Landscape of the Yorkshire Dales

The natural features of the Dales are the result of erosion by glacier ice. Weathering of limestone, shale, sandstone and millstone grit laid down about 300 million years ago has created the scenery that we see today. Visitors can explore this fascinating, distinctive landscape of open moorland, rounded valleys, crags and hills. The area is particularly well known for its splendid limestone formations of: scars, caves, dramatic waterfalls and the expanses of fissured rock known as pavements.

The making of the landscape

From the times of early settlers, who made forest clearings for their stock, man has shaped the dales landscape. Evidence can be seen of cultivation terraces on the steep hillsides, particularly in Littondale, near Reeth in Swaledale and Castle Bolton in Wensleydale.

Many villages and topographical names have originated from Angles, Saxon and Norse settlers. A few interesting examples are Arncliffe (eagle's cliff), Askrigg (the ash ridge), and Grinton (the green enclosure). 'Dale' is the Norse word for valley.

The Middle Ages brought the Normans, who built castles and created hunting forests. From the 12th century the great Abbeys of Fountains, Jervaulx and Easby were founded. The monks established large farms in the Dales, by clearing trees, scrub and draining marshes and the Jervaulx monks are said to have bred the Swaledale sheep and introduced the first Wensleydale cheese for which the area is famous.

After the Dissolution of the monasteries land passed into private hands and gradually farmhouses were constructed. It was at this time that many of the drystone walls were built followed by the Enclosure Acts of the 18th century which encouraged landowners to take over what had previously been common land.

Lead mining too has been an important industry in the Dales. Signs of the workings can be seen today, softened by vegetation over the last century, and ruined smelt mills and peat stores remain as testament to a once great industry.

A variety of natural habitats

Everywhere there are fields and roadside verges brimming with wild flowers. Sweet cicely in the spring, meadow cranesbill, dog daisies and meadow sweet in the summer, giving way to scabious and harebell. The area is particularly famous for the flower-rich hay meadows, some of which have up to fifty different species of wildflowers.

The moorland edges provide a popular breeding ground for the curlew, while dippers and grey wagtails frequent the rivers. Lapwings can be spotted throughout the area and the distinctive 'ok-ok-ok' call and whirring flight of the red grouse is frequently heard before the bird is seen.

The Yorkshire Dales are a spectacular, beautiful and living landscape. While tourism is becoming increasingly important, the local economy is still very dependent on farming and many of the customs and festivals have their origins in agriculture. In recent years a growth in home-working has brought renewed vigour to many villages.

Yew Cougar Scar in Littondale Typical upland river scenery Swaledale haymeadow
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