Middleton Moor is the southernmost tip of the vast expanse of moorland to the north of Ilkley which stretches up past Blubberhouses to Barden Moor and beyond. In the last two or three hundred years improved drainage and population pressure have led to the moor’s contraction, but up to the mid-nineteenth century the traveller would have been on largely uninhabited and uncultivated land soon after crossing Ilkley Old Bridge, with few landmarks to guide him. Corn-dealers (“badgers”) and pedlars of other goods travelled across the moor from Ilkley to Ripon, or from Skipton to Knaresborough. On this walk we follow in their footsteps for a short distance, passing four of the ancient guideposts which pointed the way. The walk crosses Access Land but uses public rights of way.
The walk begins in Ilkley in New Brook Street. If we were truly following the packhorse route, we should start at Ilkley Old Bridge, since in the old days, before the bridge in New Brook Street was completed in 1905, that was the only crossing. Pedlars would come from Keighley over the Moor past Whetstone Gate and descend the track into Ilkley, before climbing again to Middleton Moor. But that route today would mean a long slog up a road of houses, so we shall take the more interesting track through Middleton Woods.
So, from New Brook Street, walk north and turn right into Curly Hill. After 50 yards take footpath (fingerpost) on left up steps into Middleton Woods. This ancient wood is particularly beautiful in Spring when carpeted with bluebells.
Climb up through the trees to a fork and take the left branch, soon crossing a boardwalk. Immediately on crossing the boardwalk, at fork, take the right (lesser) branch to climb steeply through the wood. Keep on this path until, with end of wood visible above, you strike a broad track. Turn left. Follow this fine track through the edge of the wood, curling left to a bench (on your right) and a boulder (on your left). Here, bear right on the main path, soon exiting the wood at a waymarked stile. Cross the field a quarter right to find a stile 40 yards right of a metal gate on far side of field. Now turn left along Slates Lane.
After a hundred yards, as you pass Hardings Lane on the right, peer over the fence into the wood on the right to see the first ancient guidepost of the day.
Hardings Lane is part of the old route from Ilkley to Ripon, and the stone gives directions to Keighley and Ripon, though it has been turned through 90° at some point.
Hardings Lane guidepost
Continue to the next corner and turn right up a tarmacked lane. (‘Myddleton Grange’ nameplate facing you and fingerpost on right.) After 20 paces, spot the opening in the wood on the right (arrows), which may be obscured by parked cars. Go through the wood on the narrow track (it just cuts off a corner, so if you miss it, turn right with the lane at the next corner) and emerge in stony drive (garage on left, cottage on right). After a few yards turn right into the lane past more cottages (one called ‘Rose Cottage betwixt 2 thorns’) with wood on left. Continue a short way until lane turns sharp left (notice, ‘Private road, bridlepath only’). Do not turn left with lane. Instead go through gate ahead, with wood at first on left then fields on both sides. On arriving at a metal gate pass through and then immediately turn right (fingerpost), following wall on your right past the wood to emerge in Hardings Lane.
Cross the road and take the stony track going off half left (sign prohibiting vehicles). This is Parks Lane. After a short half-mile go through a metal gate to a concrete apron, with a rubble heap on your left. At the wall on your right, by a track coming up from Hunger Hill, is the second guidepost of the day, pointing the ways to ‘Rippon’, ‘Ilklea’, Skipton, and ‘Ottley’.
At this point the road from Ilkley to Ripon crossed the old high-level route from Otley to Skipton. Although the walls now mark the boundary between the moor and the surrounding fields, in past centuries this guidepost would have stood alone in the midst of moorland, and would have been a welcome sight to the traveller toiling up Hardings Lane wondering if he was still on the right track for Ripon. The face with Rippon and Ilklea inscribed on it is up against the wall, showing that the stone was erected before the wall was built, which was probably in the late 18th or early 19th century. It suggests also that by that time the tracks over the moors had been superseded by better roads elsewhere, rendering the guidepost unnecessary.
Parks Lane guidepost
We are now in Access Land. Several wide tracks are obvious here, leaving in all directions. The traveller from Ilkley to Ripon would have several more miles of moorland ahead of him, over Gawk Hill Ridge to Blubberhouses, but we turn off that track here towards Skipton. With your back to the gate next to the milestone, go straight across the concrete apron in the same line as the walled track which exits at that gate and spot a faint track going off over the grass, to the right of the broad stony track parallel to the wall. The track becomes wider and more obvious as it passes clumps of reeds and is soon visible over the ridge in the distance. Now begins the highlight of the day as you journey over the moor on this gently undulating track with no sound but the cries of the moorland birds, so take your time and make the most of it. This is Badgers Gate, one of the routes over the moor taken by corn-dealers and others from Ripon and Ilkley to Skipton, crossing the Wharfe at Bolton Bridge. It eventually becomes incorporated in the modern road over Langbar and Beamsley Beacon near Beacon Hill House, but we leave it just before that point.
Badgers Gate at Dryas Dike
The track sometimes disappears in the reeds as it crosses boggy patches but it can always be seen farther on. Ignore any cross tracks and keep going in the same general line. March Ghyll Reservoir pops into view on the right. After crossing a beck (Dryas Dike), note the old paving stones of the packhorse trail under foot. Eventually, after about three-quarters of a mile, the track climbs to the brow of a ridge (called Middle Ridge to your right, Long Ridge to your left) where there is a strong cross-track and our third guidepost. This one shows the weary traveller the distances to Otley, Skipton, and Knaresborough.
Guidepost, Long Ridge, Middleton Moor
At the guidepost, instead of descending in the Skipton direction, turn left over Long Ridge along a good track which after ½ mile decants you on to the minor unfenced moorland road (a continuation of Hardings Lane which we met earlier) between Ilkley and Langbar.
Spring Well Farm, Langbar
Turn left along it for about 150 yards to a junction on the right with two tracks leading from it, one with nameplate for Chapel House Farm. Take the right-hand drive down to the farm. With the farm building on your right, turn left with hedge on your right for about 50-60 yards to a gap in the hedge. Pass through, and follow the rough track along the edge of a field and into the next field, now with wall on your left. In the third field enter a walled track which eventually descends to a gate into a field. Go through gate into field and follow track around left edge of field to another gate on your left. Go through into a metalled road and turn right, past The Manor House. Continue down lane to Nesfield, passing bench and old stocks under tree on your right and soon arriving at the old postman’s shelter at the junction with the Ilkley-Bolton Bridge ‘back’ road.
Here turn left along the road. Just after leaving the village, on crossing a road bridge, spot the gravel track on your left and take this track to arrive at stile with twin yellow arrows. Take the right-hand path straight across the field to a metal gate with road a few yards down to your right. Go through gate and continue with wire fence on your right over two more fields to the house at Low Austby. Now go a quarter left up the grass banking (water trough on left and new wire fence on right) for a few yards only, then level off to pass to the left of a gnarled oak. Enter trees, descend muddy slope, cross footbridge, descend into dell, cross a stile, and bear right by fence and trees. After about 50 yards, sweep left up into a field and go straight ahead on a vague path, crossing a hidden ditch. At end of field, cross stile and continue through wood to emerge in a road (Owler Park Road) on the edge of Ilkley. Turn right and descend the hill to meet, near the bottom of the hill, Hardings Lane again. Bear right for the last few yards to reach Nesfield Road (the Ilkley-Bolton Bridge ‘back’ road).
Hardings Lane is the road from Ilkley Old Bridge to Ripon that we journeyed along for a short way earlier. This crossroads with the old low-level road from Otley to Bolton Bridge was probably the original site of a guidepost which is now to be found a few yards away just around the corner on Nesfield Road. The wall to the left of a wooden garden gate there terminates in the old guidepost. What it said is now illegible, but a few years ago the last line ‘Ilkley’ could be made out, and about eighty years ago it was recorded as reading ‘To Ottley 5 miles, To Bowlton Bridge 2 miles’. Owler Park Road and its continuation through Low Austby was probably an old route from Ilkley (and Otley) to Nesfield and Bolton Bridge before improved drainage and road-making techniques made possible the lower modern road by the golf course.
Nesfield Road guidepost
Now cross the road to a sub-station and fingerpost and enter the wide path, soon with the Wharfe on your right. It is possible that the footpath which branches off half left from the river across a field to join the present road to the Old Bridge follows the ancient track. Either take that footpath or follow the riverbank all the way to emerge in the road at Ilkley Bridge. Go over the road ahead and along pavement to a fingerpost and take this path with river on your right back to New Brook Street.
6¼ miles. Map O/S Explorer 297 Lower Wharfedale.