Walking through a remarkable 18th-century Romantic landscape enjoyed in the 19th and neglected for much of the 20th.
Distance 5.6 miles (9km)
Minimum time 2hrs 15min
Ascent/gradient 623ft (190m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Woodland paths (muddy at all times), field tracks, 3 stiles
Landscape Artificial Romantic garden, woods and river gorge
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 298 Nidderdale
Start/finish SE 230765
Dog friendliness Dogs can be off lead in woodland
Parking Roadside parking in Grewelthorpe
Public toilets None on route
1 From the village, walk up the road towards Masham. Just beyond the speed restriction sign, turn right over a plank bridge by the Woodland Trust sign. The path winds through the wood, and down stone steps. Ignore a stile on the left and continue down into the woods, alongside a gully. You are now in Hackfall Woods.
2 Eventually the path takes a sharp right fork into the valley bottom to meet a main path, signed 'Ripon Rowel Walk'. Follow the path left across the stream, then take a right fork across a footbridge to see the River Ure on the right. This is one of the most spectacular stretches of the river, where it passes through a narrow gorge - a mid 19th-century guidebook spoke of 'the abyss at your feet, where the black waters sleep in cavernous gloom.'
3 Go through a gate, across a tiny footbridge, turn right through a gate in a wall and go back into the woods. The path rises and comes out of the woods at a signed gate. Go along the grassy track up to another gate and turn right along the track to reach farm buildings. Turn left, taking a track towards the road. At the top of the track turn left along a grassy track parallel with the road, and eventually join it. As the road bends left and the wood starts, go through a gate on the right with a Forestry Commission notice on it. Just after the gate, take a grassy track on the left, up through the wood to reach a stony track. Go left for a few paces, then continue uphill on the grassy track, to cross another stony track and bend slightly right to continue up the grassy path. At the edge of the woodland you will meet a track going left. Follow this track left for about 100yds (91m), then turn right down towards a small gate at the edge of the field.
4 Follow the path half left towards the top of the hill to a stile. Continue along the field side, with a hedge on the left, to another stile in the hedge. Go diagonally right across the field with a trig point to the left and over two more stiles. Near the trig point you may be able to make out the angle of the earthworks marking an early farming enclosure; its age has not been accurately determined. There are also wide views - Roseberry Topping is visible in clear weather. Go diagonally to the opposite corner of the field, veering away from the buildings to reach a road through two stone posts. Turn left along the road back to Grewelthorpe, where you might reflect on the 19th-century guidebook's words 'To those who are gladdened by the works of Nature, and a ramble in an umbrageous retreat, there cannot be afforded a richer treat than a trip to Hackfall.'
Once among the most famous of gardens in England, Hackfall Woods. was painted by Turner, recommended by Wordsworth as a place to visit on the way to the Lake District - and was even depicted on a Wedgwood dinner service owned by Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Laid out in the 1730s by William Aislabie as an antidote to the formality of his father's nearby Studley Royal, it attracted visitors right up to the 1920s.
During your walk you will see some of the buildings Aislabie built there, mostly Gothic follies and garden houses, now in disrepair. Hackfall was sold in 1932 to a timber merchant, who felled the beech trees and left the rest to moulder. Its rescue has come about through the Woodland Trust, which now manages it with a light hand and with the support of the local Hackfall Trust.
The Crown Inn in Grewelthorpe, nearly 400 years old, serves home-cooked bar meals and also has a popular restaurant. It prides itself on its real ales. For a wider choice, the city of Ripon is only 20 minutes drive away.
Masham (pronounced Massam) north of Grewelthorpe, has a huge market square and a fine church. It is renowned for its annual sheep fair, but these days many visitors come for the two breweries - Theakston's and Black Sheep. The older, Theakston's, is famous for its Old Peculier beer, named after a legal quirk that meant that Masham had its own 'Peculier' courts, free of interference from the Archbishop of York. Adjoining is the rival Black Sheep Brewery, set up by another of the Theakston family, which has equally good ales.
Scattered through the woods at Hackfall are the ornamental buildings, now ruinous, that once formed stopping points on the tour of the gardens. The octagonal Fisher's Hall, dated on a tablet 1750, was built by Aislabie to commemorate his gardener, John Fisher. More substantial are Mowbray Castle, a Gothic sham-ruin tower, subject of a painting by Turner; and Mowbray Point Banqueting House. This is a classical fantasy, with two distinct faces - one Greek and the other Roman. The servants who waited on the gentry during their banquets had their own Gothic building some distance away. It is hard to make out the other buildings, which included a rustic temple made of cyclopean stones, and the Sand Bed Hut, described by one writer as a 'prehistoric folly.' Of the Alum Spring, the great fountain and the waterfall, only a few steams and fern-filled pools remain.