The grey stone houses of Muker make a fine starting point for a walk into the roadless upper valley of the Swale between the village and Keld. No dwellings are passed in the first three miles of the route yet it is only 130 years ago that the area was one of the centres of the highly-productive lead mining industry and the tracks and paths we follow were busy with miners on their way to work and with carts taking the ore to the smelting mills. Evidence of this activity can be found in Muker, where the handsome Literary Institute with its Flemish-style gables was built for the lead workers in 1867.
Distance: 6 miles
Time: 3-4 hours
Grade: easy, one steep climb
Refreshments: Muker and Keld
Originally published: 1 October 2004
To start the walk, take the lane to the left of the institute. This passes the church of St Mary, one of the few built in Elizabeth I's reign. It still has its original font. Our route then goes to the right of the tiny post office and, via a series of gated stiles, crosses Muker Carrs as a handsome paved path. Turn right when it reaches the Swale and cross Rampsholme Bridge. Now go left on what becomes a broad bridleway along the riverside. The Swale flows fast here along its U-shaped valley, flanked by Kisdon Hill, 1,636ft, on the left, and Black Hill, slightly higher on the right. Ahead are the heights of Hall Moor, the spoil heaps of Swinner Gill lead mine and the ruins of Crackpot Hall, deserted when mining caused subsidence.
Below the mine is the narrow, deep chasm of Swinner Gill, with several waterfalls which are swirling torrents after rain. In a mile, our path crosses the gill close to more lead mining ruins and then climbs through woods on to the slopes of Beldi Hill. The river here is way below, carving its way busily through the spectacular Kisdon Gorge, Glimpses can be had of its white limestone cliffs but the best views on this ridge walk are ahead to the Pennine moors of Nine Standards Rigg and the green fields of the tiny village of Keld.
After crossing East Gill, the path joins the Pennine Way. Go left downhill past the East Gill falls (with a seat for contemplation) and cross a footbridge over the river.
Keld is less than a quarter of a mile distant. If you wish to see Kisdon Force, the finest of the Swale's waterfalls, then go left just before the village for about 300yds along the Pennine Way. The force is signed to the left 250yds down a rocky path. Huge crumbling crags line part of the way and the trees you pass through a crowd to the rocky edge of the river. The path can be slippery after rain but that's the best time to visit, for the water, sparking with all the hues of amber, thunders through the gorge and over a 30ft drop.
After all this turmoil, Keld is peaceful and a place to relax in and draw breath. Most of its houses surround a little square below the valley road. Park Lodge, now a welcome cafe, has 1760 and JE GEA inscribed over its door. Nearby is Keld Chapel, restored in 1860 but originally built in 1799 by the local preacher, Edward Stillman who, because the villagers were too poor to build a chapel themselves, walked to London and back and raised £700 on the way. From the lower village, walk up the road past the chapel and Butt House and out on to the main valley road, the B6270, where go left.
In about 400yds go left again on to a bridlepath signed to Muker. This descends to a ford over the stream called Skeb Skeugh and then climbs, steeply for the first half mile, flattening out as it reaches the heights of Kisdon Hill. This was the original medieval road down the valley and along it would travel pedlars and their packhorses, Dales folk and lead miners.
It is also sometimes referred to as the "corpse road" because on it were borne the coffins of those who had died in Keld and higher up the valley. Burials took place at Grinton, the parish church for the whole of Swaledale, until the building of Mu.ker church in the sixteenth century.
All across the top of the hill the views are expansive and ever changing. The farms in the valley of Skeb Skeugh are set in emerald green fields which drop to the beckside and climb high up on to the moor in great intakes. To the south the road climbs steeply over the Buttertubs on its way to Hawes. Rising beyond it is the mass of Great Shunner Fell. In another half-mile, when you arrive at the summit, the panorama spans the middle of the dale from Muker to Keld.
The walk is enhanced by soft, green turf. This is limestone country and in the moorland adjoining the track there are many swallow holes, caused naturally by the draining away of surface water. Near the summit there is a disused mine shaft and spoil heaps indicating an industrial past. Shortly after starting the descent, the track turns sharp right and continues steeply down a quarter of a mile to cross the Pennine Way near a barn. A little further on, the route joins the farm access track to Kisdon Farm and is tarred for the last section into Muker.