Travelling for pleasure is a relatively modern leisure activity. People have always visited the Yorkshire Dales but only in the past 300 years could it be said that they were tourists. Before then, travelling was simply too hazardous. Roads were poor, robbery was a possibility and there were even wolves roaming wild up until 1700. Those who did travel went in armed groups if they could, long journeys were not something to be undertaken lightly. By the early 18th century things had begun to change. Various factors were at work such as curiosity among the wealthy classes about remote parts of Britain, the fashion for ‘country seats’ (often on former monastic land such as Bolton Abbey Hall) and peace with Scotland. Industry was also opening up some of the previously isolated upland regions of the Lake District and Pennines. Those with enough money and leisure time began to take ‘tours’ of such places and tourism had begun.

The natural curiosities of the Dales were a particular draw. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy visited Aysgarth Falls in 1802, but failed to be impressed. A cave near Cotter Force further west along Wensleydale proved more interesting: “In the luxury of our imaginations we could not help feeding on the pleasure which this cave, in the heat of a July noon, would spread through a frame exquisitely sensible”. Charles Fothergill toured the area in 1805 and his diary painted the Dales in a thoroughly romantic light. On September 6th he wrote:

“It was fine when I set out [to Richmond], but by the time I reached Askrigg it came on the most tremendous thunder storm I was ever out in: the thunder crackled about my ears and echoed in the mountains with the most tremendous and awful sounds, and the lightning played about my head and ran along the road before me in a terrible manner. I never was so immediately in a storm of this terrific kind; for two miles I was in minutely expectation of being struck; birds were knocked down, cattle affrighted almost to death and the people who were riding Askrigg boundarys [sic] galloping for their lives.”


Artists also recorded their impressions of the landscape. James Ward painted Gordale Scar at the start of the 19th century and made it look far more terrifying and looming than it really was. Thomas Grey visited Gordale in 1769 and left a particularly lurid description in his journal:

“But these are not the thing! It is that to the right and under which you stand to see the fall, that form the principal horror of the place. From its very base it begins to slope forwards over you in one black and solid mass without any crevice in its surface and overshadows half the area below with its dreadful canopy where I stand …the gloomy and uncomfortable day well suited the savage aspect of the place and made it still more formidable. I stay’d there (not without shuddering) a quarter of an hour and thought my trouble richly paid, for the impression will last for a life.”


The building of turnpike roads and then later the arrival of the first railways on the edges of the area resulted in more and more people being able to appreciate these wonders for themselves. Books were written describing the sights and landowners began to cash in on the appetite for natural curiosities. Several show caves were opened up to tourists in the 19th century including Yordas Cave. Previously the haunt of the antiquarian, it became a stopping point on the local tourist itinerary. In 1837 the Farrer family of Clapham had a natural barrier at the mouth of Ingleborough Cave broken down allowing a lake inside to drain away and leaving an extensive cave system for visitors to explore. Visitors have been coming ever since to admire stalagmite formations such as the Sword of Damocles and the Pillar Hall.

The Yorkshire Dales is also blessed with numerous fine waterfalls. The triple falls at Aysgarth still attract tens of thousands of visitors every year. The tallest straight drop waterfall in Britain is at Hardraw. In the 19th century, the landowner developed extensive pleasure grounds including paths, gardens and a bandstand. These are currently [2004] being restored to something of their former glory.

Even before the railway arrived at Bolton Abbey in 1888, the Devonshire family had not been slow to take advantage of the potential for tourism on the Bolton Abbey estate. The local rector, William Carr, was the estate’s second largest agricultural tenant and he worked with the 6th Duke to open up most of the estate to the public. This included the construction of many miles of footpaths. Once the railway had arrived, horse drawn wagonettes collected passengers from the trains and took them for tours along formerly private carriage drives beside the river Wharfe and through Strid Woods. Visitors marvelled at the Valley of Desolation and admired the picturesque ruins of Bolton Priory in its beautiful riverside setting. Cavendish Pavilion was built in the 1890s as a place for these visitors to rest and take refreshments.

On a smaller scale, the tall limestone rock known as Castelberg which towers over Settle was turned into a money making enterprise by local people. By 1800 paths had been laid out to the summit so that people could admire the extensive views. The area was gradually developed over the next hundred years, with more paths cut, trees and shrubs planted and eventually various amusements added such as swings, a roundabout and roller skating. The pleasure grounds were enjoyed by locals and by visitors who came in on the railway line from the towns of the West Riding and Lancashire. Castleberg became a popular picnic spot for these excursions. A small entrance charge was made at the gate and hot water for tea making could be had from the gatekeeper. Restoration work by Settle Town Council in recent years has meant that Castleberg can once again welcome visitors.

The Yorkshire Dales by the end of the 19th century was seen as a place where the professional middle classes could obtain rest and spiritual refreshment from their demanding urban lives. The railway brought the countryside ever closer to the towns and cities of Lancashire, the West Riding and the North East of England. Liberal reformers of the time felt that such places should not just be the preserve of the well off. The countryside was seen as important for the moral improvement and spiritual welfare of all. Movements such as the Co-operative Holidays’ Association were founded and brought young factory workers on outings to the countryside. The CHA arranged accommodation, at first in church halls but later built their own guesthouses such as the one in Hebden, opened in 1909.

Cycling and walking became popular weekend activities for young town dwellers in the late 19th and early 20th century and the Yorkshire Dales were an obvious destination. In 1930, the Youth Hostel Association was founded with the aim of providing cheap accommodation for these new visitors. Several hostels were opened in the Dales such as Grinton Lodge and Dee Side House. The John Dower Memorial Youth Hostel opened in Malham in 1938. It was dedicated to one of the prime movers in the foundation of the National Park movement in England and Wales. National Parks were intended for the use of all, whatever their background. The Yorkshire Dales National Park was created in 1954 and the National Park Authority and its predecessors have been helping to manage this precious place for the benefit of all ever since.

From the early 1900s popular tourism was encouraged by owners of motorised charabancs which met people off trains and carried them into the countryside. The 1950s saw the rise of the motor car as a popular means of transport. Cars began to be more and more affordable and provided a convenient and relatively cheap way of getting out into the countryside. Petrol companies advertised the pleasures of visiting the new National Parks by car and the influx began. By this time, families who had made their living from the land for hundreds of years had begun to realise that there was also money to be made from tourism. Guesthouses, hotels and cottages for weekly rent began to grow in number. Swaledale and Arkengarthdale had lost hundreds of local families since the closure of the lead mines in the 19th century and the empty, semi-derelict cottages and farmhouses they had left behind, were eagerly bought and restored as holiday accommodation and second homes during the first half of the twentieth century. Those not able to afford a second home, bought little plots of ground if they could and erected holiday cabins. Several used redundant railway carriages and wagons. By this time the car had killed off nearly all the rural railway lines in the Dales.

Not everyone who lives within the National Park today appreciates the extra cars and people filling up country lanes and villages that were never built to accommodate them. However, the coming of the 21st century has seen tourism playing an increasingly important part in the economy of the Yorkshire Dales. The Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001 closed the park’s public rights of way for nearly a year and the effect on the economy of the area was profound. Up until that point, few had perhaps realised how much the area had come to depend on its annual round of visitors. Great efforts made since then have revived much of the lost business and 2004 saw the Yorkshire Dales National Park celebrating its 50th anniversary in optimistic mood for the future.



Holt, Ann (1995) The Origins and Early Days of the Ramblers Association London: The Ramblers Association

Joy, David (2002) Hebden. The History of a Dales Township Hebden: Hebden History Group

Romney, Paul (ed) (1984) The Diary of Charles Fothergill 1805 Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society

White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books

Youth Hostel News (1948) ‘Memorial to the Late Mr John Dower’ The Dalesman Vol 10 p227