As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Nidderdale, Jane Dunford overcomes her fear of heights to cross deep gorges and scale steep cliffs at spectacular How Stean Gorge, a 1km-long limestone chasm in the Nidderdale AONB.
I’ve never had much of a head for heights, so as I prepare to step onto the metal beam that crosses How Stean Gorge I fix my eyes on the rockface opposite, determined not to look down. My heart’s thumping and my legs are a little weak, but slowly I inch my way across, ignoring the rush of the river below – and it’s with a definite sense of relief that I reach the other side.
In the heart of the Nidderdale AONB, How Stean Gorge is a spectacular limestone chasm almost 1km long and 20m deep, and the on-site outdoor centre offers various ways of exploring. I’m trying out the Via Ferrata – a network of beams, ladders and cables set in the rocks that will have you traversing the cliffs, crossing the gorge and scrambling up boulders. First developed in the Italian Dolomites to help troops cross the mountains during the WWI, there are just two ‘Iron Roads’ in the UK.
‘It’s not your standard going for a walk,’ says Monty, Head of Outdoor Education and our guide for the day. ‘It’s all about overcoming your fears, trying something new, having fun, and seeing the gorge in a different way.’ Though a tad challenging, you’re thoroughly safe – a metal rope runs the length of the course and you clip yourself on as you move around. I’m feeling pretty brave and pleased with myself for not giving into vertigo, until Monty mentions he had an eight-year-old doing it the other day. Hmmm.
There are lots of different adventures offered at How Stean. Go for the Gorge Scramble and you’ll abseil 20 metres off a bridge and then head upstream, climbing over rocks, sliding down waterspouts, sitting under waterfalls and swimming through deep rock pools. You can go canoeing on one of the reservoirs in Nidderdale, or try rock climbing at Brimham Rocks, a weird and wonderful collection of rock formations not far away. Caving is another option too.
As it’s a wet and cold day in November, being underground seems to be the best choice – and, dressed in orange all-in-one caving suits, we head off to Manchester Hole, a cave nearby. It’s my first time caving and I’m a little wary as I inch my way into the main chamber, eyes blinking to adjust to the darkness. A classic river cave, we walk through the water, as the walls and roof slowly close in. Along the way Monty points out fossils and unusual rock shapes and talks about how the caves were formed. We crawl on hands and knees through a narrow passage, our Wellington boots filling with icy water, emerging into another chamber and scrambling up over muddy banks. ‘It’s the oldest mud in Yorkshire,’ says Monty ‘dumped here in the last Ice Age’. In the dark, water droplets sparkle on the roof reflecting our torches, like constellations in the night sky.
Slowly we make our way back to the roof entrance and pop out into a grassy field as dusk begins to fall, tired but exhilarated. We head back to the centre for hot chocolate and cake – a great end to a day of adventure, both above and below ground.