The River Ribble is pretty special. It begins high in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, where countless becks merge and carve out Ribblesdale, a landscape famed for its astonishing natural beauty. The river then winds south and into Lancashire, where it does something unique: flowing west to end in the Irish Sea. Interestingly, it is the only river that begins in Yorkshire that does this.
The Ribble’s journey through Lancashire is also spellbinding, as it plots a course between the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the upland mass of Pendle Hill. This is a landscape so delightful that it inspired much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Shire in the ‘Lord of the Rings’. The river empties into the sea via the Ribble Estuary, the most important wetland site in Britain on account of the hundreds of thousands of over-wintering birds that flock to the area.
It’s no surprise that such a remarkable river has an equally impressive hike attached to it. Starting at the Ribble Estuary and exploring all of this in reverse is the Ribble Way, a magnificent 72-mile (116 km) long-distance trail.
It’s an absolute delight at any time of year. Riverside meadows and woodland erupt with colour during spring and summer, while in autumn you might be lucky enough to witness salmon leaping up the various waterfalls along the route, one of nature’s most wondrous sights. When adorned with a dusting of snow in winter, the giants of the Dales — Ingleborough, Pen-y-ghent and Whernside — are inspiring to behold.
Many and varied are the highlights along the way, including: the Ribble Estuary; a vibrant landscape that’s a treat for birdwatchers; Brockholes Nature Reserve, an award-winning wetland reserve boasting an incredible floating visitor centre; Ribchester, a pretty village steeped in Roman history; the Ribble Valley, quintessential Lancashire countryside and the muse of Tolkien; Clitheroe, an ancient market town and gateway to the Forest of Bowland; Stainforth, an archetypal Dales village with stepping stones and waterfalls; and Ribblesdale, one of England’s finest and most dramatic upland hiking regions and home to the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge.
In this Collection, I have split the Way into seven stages of between 8 and 14 miles (13 and 23 km) in length. This is a leisurely itinerary suitable for all levels of experience, with the more strenuous and more remote stages coming towards the end. There are plenty of towns and villages with cosy pubs and charming cafes en route, so you are never far from shelter and sustenance. Each stage ends with a choice of accommodation and the potential of an evening meal.
Strong and experienced hikers could tackle the Way in fewer days, perhaps making use of longer daylight hours in the summer months. Reversing the route is another option, starting at Gavel Gap near the source of the Ribble and following its journey downstream to the sea. This means you complete the more remote stages first and have far less ascent to contend with. However, an adventure that goes from the populated lowlands to seek out the wild, rugged Dales is preferable, in my opinion. Ribblesdale’s mesmerising scenery is such a fitting climax.
Essential items for your checklist include sturdy hiking boots, warm layers and waterproofs. You can buy supplies and meals en route and therefore hike with a relatively light backpack. Carry water at all times to stay hydrated and in the warmer months sun cream is vital, even on cloudy days.
The Way begins at the Dolphin Inn on the edge of Longton Marsh, approximately 10 miles (16 km) south west of Preston. Preston is well connected by rail to London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow and many more besides. From the city centre, the frequent number 12 bus service can take you to Longton.
The official end point of the Way, at Gavel Gap high on Newby Head Moss, is remote by comparison. I would recommend hiking back to the spectacular Ribblehead Viaduct, from where you can catch a train south east to Skipton or on to Leeds. Or you could travel north on the famous Carlisle to Settle railway to Carlisle, which has excellent rail connections.
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Last updated: November 22, 2021
Plan your own version of this adventure in the multi-day planner based on the stages suggested in this Collection.
The first stage takes you north across the Ribble Estuary’s marshland before joining the River Ribble as it heads east into Preston. Preston’s pretty parks and vibrant nature reserves are worth exploring en route and there are plenty of opportunities for a picnic or a pub lunch before the stage ends…
The second stage is characterised by great natural beauty at the outset and fascinating Roman history at the end, with a pleasant amble through pastoral Lancashire countryside in the middle. Brockholes Nature Reserve, with its remarkable floating visitor centre, kicks things off in style and Ribchester…
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The third stage takes you from Ribchester’s ancient Roman heritage into the landscapes that inspired various locations in author JRR Tolkien’s Shire. The scenery is spellbinding, as the river meanders from one charming village to the next, with plenty of tempting pub options. You end in the pretty town…
This stage is an increasingly rural ramble, as the Ribble carves its way between the uplands of Pendle Hill and the broader Forest of Bowland AONB. The picturesque village of Sawley is handily placed just past the halfway point and the stage ends in Gisburn, with its connections to Robin Hood.
During this stage, the Way leaves Lancashire for North Yorkshire as you get ever closer to the magnificent Yorkshire Dales National Park. With names like Wigglesworth and Giggleswick, the villages you encounter are as delightful as they sound. The day ends in Settle, on the cusp of spectacular Ribblesdale…
An adventure into what is arguably the most beautiful part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park awaits during the final stages, as you lace up your boots and make for Ribblesdale. The iconic giants of Pen-y-ghent and Ingleborough rise above you imperiously, as you explore tumbling waterfalls, dramatic…
The final stage takes you beyond the River Ribble, into the high heart of Ribblesdale where many tributary becks bubble up under the mighty Yorkshire Three Peaks and flow down to merge into the great river. The scenery is stupendous, with Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent all strutting their stuff…
Hiking Collection by Adventurer Nic
Hiking Collection by Alex Foxfield
Bike Touring Collection by Südschwarzwald-Radweg
Hiking Collection by Touristikgemeinschaft Odenwald