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Wensleydale is one of only a few Yorkshire Dales not currently named after its principal river, but the older name, Yoredale, can still be seen on some maps and as the Yoredale Series of geological strata. The dale takes its name from the village of Wensley, which is a derivative of Woden's ley, or meadow of the pagan god Woden, while the valley itself takes its name from the village which was formerly a market town.
The valley is famous for its cheese, with the main commercial production at Hawes. Most of the dale is within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Part of lower Wensleydale, below East Witton, is within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Wensleydale was the home of one of Yorkshire's most famous clans, the Metcalfes, after they emigrated from Dentdale. The Metcalfe Society hold records dating back to Metcalfes living in the area during the 14th century. They were one of the most prominent families in Yorkshire for over five centuries. Sir James Metcalfe (1389–1472), who was born and lived in Wensleydale, was a captain in the army which fought with King Henry V in the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Metcalfe is still one of the most common surnames in Yorkshire.
Bolton Castle in the village of Castle Bolton is a notable local historic site. Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned here. The story goes that she escaped and made her way towards Leyburn only to lose her 'shawl' on the way, hence the name ('The Shawl') of the cliff edge that runs westward out of Leyburn and is a well-known spot for easy walks with excellent views.
Wensleydale's principal settlements are Hawes and Leyburn; Aysgarth, Bainbridge, and Middleham are well-known villages. The shortest river in England, the River Bain, links Semerwater to the River Ure, at Bainbridge, the home to an Ancient Roman fort (part of the Roman road is walkable, up Wether Fell). Hardraw Force, the highest above-ground unbroken waterfall in England, is located at Hardraw, near Hawes. Aysgarth Falls (High, Middle, Low) are famous for their beauty (rather than their height), attracting far-off visitors; they were also featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Other notable waterfalls are at West Burton, and Whitfield Gill Force, near Askrigg.
Wensleydale stretches some 25 miles (40 km) from west to east. It lies between Wharfedale (to the south), and the quieter Swaledale (to the north, via Buttertubs Pass). Several lesser-known dales are branches of Wensleydale: on the north side Cotterdale, Fossdale and Apedale and on the south side, from west to east, Widdale, Sleddale, Raydale, Bishopdale, Waldendale and Coverdale.
Below Wensleydale, the River Ure flows east and south, becomes navigable, changes its name to the River Ouse, passes through York, becomes the Humber estuary, flows under the Humber Bridge past Hull, Immingham, and Grimsby, and meets the North Sea off Spurn Head. On the way it collects the waters of the River Swale, River Nidd, River Wharfe, River Aire, River Derwent and River Trent.
Wensleydale is a common destination for visitors who like walking on mountains, moorland, dale-sides, and valley bottoms. Hawes and Leyburn are popular because of their age, location and facilities (pubs, shops, teashops, and hotels). Hawes is the home of a rope-makers (Outhwaites), where visitors can see the manufacturing process.
The Wensleydale Railway operates in Wensleydale. It currently runs between Leeming Bar, the A1 and Redmire, near Castle Bolton. The railway's long-term plan is eventually to run the whole length of the valley and connect again with the National Rail network at both ends: at Garsdale on the Settle-Carlisle Railway in the west and Northallerton on the East Coast Main Line in the east. It is hoped this may help relieve some of the current traffic congestion that the valley suffers from during the busiest months.
Some visitors come to Wensleydale due to its connection with Richard III, who was brought up in Middleham Castle, of which sufficient ruins remain to be well worth a visit. Middleham itself is a pleasant village with pubs and horse-racing connections (several stables). In the market place stands a stone carving, believed to be a boar's head, signifying where the animal market was during the 15th century as well as representing Richard's personal standard, the white boar.
Each August, visitors and local people gather at the edge of Leyburn for the Wensleydale Agricultural Show, which takes place in August. The 2013 event took place on Saturday 24 August.
- Simpson, David. "Wensleydale". Yorkshire, England. Retrieved 3 November 2012.
- UK Rivers Guidebook
- The Independent
- Show, Wensleydale. "The Wensleydale Show". Retrieved 17 May 2013.