The walk involves a total of approximately 52 miles (84 km) with an overall height gain of around 7,700 feet (2,350 m) and an equal amount of descent of course, as it is a circular walk. The toughest section is likely to be the day that includes the ascent of Great Shunner Fell and although this involves a long steady climb, it is not steep, the path is generally good and is even paved for long sections to protect the peat bogs.
The walk should be well within the limitations of a regular walker or someone with a good level of fitness. The individual day walks themselves are not too arduous, but the fact that they come one after the other in quick succession does mean you need to be adequately prepared.
How many days?
The walk is designed around the four villages of Aysgarth, Grinton, Keld and Hawes and as such is generally considered to be a four day walk. This four day itinerary also means the walk is broken down into four equal stages of about 13 miles (21 km) each day.
The traditional starting point of the Herriot Way is Aysgarth. This guide describes the walk as starting and ending in Aysgarth as this is the way most walkers will proceed. However, as a circular walk, there is no specific need to start here; you could start at any point along the walk.
The walk, unlike most multi-day walks, is circular; the traditional start and end point being in Aysgarth in the heart of Wensleydale – possibly the most famous of all Yorkshire Dales.
If using the traditional starting location of Aysgarth, the route heads north out of the village, down to the River Ure, which it follows closely along wide meadows and a disused railway track until turning into Askrigg. This is the village that was used to film the James Herriot TV series. From Askrigg the route travels down the Wensleydale valley, through lush green fields, down narrow, secluded lanes to the village of Hardraw with its famous waterfall and then into Hawes, the largest town on the route and the highest market town in Yorkshire.
Leaving Hawes the Way climbs up the side of Great Shunner Fell, the third highest mountain in Yorkshire, following the mostly paved footpath of the Pennine Way, to the summit shelter with wide-ranging views across the surrounding dales and hills and then down into Thwaite. From here the path skirts the lower slopes of Kisdon and then drops down again into the tiny settlement of Keld.
Beyond Keld the path says goodbye to rolling green fells and fields and climbs into the bleak and blasted landscape of Gunnerside Moor, changed forever by the lead mining industry that ranged across the moors for decades. The heather however, remains a glorious site despite the industry and now supports the new “industry” of grouse shooting. The Way soon returns to the valley and the wonderful River Swale at Healaugh, before the short walk through fields into Reeth and then to Grinton Lodge.
Grinton Lodge sits right on the edge of the moors and a short hop from the hostel takes the path into the glorious heather and open moorland around Gibbon Hill and then along the rough but easy Apedale Road. After Dent’s Houses the path drops steeply down to the village of Castle Bolton and the atmospheric remains of the castle. More fields and back lanes lead to the very impressive falls at Aysgarth and then to the village itself.
The route follows the River Ure for a short way, past the Aysgarth waterfalls and through farmland and pasture to Castle Bolton, with its famous castle. A steep climb out of the village leads to the first section of open moorland and the rough road up Apedale to the highpoint of day one at Apedale Head. From there a rough track through the heather is used to skirt Gibbon Hill before dropping down Harker Hill to the Youth Hostel at Grinton Lodge, a few hundred yards from the village of Grinton.
From Grinton Lodge the Way drops down the hill to the village and then along the Swale to the market town of Reeth. From here more fields and pastures along the Swale are used to reach Healaugh where the route heads to the moors again, passing many of the remains of the lead-mining industry that left such an indelible mark on the landscape. It also gives access to some of the most impressive heather moorland in England, a truly spectacular place to see in late summer, early autumn when the heather is flowering. The path then drops down to the tiny settlement at Keld, a crossroad of two of the busiest paths in the UK; the Pennine Way and Wainwright’s Coast to Coast.
After leaving Keld, the path skirts around the flanks of Kisdon, before joining the Pennine Way and dropping down into the lovely village of Thwaite. This provides the last chance of sustenance before the path heads out over Great Shunner Fell, a proper Yorkshire mountain and a truly desolate spot when the mist and cloud come down and the wind whips up. The views from the top however are stunning, before heading down again into Hawes; the largest town on the route and the highest market town in Yorkshire.
From Hawes, the route rejoins Wensleydale, taking the Pennine Way as far as Hardraw and its spectacular waterfall and then through hay meadows, pastures and secluded lanes into Askrigg, the TV home of Herriot’s Darrowby. The final stage of the walk follows the Ure through the Wensleydale valley, through lush green fields and a final short climb back into Aysgarth.