Tales from river bank

WHARFEDALE: Chris Berry traces the route of the Wharfe and ex­plores the his­tory of towns and in­dus­tries along the way.

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TWIST­ING and wind­ing its way down from its source in Langstroth­dale, the River Wharfe is one of York­shire’s best­loved and most vis­ited wa­ter­ways. It flows through some of the county’s most iconic land­marks and sev­eral his­toric towns and vil­lages.

Whether you’re hav­ing a pic­nic dur­ing the sum­mer in the fields along­side the river at Burn­sall, with the Red Lion pub close by; or whether you’re on Ilk­ley Moor with­out a hat (not ad­vis­able at this time of year); or walking along the river in Ot­ley or Wetherby, you’re in the Wharfe Val­ley.

Over 97km long, the Wharfe should per­haps be re­named the Fes­ti­val River as each of the towns has devel­oped its own in­di­vid­ual renowned event over the past decades. Ket­tlewell has be­come famed for its Scare­crow Fes­ti­val; Grass­ing­ton has its Dick­en­sian Christ­mas Fes­ti­val; Ilk­ley has its Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val; there’s Ot­ley Folk Fes­ti­val and there’s Wetherby Fes­ti­val of Drama and Mu­sic. They col­lec­tively bring in ad­di­tional thou­sands of vis­i­tors to their ar­eas each year.

All of th­ese are an in­di­ca­tion that to­day’s Wharfe Val­ley is re­liant much more on tourism than pre­vi­ous in­dus­tries. Dur­ing the 17 to 19th-cen­turies lead min­ing was one of the most prom­i­nent busi­nesses along­side agri­cul­ture in this area and the pop­u­la­tion was swelled with mine work­ers.

While farm­ing is still im­por­tant to the area, even though it has be­come more dif­fi­cult for small-scale farm­ing, lead min­ing has long since dis­ap­peared. The Wharfe Val­ley has also be­come a hotspot for “town­ies” mov­ing out of Leeds and Brad­ford in favour of a place in the coun­try dur­ing the past three decades and the towns of Ilk­ley and Ot­ley in par­tic­u­lar have seen house prices rise sub­stan­tially.

Ilk­ley has re­tained its Vic­to­rian charm as a spa town, par­tic­u­larly when shop­ping in The Grove, and yet has adapted to more re­cent times. Its range of in­de­pen­dent shops and bou­tiques puts many cities to shame of­fer­ing an ar­guably far greater va­ri­ety of re­tail es­tab­lish­ments.

It is of course also home to Ilk­ley Moor, which gave the county its na­tional an­them and has an­other York­shire icon – the Cow and Calf – perched high above the town.

It’s also home to one of the largest per­for­mance venues out­side of the county’s ma­jor cities, the King’s Hall, and at­tracts qual­ity en­ter­tain­ers. The Ilk­ley Play­house is a smaller venue ideal for plays and one-man shows.

Ot­ley is very much the ar­che­typal mar­ket town and is one of the few to run its mar­ket on three days a week. It op­er­ates Tues­days, Fri­days and Satur­days from Mar­ket Square and the lanes close by. Farm­ing is still a prom­i­nent part of the town as Wharfedale Farm­ers Live­stock Mar­ket op­er­ates on Mon­days and Fri­days and the town is also proud of its ru­ral her­itage in be­ing home to the old­est agri­cul­tural show in the coun­try.

Ot­ley Show al­ways her­alds the start of the agri­cul­tural sum­mer show cal­en­dar in May. Its lovely flower-bed­ded gar­dens

PIC­TURE: MIKE COWL­ING.

BEAUTY SPOT: The bridge at Linton over the River Wharfe links Linton and Collingham.

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