The "ashes on the ridge" for which Askrigg was named by Anglo-Saxon settlers well over 1,000 years ago are no more, but the trees still flourish in Mill Gill and Whitfield Gill, one of the finest woodland walks in Wensleydale. From the gills, our route then traverses some of the incomparable limestone landscape which makes walking in the dale so pleasurable.
Distance: 7 miles (shortcut 2 miles)
Time: 4 hours
Conditions: good, slippery paths in gills
Originally published: 28 October 2005
We start from Askrigg's cobbled market place with its cross of 1830. The last market was held in 1878 after competition with Hawes market had become too intense. Opposite is the house of Thomas Forster with its lintel, proudly carved with "TAF 1687". If you have time, St Oswald's Parish Church, built mostly in the 15th century, is worth a visit for the wooden ceiling of its nave and the many memorials to local families.
From the cross, go through West End by Mill Lane along the north side of the church. This soon leads beyond the houses and past the former flax mill of 1785 on the left. It then crosses one field to West Mill, formerly a corn mill and later converted to a saw mill. You pass under the metal trough which brought water to the wheel before turning up Mill Gill to cross the beck by a footbridge.
Our path now climbs high above the stream through mature woodland of stately ashes and beeches, a remnant of the ancient forest which once covered much of the dale. In about a quarter of a mile, a path leads 150yds down to Mill Gill Force, where the beck thunders some 40ft over the limestone and into a deep pool. After returning to the main path, continue above the ravine before descending to the beckside close to Slape Wath, or slippery ford, where limestone blocks create a natural pavement.
Before the present vaIIey roads were built, this was part of the main route along the dale's north side, using the natural broad terraces which run the length of Wensleydale high above the valley floor.
We shall use this route again shortly, but for now continue past the ford upstream to Whitfield Force, with a 60ft fall just as impressive as Mill Gill. Together they are an excellent illustration of the action of water on the successive strata of the Yoredale series of limestones and shales.
Above the force, the path crosses the beck and climbs the side of the gorge through the trees to Low Straights Lane. Turn right.
The change in scenery is dramatic, from the narrow ravine of Whitfield Gill to the broad vistas associated with Wensleydale. As you follow the lane, the views unfold with Addlebrough dominating the other side of the valley and the mass of Penhill in the distance.
If you wish to shorten the walk, then several paths lead off right down into Askrigg which is almost hidden a mile below. The lane was created in 1819-20 to give access to the newly enclosed Ray Banks. For part of the way it used the ancient route which we crossed in Whitfield Gill and which we now follow for the next three miles.
The lane ends just after a ford over Askrigg Beck. Turn left on the Moor Road and then right on the road to Reeth. A short climb takes you into Arn Gill and a welcome bench labelled Frank's Seat. From here, take the lane up to the left and in about 300yds go right on a track which makes good use of the broad, gently sloping terrace below the scars of Ellerkin.
From these crags "the view is so extensive that within the narrow limits of human vision we cannot span the whole at once" - is how Marie Hartley and Joan lngilby so poetically describe the scene in the opening chapter of Yorkshire Village, their book about Askrigg. The views are panoramic from our vantage point, too.
In a mile, the track reaches the isolated farm of Heugh, The old route passes above the farm. Be wary of the nearby large gate by a barn which, unless it has been repaired recently, is very difficult to manhandle. Our route now passes a line of shake holes, and crosses a stretch of turf as smooth as any lawn. After the ford at the head of Birkin Gill, you will see the houses of Woodhall below, to which you descend by a curving track.
Now cross over the Askrigg to Carperby road and follow the tarred lane between the scatter of houses that makes up Woodhall. At West End Farm, at the end of the road, go through a signed gate at the end of the buildings and continue through a series of gates and stiles to the trackbed of the railway which was opened in 1878 to link Northallerton with Garsdale Junction on the Settle-Carlisle line. The line closed in 1959 but the Wensleydale Railway Company has high hopes of restoring the line from the present terminus at Redmire.
This is why our path at first keeps to the bank on the right of the trackbed, even negotiating two stiles high up at the entrance of the deck of a large accommodation bridge. A few yards further, a stream is spanned by a new footbridge adjoining the track. There is no reason, however, why at present you should not use the rail bed itself. A tarred hut is passed (perhaps an original platelayers' refuge), before our path returns to the fields.
Away to the right on this stretch there are glimpses of the crenellations of Nappa Hall, a fortified manor house, built in 1460 by James Metcalfe, member of a famous dale family, as a testament to the dangers of Scottish raiders.
Turn left when you reach the lane to Nappa Mill. This, like West Mill, was one of three ancient corn mills that served Askrigg parish. Tum tight at the mill along the side of the Ure which is then followed upstream to Worton Bridge. From here a beautifully paved path crosses Askrigg Bottoms towards the village church and houses, visible a mile ahead, perched on their ridge.