The hilly scenery of the Yorkshire Dales, that today makes it such an attractive place to visit, once meant that travelling was anything but a pleasure. The Roman army built several good roads through the area, such as the one running from Ingleton to the fort at Bainbridge but once the army left, these roads were no longer maintained. Before the modern infrastructure of bridges and metalled roads had been put in place, travel was a hazardous activity that was never undertaken lightly. When Lady Anne Clifford travelled around her estates in the area during the 16th century, she went with a large retinue and her diaries record how painfully slow her progress was. People still drowned trying to cross rivers as late as the 18th century in the Dales.
The mineral and agricultural wealth of the hills was however a powerful draw and by the Medieval period, networks of roads had been established often by the great monastic land owners of the day. The rich limestone pastures of the Dales fed thousands of sheep and cattle and these were transported ‘on the hoof’ right up until the establishment of the railway network in the 19th century. Wool and lead and other heavy goods were carried by hundreds of packhorses whose nimble hooves allowed the movement of goods along simple upland track ways where no wheeled vehicles could go.
With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, the 18th century saw a greatly increased drive for improved communications throughout the country. The first mail coaches began to follow regular routes through the Dales, bringing letters and news from the outside world. Turnpike roads were perhaps the first physical manifestation of these improved communications quickly followed by canals. Transport routes hundreds of years old were rebuilt, diverted or even abandoned. The settlements that had grown up around them were sometimes profoundly altered as a result. The Dales saw several turnpike roads built and their original milestones still stand beside some of the ones that have remained important cross-country routes such as the Sedbergh Turnpike Trust turnpike running to Kirkby Stephen. The improved roads could make or break a community economically. When the Lancaster-Richmond turnpike was rerouted via Hawes in 1795, it led to that town becoming the dominant market centre in the upper dale, destroying its rival Askrigg’s ancient market in the process.
The coming of the Leeds to Liverpool Canal to Gargrave in 1777 led to further profound economic changes in the Dales. Coal was no longer the expensive and poor quality product mined locally and transported by packhorse and cart over treacherous moorland. Instead, cheap, good quality fuel arrived at the canal side wharves in Gargrave and was eagerly collected and redistributed by carriers along the better quality highways along the valleys.
The Victorian age was the age of the railway and numerous schemes were proposed to bring trains into the Dales. Some succeeded but many more did not. Several companies proposed tunnels from Wharfedale into Bishopdale or Coverdale. Another scheme planned to run a railway line across the falls at Aysgarth causing outrage amongst lovers of that beauty spot. Like the turnpike trusts before them, few of the lines built ever made much money and nearly all have now closed. The Settle-Carlisle line is one that survived thanks to the valiant efforts of 20th century campaigners. With sustainable public transport now being encouraged, there are schemes to reopen other long closed lines such as that along Wensleydale.
The Victorian era saw improvements in the collection and distribution of letter post particularly via the new railways. The first mailboxes appeared, even the most remote settlements had one. Telephone communication followed and several villages in the Dales still proudly preserve their original K6 red telephone boxes. The railway also brought the first mass tourism to the Yorkshire Dales in the 19th century. It was followed by the craze for cycling that saw people travelling right the way from urban centres such as Leeds and Bradford to the heart of the Dales.
The 20th century saw the motor car taking over from the train. County Councils were forced to improve the highways that now lay under their control and today the smooth, metalled roads of the countryside are a far cry from the muddy quagmires enjoyed by our predecessors. The landscape around these roads was what people came for of course. They were attracted by the huge network of quiet green lanes and public rights-of-way that covers the area. Walking, cycling or horse riding in the countryside has become a treasured pastime for thousands of visitors and residents. Even here however, conflict has arisen. Off-roading using 4×4 vehicles and trail bikes has become a leisure pursuit too. Some unmetalled tracks in the National Park are being damaged almost beyond repair by these vehicles and in 2004 the County Council Highways Department had to bring in new rules to try and control the damage on selected routes.
Read our A Way Through project blog for an in depth look at the history of routeways and the people who used them in the Westmorland Dales