by Matt Callard
We’ve been across some wide-open spaces, crossed moors and traversed windswept Lord of the Rings-esque ridges and, noted how, with each footstep further into remoteness, you seem to shrink a little, as nature’s symphony grows and swells. This is what they mean, when they talk about God’s Own Country.
But what about something more intimate? What about the twisting, turning country pathways of rural, lived-in Yorkshire – the churches, the little rivers, the pretty copses, the working farms, the surprises?
Such is ancient Leathley’s English summer quintessence, when my companion and I arrive, there’s a Tea On The Lawn gala in full-swing, munching their way through cucumber sandwiches in front of the Parish Church. So, ever-keen to avoid an awkward conversation with a buck-toothed vicar, it’s with some haste that we leave the useful car park opposite the church and head down tarmacked Hall Lane in front of the Old School House. Curiously, this important set-off point isn’t marked as a public right-of-way by the usually reliable Lower Wharfedale Footpath Group and does have the look of a private road belonging to nearby Leathley Hall – but fear not.
Follow the obvious path (this walk is actually well-marked) until the tarmac fades and the clinking of teacups is far, far behind. You’ll pass stately Leathley Hall on your right. Note the ruined Victorian archway on your left and, if you’re as lucky as we were, you might just hear the strange, unmistakable call of the curlew, active in the fields to your right.
Eventually you’ll meet a metal gate (20 mins). Here you’ll be able to view the famous 20-arch Pannal viaduct in the distance. Pass through the gate, then head on a left diagonal to the far corner of the sheep field. Here you’ll need to jump some stepping stones across a small brook.
You’re very close to nature on this walk. Branches will brush your sleeves, farm animals will stare, there’ll be much scuttling and scraping from the nearby hedgerows and, as you enter Riffa Wood (30 mins), nature will offer up one of its most intimate and eternally breathtaking sites – a bluebell wood in full bloom.
If the sun manages to dapple through the treetops you’ll be truly spoilt. But this is a sight to behold, whatever the weather. Pass the marker-stone on your left and exit this magical place at the top of the slope. Turn left and hug the outer edge of Riffa Wood until things open up. You’ll be offered a brief vista of the south Washburn Valley. Take a right away from the wood and join the track to Stainburn.
This is the simplest and most open part of the walk. You’ll leap a few stiles, avoid a few worryingly frisky cows and generally be in thrall to the timeless wonder of summer in the English countryside. Somersaulting swallows, deep endless green, blessed, blissful peace.
When you eventually reach Stainburn (1 hr 50min), follow the z-bend road left. Leap another stile and enter the yard of the disused, but extremely pretty, St. Mary’s Church. You can borrow the key from the nearby farm if you fancy a peek around the church’s interior. Otherwise, it’s flapjack and coffee time.
Fulfilled, exit the churchyard through the far gate and turn right down Church Lane for a brief road walk. Soon (10 mins) you’ll notice an old, converted chapel. There’s a bridleway running down and left. Take it and reacquaint with nature.
This path will rise and twist and turn, so don’t miss the stile on the left (10 mins). Leap it, cross the field, guide yourself around West End Farm, cross the country road and rejoin the trail across a wide field. After 10 minutes you’ll come to another road, with the track heading straight on into another field. Ignore it and take the road down and left (Pill White Lane). At the junction at the bottom, turn left and follow the tarmac until you meet a lovely roadside cottage. Opposite it is another marked pathway. Join it, and head to the bottom left hand corner of this field where the track will take you alongside a quiet stretch of the River Washburn.
This final mile or so is delightful and complements the entire walk. There’ll be narrow alleys and lovely scenery and lots and lots of butterflies. An increasingly rare sight among our abundant greenery. Head around the back of a couple of residences until, finally (30 mins), you’ll find yourself conveniently returned to the B6161. Turn right – your set-off point, St Oswald’s Church (with its splendid set of stocks by the front wall), is only minutes away.
Brooks and rivers, viaducts and ruins, farms and churches – even archaic implements for the punishment of petty criminals. What more could an English heart desire, save for an ocean of bluebells?
Leathley Walk: Need to know
- DISTANCE: almost 7 miles
- TIME: about 3.5 hours
- WHERE: Leathley is a hamlet about 3 miles to the east of Otley in the southern end of the Washburn Valley. It is on the B6161, which is just off the famous Harrogate Road.
- REFRESHMENTS: The famous Huntsman pub is 5 minutes along Harrogate Road.
- ANYTHING ELSE: Just outside of Leathley is Lindley Farm – the original Emmerdale Farm, no less!