7.8 miles (12.5 kilometres) circular walk from Knaresborough. Winter, sun and cloud, solo.
Knaresborough train station is a fine place. It has an antiques shop, a den full of art and crafts and an excellent café in the old ticket office. I have to tear myself away or I’ll lose an hour browsing for books and having another full English. But there are worse starts to the day. And I’m heading to one of my favourite spots, Nidd Gorge.
The River Nidd rises on the slopes of Great Whernside (not to be confused with Whernside which is greater than Great Whernside) and flows into the River Ouse near York. It is particularly splendid as it cuts through Nidd Gorge at Knaresborough and on towards the railway viaduct. The second railway viaduct I should say, the first one collapsed shortly before it was due to open in 1848.
I leave town via the church and some steep steps heading for Conyngham Hall, the start and end point of the annual Bed Race. Yes indeed, once a year the people of Knaresborough pull beds with 10 year old children in crash helmets up and down the steep hills for two and a half miles and then in and out of the river. It is described as ‘a wondrous spectacle’ or if you prefer, barmy as a box of frogs.
Today everything is more peaceful as I cross the wooden bridge over to Horseshoe Field and into Foolish Wood. The blackbirds of Foolish Wood are out in force, worms dangling from their beaks. It feels like a false start to Spring. Everywhere there are handsome gnarly old oaks which I see the best of before their Spring clothes arrive. I’m on the pathway to Bilton and there’s a gentle breeze riffling the blackthorns.
As I peer in there’s an vivid lichen which up close looks like a miniature psychedelic world. The beauty is in the detail today. I realise I know absolutely nothing about lichen and I resolve to make this the year I spend looking for them. Looks like I’ll be haunting graveyards for a while then.
At Bilton I spy a pair of bullfinches in the tree. They are bright and bulbous, like fat Easter eggs. After Bilton the path joins the route of the old Gasworks Railway, a very pleasant path which I share with several hounds. In addition to my resolution to haunt graveyards, it appears my shadow has morphed into the grim reaper.
Now that I am noticing the tiny things I see something I had long forgotten about, hazel flowers. If you look on hazel buds when the catkins are coming out you will see the tiniest, most vibrant fuchsia coloured flowers, looking like sea anemones in the air.
At the viaduct I get a birdseye view of the gorge I’m about to descend into. I also get vertigo as I really don’t like heights. It looks like there are at least two paths so I take the low route. I really want to see a kingfisher. My son spotted one here in the Summer but in theory it should be easier without the tree leaves. Well that’s the theory.
Steep and slidey down into the gorge there’s a woodpecker drilling. It’s incredibly loud, the sound is amplified by the sides of the gorge, I can hear the reverb. It’s beautiful down here and I almost have it to myself. In Summer it’s a different story.
There’s no kingfisher yet but I see a hunch-backed grumpy heron on the opposite bank, motionless. A little further on I see a dipper with his distinctive white bib paddling on a rock in the middle of some choppy water. But no kingfisher. The further I go the more I start to think every stump and overhanging branch would be an excellent spot for a kingfisher, and in fact it’s extremely churlish of them not to turn up. All I want is a single bright blue dart, a vaccination against whatever blues February has lined up for me.
Halfway along the gorge I cross the footbridge over to the north bank, where things are slightly muddier. It’s tempting to go to higher ground into the woods but there are some sandy beaches where I can lurk behind a tree, looking for nothing in particular. Alright looking for a bloody kingfisher.
It’s not possible to walk all the way back into Knaresborough on the river as there’s a small group of wealthy homeowners who clearly don’t want people on their land. It’s perhaps 6 plots of land but it necessitates a big detour onto a main road past their gated frontages. I had a lot of fun swearing at each massive house as I walked by. Did you know only 2% of English and Welsh rivers have public access? That makes us one of the worst places in the world for river access rights. Something we should be ashamed of.
It will not surprise you that even though I walked the length of the gorge looking carefully, I did not see a kingfisher. They were there of course, sitting silently, waiting until I had gone, cackling inwardly like a yaffle. So here instead is a fabulous image taken by Andreas Trepte. It’ll just have to do.
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More walks in this area
You’ll find this walk, or one very like it, listed on many sites and in guidebooks. My GPX is here.
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