Hidden treasures in limestone country

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Kirkby Lonsdale

Those driving north on England’s M6 motorway, past the city of Lancaster, usually gaze to the western horizon to admire the Lake District’s shapely mountains.

However, although the moorland landscape to the east appears desolate and uninteresting, it contains many hidden treasures and is well worth exploration.

The inquisitive tourist should turn right on to the A65 and will soon arrive in picturesque countryside dominated by green pastures with elaborate patterns of white stone walls backed by craggy limestone cliffs. Whereas the Lake District lavishly displays its beauty on all sides, the natural delights of this area are best sought on foot and even underground.

We have enjoyed many holidays in this limestone country and our first stop is always the busy market town of Kirkby Lonsdale. Here, by the roadside above the three graceful arches of the ancient Devil’s Bridge, we have a mug of hot tea and a delicious bacon butty at the bridge’s famous snack bar.

The River Lune glides gently under the bridge forming deep pools, whose crevices and caves are explored by local scuba divers. The idyllic countryside of the lovely Lune valley can be seen to perfection from the churchyard of Kirkby Lonsdale’s 12th century St. Mary’s church – a view painted by England’s most celebrated landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner.

Ingleton’s glens and waterfalls

The unassuming village of Ingleton is a few miles further along the A65 and makes an ideal holiday base. It has comfortable guesthouses, a range of pubs, shops and restaurants and even an open-air swimming pool.

Thornton Force Waterfall is the perfect picnic spot. Photo: SUPPLIED
Thornton Force Waterfall is the perfect picnic spot. Photo: SUPPLIED

Tucked away behind the village centre lies the entrance to what is often described as the most beautiful short walk in England. This charming circular 8km ramble passes through a series of attractive glens and waterfalls hidden amongst dense oak woodland, and can be safely undertaken in all weathers and in any season.

We have enjoyed the scenic pleasures of its deep ravines, tumbling rivers, sinister pools and sparkling waterfalls on countless occasions. The walk, which has a nominal entrance charge, follows the course of two separate rivers whose many falls, cascades and cataracts were created by water cutting through the permeable limestone to the impermeable slate rocks below.

You need to allow 3-4 hours for the full circuit as there are so many places to linger and admire the glorious surroundings.

The ideal spot for a picnic is at Thornton Force, which is perhaps the prettiest waterfall in Britain and certainly the most photographed. Ingleton’s excellent fish and chip shop is conveniently placed along the return route through the village, and those who want to slake their thirst with the best of British beer, are advised to choose the Marton Arms (just outside Ingleton) which normally offers at least 15 real ales on draft!

The limestone wonderland

The region’s fabulous carboniferous limestone geology has given rise to a spectacular wonderland of natural scenic features above and below ground.

As well as picturesque gorges, there are dazzling white cliffs (known locally as scars) running along the hillsides, above which there are flat rocky fissured areas called limestone pavements. These were originally formed by the scouring action of glaciers in the last ice age.

Limestone pavement. Photo: SUPPLIED
Limestone pavement. Photo: SUPPLIED

Due to the corrosive effects of rainwater, deep crevasses have formed in the rock, so the pavements are a mosaic of interlocking pieces that are quite difficult to walk across. We have discovered rare alpine plants in these deep cracks, surviving in their own microclimate and conveniently protected from the attentions of ‘nibbling sheep’.

Streams and rivers have trickled down through the cracks in the limestone for millions of years and have created a wonderland below ground – fantastic honeycombs of passages with stalactites, stalagmites, cathedral-sized chambers, underground rivers and waterfalls. Some of these potholes are entered through caves in the hillside whilst others are dangerous gaping chasms in the ground with vertical drops of 150m or more.

They have evocative names like Gaping Gill, Quaking Pot, Baggarts Roaring Holes and even Batty Wife Cave! Intrepid (some would say foolhardy) ‘cavers’ are still discovering new passages and systems in the hundreds of potholes around Ingleton.

Mere tourist mortals can enjoy a genuine taste of this subterranean world by visiting the magnificent White Scar Caves, the largest show cave in the region. The conducted tours pass many superb limestone features, finishing in the huge Battlefield Cavern, 100m long and 30m high with thousands of delicate stalactites.

The Three Peaks walk

Tourist Information Centres provide information on the hundreds of beautiful walks available in Limestone Country. As well as superb mountain scenery, many picturesque scars, gorges and limestone pavements add much interest on most of the routes.

The best, most famous and the most arduous walk is the 40km (24 miles) circuit of The Three Peaks – Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. This is a 10-12 hour endurance test over the three mountains that dominate the area, with over 1,600m (5,000 ft) of climbing.

Although some try to complete the route as quickly as possible, it is best to take your time, gaze at the magnificent moorland landscape, the fascinating limestone geology and listen to the tuneful song of the skylarks.

My own completion of this marathon proved to be a memorable day. Whilst descending from Pen-y-Ghent, I walked straight into a deep bog, sinking up to my shoulders in stinking black mud. I couldn’t move and had no option but to shout for help.

Luckily, two nearby ramblers heard my desperate cries and heaved me out with a loud ‘sucking’ noise! Undaunted and resembling a dripping black space alien, I squelched on to be greeted by an incredulous wife (who was acting as the back-up team) at my next rest point.

After this shock, the remainder of the walk seemed easy and, clad in clean dry clothes, I strode joyfully over Whernside and Ingleborough before descending to Ingleton for a welcome hot bath.

For the less energetic

This limestone country has many more interesting attractions. At the Falconry & Conservation Centre at nearby Settle we not only saw many different birds of prey, but also experienced an unforgettable day actually handling and flying these magnificent creatures.

A trip along the Settle-Carlisle Railway, the most scenic railway in England, is not to be missed. It passes directly through limestone country and along the lovely Vale of Eden to the ancient border city of Carlisle. Cheese lovers will want to make the short journey over to the market town of Hawes and tour the The Wensleydale Creamery, home of tasty Wensleydale Cheese.

You can see how the cheese is made and explore the interesting museum, before visiting yet one more hidden treasure – Hardraw Force, England’s highest single-drop waterfall.