Swale Way walk logoThe 80-mile, six day Swale Way follows the length of the River Swale in North Yorkshire from its confluence with the River Ure near Boroughbridge to its source at the head of Swaledale, where Birkdale Beck and Great Sleddale Beck meet, in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It is a walk of contrasts – along the way it passes through the historic market towns of Boroughbridge, Thirsk and Richmond with their numerous tourist attractions. It passes famous battle sites and historic parkland; through lush meadows and dramatic gorges and travels the length of Swaledale, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all the Yorkshire Dales.

The Swale Way was originally conceived by John Brock of the Ramblers Association in 1995. The route was then revised by members of the Walkers are Welcome towns of Boroughbridge, Thirsk and Kirkby Stephen. Now a brand new guide book is available, drawing heavily on these original sources. It makes use of new paths that have been opened up by the Open Access legislation and permissive paths from landowners such as the Ministry of Defence, to trace a route through one of Yorkshire’s most iconic landscapes.


By taking advantage of little known paths on the south of the river between Richmond and Keld, the Swale Way manages to avoid the crowds of the Coast to Coast, which also runs through the valley. The views of Swaledale are expansive as the Way climbs away from the river to follow the path around Stainton Moor to Haggs Gill and down through the hay meadows into Grinton and Reeth. From there the Way crosses the suspension bridge and uses quiet paths beside the Swale before crossing back to pass through Gunnerside and the spectacular Kisdon Gorge to reach Keld. From there, a short walk brings the Way to Birkdale and the start of the Swale. Job done; river followed from end to start, the Way climbs to the iconic cairns on Nine Standards Rigg and then drops down into Kirkby Stephen.

The new guide book includes a planning section with accommodation guide, town facilities, advice and guidance. It includes a detailed route guide with walking directions and a set of annotated maps. The book is peppered with items of local and historical interest, helping to add context to the buildings, bridges and villages along the Way.

The other Rivers Trilogy books can be found on this page.

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Walk Synopsis

  • Section 1
  • Section 2
  • Section 3
  • Section 4
  • Section 5
  • Section 6

Section 1: Boroughbridge to Thirsk
Distance: Approx 16 miles (26 km)
Height Gain: 300 ft (90 m)
Walking Time: 6 to 8 hours

Our walk begins beside the River Ure, which we follow until we reach the confluence with the Swale. From here we use riverside paths and quiet lanes to cross the flat expanse of the Vale of York. A lack of suitable footpaths forces us away from the Swale for a while, so we use a tributary, Cod Beck to continue north. Arable field boundaries, farm tracks and some stretches of tarmac are all employed to deliver us to Thirsk.

Section 2: Thirsk to Morton-on-Swale
Distance: Approx 12 miles (19 km)
Height Gain: 300 ft (90 m)
Walking Time: 5 to 6½ hours

Today we continue beside the picturesque Cod Beck for a while, through woodland and beside field boundaries, avoiding tarmac as much as possible. We cross parkland and walk through small villages before finally being reunited with the River Swale just outside Maunby. A grassy riverside embankment and quiet farm tracks, offering expansive views, bring us to the village of Morton-on-Swale.

Section 3: Morton-on-Swale to Richmond
Distance: Approx 15 miles (24 km)
Height Gain: 900 ft (275 m)
Walking Time: 6 to 8 hours

A little more up and down than the last two days, today’s walk begins to ease us into the hills of tomorrow. Sticking close to the Swale as much as possible, we use field boundaries and riverside paths for most of the day, only resorting to tarmac for a couple of unavoidable sections. We visit the grave of a man reputed to have lived for 169 years and reach the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales, Richmond; with its towering castle and our first waterfalls of the Swale

Section 4: Richmond to Reeth
Distance: Approx 12½ miles (20 km)
Height Gain: 2300 ft (700 m)
Walking Time: 6½ to 8 hours

Today’s walk begins beside the Swale with an undulating walk through some lovely woodland, followed by a steep climb, on steps, up to the open moorland on the way into Downholme. Here we can stop for lunch in the Bolton Arms before we head out on one of the finest moorland paths anywhere in the Dales, around the edge of Stainton Moor. We pass another pub, in Grinton, before our arrival in the busy market town of Reeth.

Section 5: Reeth to Keld
Distance: Approx 12 miles (19 km)
Height Gain: 1600 ft (488 m)
Walking Time: 5½ to 7½ hours

We’re almost close enough to jump into the Swale for the first five miles of today’s walk as we leave Reeth via the “Swing Bridge” and follow riverside paths to Low Houses and Isles Bridge. We climb the side of the valley to visit Smarber Chapel before dropping again into Gunnerside in time for lunch. The afternoon sees us hugging the river again using wide pastures and flood plains to reach the dramatic passage through Kisdon Gorge and the gentle climb up to the tiny, time-locked village of Keld.

Section 6: Keld to Kirkby Stephen
Distance: Approx 12½ miles (20 km)
Height Gain: 1800 ft (549 m)
Walking Time: 6 to 8 hours

Leaving Keld we use farm tracks, field paths, old bridges and a short road section to help us achieve our goal of reaching the source of the Swale, in a remote junction of valleys. Another short road section, along the quiet and picturesque B6270, brings us to a moorland path and the long, steady ascent of Nine Standards Rigg, up to the iconic cairns that sit atop it. Here we can soak in the views before beginning the descent into Kirkby Stephen and journey’s end.


These are some of the most frequently asked questions about this walk, with answers.

Although it may seem illogical, the Swale Way is best walked in an upstream direction, from the end of the river to its source. The beginning of the walk is fairly flat, but will help get your legs in training for the more undulating sections towards the end of the walk. You are also walking towards the stunning scenery of the Yorkshire Dales; something no-one should be made to walk away from, unless you’re planning on joining the Swale Way with the Yoredale Way. Together these two walks form a 160-mile circular walk, but either one can be walked in isolation.

Although there is much to be admired in the scenery and history in the sections from Boroughbridge to Richmond, the scenery dial is turned right up to 11 once we enter the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The path into Keld beside the river is particularly special, as is the sight of the cairns that make up the Nine Standards on the final day, into Kirkby Stephen.

Although the Swale Way is primarily a low level walk, beside the river, the route passes through a diverse array of scenery and even the relatively modest climbs it makes result in some fantastic vistas. The river of course if the star of the walk and we see it in so many states; from slow meanders to crashing white water as it spills over the many waterfalls along its length.

It would be hard not to find historical interest in any long distance walk in England, but the Swale Way seems to have more than its fair share. Battle sites, castles, country estates, an abbey, many lead mining remains and a White Horse to name just a few. The book covers all these in more detail and offers side trips to any that are not directly on the path.

Experienced long distance walkers will not be troubled by any of the stages on the Swale Way. Although a couple of sections are quite long, these days are fairly flat and the hilly sections are generally shorter in length. Navigation is typically fairly simple, using established paths and rights of way wherever possible. The ability to walk for six consecutive days will usually be the biggest shock to the system for someone new to long distance walking.

Each section finishes in close proximity to accommodation, or to public transport links that can be used to reach accommodation. Most stages finish in a town or village where you will be able to find a B&B, inn or hotel. Public transport links along the route are generally good. Kirkby Stephen at the end of the Way, has a train station and good bus links to get you back home, or you could turn round and follow the Yoredale Way back to the start!

This is quite a subjective question and really depends on your walking preferences. The section between Reeth and Keld is many people’s favourite; there’s even a bus service that runs between the two. The Swale valley north of Muker is absolutely stunning and as you progress deeper into the gorge, before reaching Keld, the river runs over a series of splendid waterfalls. Walk in the direction of the guide book for the best experience.

If you prefer hills, then the last day into Kirkby Stephen offers an ascent of the iconic Nine Standards Rigg; the peat haggs (bogs) you must cross have now been tamed by flag stones, thanks to the popularity of the route as part of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk.

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