Situated 8 miles or so beyond the pretty Dales town of Pately Bridge, How Stean Gorge has been a visitor attraction since the Victorian era. The present owners have upgraded it considerably and it now offers outdoor adventure activities for families, schools groups, and even corporate training events. On our visit, on a slightly damp and drizzly late December day however, it was nice and quiet.
The drive from Pately Bridge takes you alongside the River Nidd for a fair distance before the immense expanse of Gouthwaite Reservoir appears. The reservoir is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and home to a large number of bird species. There are several viewing areas along its shores that allow for a chance to observe the wildlife. This stretch of the road is very like those you find around the Lake District and the scenery is similar, with wooded slopes and rolling, heather strewn moorland above. Just beyond the attractive village of Lofthouse is the car-park and reception for How Stean Gorge. Slowly driving over the bridge to the car park gave our excited kids their forst glimpse of the gorge itself. Running for almost 1km in length and up to 20m deep in places, it is quite something.
We each took a hard hat from the bins at the entrance to the gorge and headed off along the path. This is not a suitable place for anyone with a pushchair or any mobility problems (although the cafe is wheelchair accessible) as the paths are uneven, narrow and follow the river's edge. The trail leads up river several metres above the river itself. From this vantage point it is easy to see the power of the water as it cascades through the narrow, limestone gorge. The rock has been eroded into twisting curves and the water froths and tumbles on its way downstream. The noise of the river echoes back and forth between the steep banks and adds to the atmosphere of adventure. We were only walking along the footpath and the adrenaline was flowing; it must be amazing to be scrambling and wading along the river itself, following the 'Via Ferrara' trail. This guided walk, wade, climb and abseil is bookable online and does look both exhilarating and terrifying in equal parts; especially as the safety lines, ariel ladders and walkways are clearly visible from the pathway. Needless to say, our fourteen year old son has requested that we book for him to go for his next birthday!
Today was to be rather more sedate although we did get to scramble along the river bank and feel the power of the water at close quarters. First, though, we headed along the trail to find Aslan. This carved wooden statue was apparently commissioned by Disney as promotion for the recent Chronicles of Narnia films, although quite how it ended up here is not entirely clear. Other information about the gorge is more forthcoming thanks to a series of information boards posted at regular intervals along the trail. These give historical, botanical and geological information as well as encouraging younger visitors to look out for various examples of wildlife and flora. At the end of the trail is How Stean Tunnel which provides some slightly more challenging terrain, with caves and rock formations to explore. Due to the high water levels we decided not to risk this particular section and, instead, headed back downstream towards Tom Taylor's Cave.
Crossing the gorge on one of the narrow beam footbridges, we made our way to the mouth of the Cave. Named after a local ne'er do well and highwayman, the cave is a 300ft tunnel under the river bank. Originally used by Tom Taylor as a hideout and store for his ill-gotten loot, this is a great first experience for a novice caver. Just inside the entrance to the cave, on the left, a rope allows access into a smaller chamber. It is a bit of a strenuous climb but, I was informed by Mrs M, well worth it. The main tunnel is entered via a wooden staircase. The passage is narrow and low at times (hence the hard hats!) but relatively easy going. Our five-year-old managed it and enjoyed using the torch she had been given to illuminate the rock formations and the sources of the water dropping from above. At the far end of the tunnel, as we had taken it, is 'the beehive chamber' and just beyond this a natural staircase leads upwards to emerge into daylight in 'Cat Hole' not far from the car park. It was here that Minimonkey was delighted to meet some of the local wildlife; a very cheeky and surprisingly confident robin came to investigate her boots.
We decided to make our way back through the cave to the river bank. Another narrow bridge took us across the river again to a long, low flat rock from which we skimmed stones and would probably have had our picnic had I not left it on the dining table at home. Instead we headed to the tearooms for a well-deserved cake and a cuppa. Having successfully navigated the river bank and twice through the cave, Minimonkey celebrated the end of her walk by having to be rescued from the top of the climbing frame in the small playground outside the cafe. The tearooms sell home-cooked food using locally sourced ingredients, as well as a selection of delicious cakes. I had never heard of it before but can heartily recommend the Jap. Once again the service was friendly and cheerful, and the lady in the cafe was very apologetic that there was nothing wheat or egg-free for Minimonkey to eat.
Feeling tired and happy, we chatted over our drinks and looked at the artworks by local artists that are displayed on the tearoom walls. Our favourite was the sculpture of a viking longboat made from retired stainless steel teapots and jugs from the cafe. After a quick visit to the loos and the obligatory stop at the small giftshop, we said goodbye and headed back in the fading daylight. Passing through the dusky countryside, seeing the Christmas lights in the houses of Lofthouse and Ramsgill, I turned to ask the Monkeykids what they had enjoyed most about the day...but they were all asleep in the back of the car.
Full details about How Stean Gorge can be found at their website.