Tales from river bank
WHARFEDALE: Chris Berry traces the route of the Wharfe and explores the history of towns and industries along the way.
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
BEAUTY SPOT: The bridge at Linton over the River Wharfe links Linton and Collingham.