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Up hill and down dale

Yorkshire's rolling dales offer families more than bracing hikes. From exploring a Saxon crypt to scaling a fairy-inhabited waterfall, holidaying around the handsome city of Ripon can fire up young imaginations — and put parenting skills to the test

Up hill and down dale
Swaledale. Credit: Getty

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My daughter is on a thin ledge, 20ft above the point where a waterfall crashes into Malham Tarn. I can’t decide whether I’m worried the water will be deep and fast, and sweep her away, or if it’ll prove too shallow to jump in safely. Oblivious to my mild palpitations — and to the disapproving scowls of a passing walker who makes it clear she thinks I’m a bad parent for allowing my daughter to have climbed up there in the first place — Hannah skips along the ridge and scampers down to ground level as lightly as a fairy, and with the skill of a mountain goat.

The fairy analogy is apt as the waterfall in question is Janet’s Foss, behind which lies a hidden cave that local legend says is home to Janet, Queen of the Fairies (Foss is a Norse word for waterfall). I walked here years ago, on a brief diversion while plodding the Pennine Way; now I’m back with my children for a holiday in the Yorkshire Dales.

We’ve walked for a couple of miles from the tiny village of Malham, alongside Gordale Beck and through woodland. We clamber over half-submerged limestone boulders and tropical-looking gunnera (the plant resembles overgrown rhubarb), and our three children are halted briefly only by the smell of wild garlic.

Later we visit Ripon, a small handsome place that promotes itself as the Cathedral City of the Dales. A fine market place lies at its heart where we find Appleton’s, an excellent butcher selling sausage rolls with sun-dried tomatoes. Narrow streets radiate from the square to points of interest. We take the kids to the Workhouse Museum with its none too subtle message about just how lucky they are to have been born in the 21st century. Sadly, it’s closed, so we make do with showing them the forbidding entrance gates and solid doors which could double as a stage set for Oliver Twist.

We head for the cathedral along Kirkgate, a street lined with a handful of Asia-chic shops, with names like Karma, that sell Himalayan salt lamps and goods of similar provenance. The cathedral turns out to be an unexpected ecclesiastical gem, carved from handsome and warm sandstone. Inside we descend into the Saxon crypt, meant to resemble the tomb where Jesus was laid after crucifixion, and then emerge back into daylight to admire the intricately carved animalistic misericords.

Fountains Abbey lies just to the west of Ripon. We plan to spend an hour or so there but end up devoting the best part of a day to its substantial charms. It’s easy to see why the ruins are regarded as the best of their kind in England; they’re ranged over a large area and vary from domestic to industrial buildings, from a presbytery and cloister to a brewery. We dutifully point out transepts and the vaulted nature of the cellarium; the children gravitate towards the medieval remains of the latrine.

The interpretation for children is excellent and there’s a small centre where they can dress up as monks, though they clearly lean towards the non-silent orders. Above the ruins we come to a bird hide that overlooks a dozen or so feeders. We see 22 species in just 15 minutes, including woodpeckers and a hungry sparrowhawk in pursuit of an easy meal. “This is a banquet for birds of prey,” points out my son, Thomas, a huge smile on his face at the prospect of some avian drama.

Along the return to our base near Richmond (the North Yorkshire one), in Swaledale, the children count the dales we’ve crossed (five) and get an impromptu geography lesson on how the dales of Yorkshire and the wider Pennines are aligned. We settle on the metaphor of a multi-storey building, with each dale representing a floor, one above the other. Malhamdale is just below Nidderdale (for Ripon), from where you must travel up a couple of floors via Wensleydale to reach Swaledale. The ground floor of this Pennine ‘tower block’, we establish, is Edale (in the Peak District) and the roof garden is Tweeddale up on the Scottish border. That’s — more or less — the dales explained. It’s one of those rare moments where you feel like a good parent.

Natural Retreats’ Yorkshire Dales lodges (0843 249 5453) near Richmond start at £440 for three nights. More information at Richmond Tourist Information Centre.