Tony is a former Lake District Park Ranger and highly experienced mountaineer/sailor/all-round adventurer, and a very friendly and helpful man into the bargain. Our ground floor room was very spacious, light and spotlessly clean with an amazing en suite. And as if that wasn't enough, our room had its very own little "shop", selling beers, wine, chocolate, crisps, biscuits and even blister plasters, all at cost price. As it's a B&B which doesn't serve evening meals, Tony provides free transport to and from a nearby inn where we enjoyed a most enjoyable evening meal, accompanied by the other guests, a couple who were also walking the Dales Way. Our beds were very comfy and I enjoyed the best night's sleep of the week. Over an amazing breakfast (American style pancakes with fresh fruit), Tony provided us all with a brief description of some of the highlights of our last day on the trail, along with his personal recommendations for a couple of diversions. As, on top of everything else, he's also a member of the Dales Way Association committee, he certainly knows what he's talking about! I would go so far as to say that a night at Lakeland Hills is an absolute must for anyone walking the Dales Way. If, that is, you're lucky enough to get in. I count myself very fortunate indeed!
Day 7 - The Watermill Inn, Ings
This accommodation isn't actually on the Dales Way, but it's where we chose to have our last night before travelling home on the train from Windermere. Ings is situated about three miles north of Bowness and so it's away from all the touristy hubbub, which to be honest, after a week in the countryside we couldn't wait to escape. And, if only for that reason, the Watermill Inn provided the perfect place. It did add a walk of an extra three miles, mostly uphill, to what had been an otherwise short day's walking of 11 miles, but the extra was well worth it. Not only that, but unlike every other accommodation provider around Windermere, the Watermill allowed us to book for just one night on a Friday and at a reasonable price, for the Lakes. The biggest plus for the Watermill though is that it has its very own brewery and a fantastic choice of excellent ales. Our room was spacious (a family room as it turned out), and very clean and comfortable. We enjoyed an excellent evening meal in the bar, celebrating with several of their top notch beers, followed by a good night's sleep and an excellent breakfast. The staff were very friendly and helpful and there was a bus stop close by with buses running to the station at Windermere every half hour. We couldn't have wished for a better conclusion to a wonderful week.
Finally, for now, a few words about what we packed for our walk. There are those who would say we carried too much, but I was quite happy with my choices and didn't find the weight too cumbersome. We each carried a 65-75 litre rucksack (mine is the Lowe Alpine Kongur and Tom's is the Berghaus Verden). In addition to what I was wearing when we set off (wicking t-shirt and lightweight trousers), in my pack I carried four wicking t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of three-quarter trousers and a micro fleece, along with a waterproof coat, lightweight hoody, waterproof overtrousers and a feather-light Rohan wind cheater. I had a clean pair of Bridgedale walking socks for every day's walking, along with enough undies for the week, a selection of travel sized toiletries, two water bottles, camera, phone, phone charger, a very light pair of shoes (Hi-Tec Zuks) for evenings, a pair of trekking poles, Buff, sunglasses, guide book and map (I also had all the OS maps on the iphone View Ranger app), notebook and pen, tissues and a lightweight folding trowel (if you have to ask why you've never been on a very long walk, but suffice it to say, it wasn't for pointing drystone walls!). Tom carried pretty much the same stuff, along with our first aid kit which included plasters, sting relief, bug repellent, sun cream, Paracetamol and Voltarol. I weighed my pack before we set off and it was 21 lbs. It seemed very heavy until I had it in place when, thanks to its excellent design, it was soon virtually unnoticeable. Regular readers of my blog may recall that last autumn I put myself on a diet. All the pies and beers we had consumed after walks had certainly taken their toll over the past couple of years! Happily I can report that I set off on this walk almost three stones lighter than when I set off on the Yorkshire Wolds Way. Which is twice the weight of my loaded backpack - and it certainly made a difference. Of course, I've gained a few pounds over the week (beers and pies strike again), but I know I'll easily shed those and soon be back on track.
I will shortly be writing a day-by-day account of our Dales Way adventure, including some of the many photographs I took on this, the most delightful long distance walk. I hope you'll be able to join me as I relive what, for me, was the best walking experience ever.