It was decided that we would spend a day in Ilkley, a prosperous small town set in the beautiful Wharfe Valley of West Yorkshire. The town is located between Skipton and Harrogate and there is a rail link to Leeds.
From the railway station, we walked up Wells Road to the famous Ilkley Moor which lies above the town. A moor is a tract of uncultivated heath on an uphill slope with low growing vegetation such as bracken and heather. There’s a well known folk song ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’ At’ – meaning ‘On Ilkley Moor without a hat’ which is sung in the local dialect and is often referred to as the unofficial Yorkshire anthem.
Passing the junction with Crossbeck Road we followed a signpost to Ilkley Tarn, a peaceful small lake before climbing some stone steps towards White Wells. This white washed stone cottage perched on top of the moor contains a bath dating back to Roman times (Olicana being the Roman name for Ilkley).
White Wells was instrumental in establishing Ilkley as a spa town and several large hydros were built in the town during the 19th century where people could come ‘to take the waters’ in the belief that their ailments would be cured. Charles Darwin visited Ilkley in 1859 and is believed to have taken the waters at White Wells. There is now a garden in his honour nearby.
Visitors can still ‘take the waters’ today in the plunge pool. Surprisingly, the busiest day of the year for visitors wishing to ‘plunge’ is New Year’s Day when more than 100 brave (or foolhardy) people shiver in the White Wells plunge pool. There is no charge for ‘plunging’ but visitors need to come prepared with their swimwear and towels. A certificate of ‘plunging’ can be purchased as a souvenir afterwards. Rather than ‘take the waters’ we preferred to sit with mugs of coffee in the adjacent cafe. To find out whether White Wells is open or not, check to see if the flag is flying as this is the indication to walkers from lower down the moor.
A footpath from White Wells takes walkers towards the Rocky Valley and Ilkley Quarry. One of the best known attractions of the moor are the ‘Cow and Calf Rocks’ high on Ilkley Moor. The craggy outcrop and the smaller single rock are both slabs of millstone grit (similar to sandstone) and are said to resemble a cow sheltering her calf looking across the dramatic moorland. It’s a popular local beauty spot and when we visited we spotted hill walkers and rock climbing enthusiasts in the area. There are fine views looking down to the town centre and along the Wharfe Valley from here. There is a refreshment kiosk by the car park whilst across the road you will find the Cow and Calf Hotel. This country pub was a former 19th century spa hotel, modernised it still retains its rustic charm and affords panoramic views both of the moorland and the town below. There is a large beer garden where you will also find an old Victorian well.
After stopping for a lunchtime snack at the pub we made our way down Hangingstone Road which leads onto Cowpasture Road to return to the town centre. The main shopping street is called ‘The Grove’ and along this tree lined avenue you will find some beautiful Victorian buildings housing high class shops, many of which are small independent retailers. One of my favourites is The Grove Bookshop one of the largest independent book stores in the north of England, with it’s delightful window displays and well stocked shelves. Ilkley is home to one of the north of England’s largest Literature Festivals, this event taking place in October. A little further down the road you will find Betty’s Tea Rooms, the quintessential English purveyor of fine teas with a cake shop at the front and tea rooms to the rear. Waitresses wear long black skirts and frilled white blouses with large white pinafores.
From The Grove, we turned onto Brook Street towards the river. Stretching alongside the River Wharfe are the Riverside Gardens, a popular place to relax or take a stroll. Just by the old bridge is the starting point of The Dales Way a long distance footpath starting here in Ilkley and continuing 78 miles to Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria. The walk passes along rivers, over moors and across limestone pavements before ending on the banks of Lake Windermere in the Lake District National Park
Before returning home we wandered along to the Bluebell Woods on the Middleton side of the river as at this time of the year the flowers create a fragrant blue carpet across the hillside. If you happen to visit Ilkley in May do try and spend a little time in the woods, access is via Denton Road and parking is available opposite the suspension bridge just by the entrance gate to the woods, it takes about 20 minutes to walk back to the town centre from here.