The area of Wensleydale where the valley broadens out below Leyburn makes for easy and relaxed walking. It is especially rewarding if combined with an exploration of the lower reaches of Coverdale, Wensleydale's main tributary.
Distance: 7.5 miles
Time: 4 hours
Conditions: well-signed on good field paths
Refreshments: East Witton, Middleham, Spennithorne, Cover Bridge
OS Explorer Maps OL30 & 302
Originally published: 13 March 2009
We start our 7 and a half mile walk in East Witton, an estate village planned along both sides of a long green in the early 19th century by the Earl of Ailesbury, (GR 144860). The cottages vary in size and quality. Particularly noteworthy is the Blue Lion which takes its name from the coat of arms of the Ailesbury family. Its old wooden signboard is a rare survival. The nearby church of the same date is worth a visit too.
From the main road go up the village street to the end of the houses and take a footpath on the right signed to Ulla Bridge, (ignoring the path to Middleham). The route crosses three fields to a lane where go right. In about 250 yards you pass along the edge of a wood to join a field lane from East Witton Lodge.
At the end of the lane continue across fields to a ridge above the river Cover and to Ulla or Hullo Bridge. The curious name is almost certainly a Norse personal name. Here the river, in spirited mood, dives into a mini limestone gorge.
Once over the bridge go right, over a stile, and uphill to a long line of conifers. The path then continues round the right hand side of a large field high above the Cover which can be heard rushing through its gorge some 200 yards away. At a junction our route turns away from the river and climbs gently over a large field for some 400 yards until Middleham suddenly comes in sight over the brow of the hill.
Away to the left, in trees, are the earthworks of William's Hill, an 11th century ring and bailey castle. It is however the stone castle which dominates the scene which is what the Nevilles, its 13th century builders expected it to do. They added the existing impressive walls and towers to a Norman keep of the 1170s, making it one of the most formidable fortresses in the north. Its most famous resident was Richard, Duke of Gloucester who spent many years here before leaving in 1483 to take the crown as Richard III. It's well worth a visit.
We follow the lane in front of the castle to the Swine Cross with its two masonry blocks mounted on a 15th century base. Nearby is the Victoria Jubilee Fountain and an iron ring set in the road, once used for tethering bulls.
On the far side of the cross continue down Park Lane which once led to the Nevilles' hunting grounds, still called The Parks. You pass the Key Centre and reach the edge of the houses in another 200 yards. Opposite Chris Thornton Racing go right, through a gate, on a bridleway. There are good views across to Leyburn as you head down across fields to the banks of the Ure. Turn right along the riverside to the A 6108 and Middleham Bridge. Designed by Joseph Hansom who invented the Hansom cab, it was built as a suspension bridge in 1829 but converted to the present structure in 1865. It replaced a tricky ford.
After crossing the bridge turn right on a path which runs downstream, close to the river. After one field you come to a junction of 4 paths and should go right, passing close to a sharp bend in the river. The path then crosses a large field where a new footbridge over a drainage channel is a good marker to aim for. It then intersects with Middleham Lane, almost certainly the route followed by travellers from Richmond to Middleham who used another ford before the building of Middleham Bridge. In 1675 it appeared as part of the route from Oakham to Richmond in John Ogilby's "Britannia".
Our walk continues beyond the lane, crosses Spennithorne Beck by a footbridge and then follows a lane where there are glimpses away on the left to the strikingly colour washed 18th century Spennithorne Hall. Turn right when you reach the village street.
In about a quarter of a mile, and just beyond the last houses, go right on a path which heads back towards the river. At the end of the first field turn left. In 200 yards the path passes through the hedge on the left and continues down the other side for about half a mile to the hamlet of Ulshaw. Ahead, across the road, is the Catholic church of 1868, built by the Scropes of Danby Hall.
Turn right here over Ulshaw Bridge built in 1674. There's a dated sundial and large cutwaters with stone seats where you can take refuge from passing traffic. A number of mason marks are still visible, testimony to the skill of men whose creation is still in use over three centuries later.
In a few yards we rejoin the A 6108 at the hump back Cover Bridge of 1766. Adjacent to it is the 17th century Cover Bridge Inn. Cross the bridge and take the first path on the right. This doubles back to the bridge and continues up river. After two stiles head across the next field to a gate and a large barn. The path then passes through a wall stile on the far side of the barn. Turn left. The route is then easy to follow, emerging into East Witton by the chapel of 1882.