Why Brimham Rocks (or, What’s in the Bag?)

After lending a hand in a smooth and successful housemove, we said our goodbyes to the uni-kids, to the tree-lined streets of red brick houses, to the hustle and bustle of York City and hit the backroads in the direction of the scenic Yorkshire Dales. Just before the Dales Proper is an area called Nidderdale, a dedicated A.O.N.B. (an area of outstanding natural beauty). Dixie has taken these roads before, back in April we hiked down the Nidd Gorge and spent a quiet evening walking by the river, a lovely wooded place. Niddersdale is not just a beauty spot though it is certainly that, with huge expanses of golden barley and rich green crops, rolling hills and winding roads, it is also full of interesting and diverse sights and weird follies, hidden secrets and ancient spots, none more interesting to us than the Brimham Rocks.


Brimham Rocks is a group of amazingly shaped rock formations caused 320 million years ago when a huge now-extinct river washed grit and sand down from Scotland and as far away as the northern mountains of Norway. This rivers delta once covered half of Yorkshire! Years of erosion of their Milstone grit by wind, water and glacial ice carved the rock into some spectacular shapes and angles and we were excited by the breathtaking views we had seen online. But of course…

We arrived at the rocks well after closing time as the sun was setting pink behind the trees, as usual hours late to the party, so we settled in for the night, had a cup of tea and did some research. Temperatures have been reaching 27° regularly this month and with another scorcher predicted we slept with all the windows and vents open, kicking layer after layer of warm blankets off the bed and into a soft pile on the floor. Vanlife is different in such good weather, Dixie provides the shade while we try to create a steady airflow inside her, and we tend to move around even slower still in this unseasonably and un-English high heat.


In the morning, we woke to a very busy carpark and what has become our favourite sight through Dixies porthole window, the icecream van. Frozen breakfast was served. Hiking bag packed, sunscreen applied liberally, we hit the trail.

Not a minute later, en route to haggle with the parking metre, a National Trust employee, a very nice gentleman by the name of Trevor, stopped to chat to us. Having told us at length of the many benefits of N.T. membership (including free parking at applicable locations like this one, and mostly that he wouldn’t clamp us for staying over last night) and after he re-enacted a couple of hilarious past conversations in an impressively cartoonish Irish leprechaun accent, he signed us up for annual membership to the charity for the handsome sum of £114. We received our welcome pack and a whole set of new maps detailing all the places that were previously off limits to us, places we would usually avoid only due to the admission charge, places which now become free to enter…

I always say we ‘packed a bag’ as if it were as simple as putting on a coat but in truth my backpack is always ready for an adventure with a couple of essential items stored away in case of need. We learned quickly in our van lives to always be prepared, that ‘going for a walk’ when you have no other plans for the rest of your whole life is never as straightforward as it sounds and through trial and many errors we have added a few essentials which we carry with us everytime we leave Dixie parked up behind and set off on foot.


Brimham Rocks is a huge garden, 50 acres or so, made up of thick forest, scrubby moorland and interspersed with massive sprawling rock formations of all shapes and sizes.  A gravel track circles the property but there are many opportunities to detour onto a smaller path or even beat your own through the wild overgrown grass between the landmark stones, over the course of the day we must have followed every trail at least twice. The bizarre formations are caused by a process called cross-bedding, where grit layers are laid down by the rushing water at varying angles rather than horizontally causing sediment ripples and you can see that swirl and flow in the direction of the river current in the bare rock faces, scraped and worn away by the weather of millennia.


The ledge in the photo above is Lovers Leap, with William in the photograph for scale, and comes complete with local legend of two young lovers driven to the height by her disapproving father and who, preferring death together over life apart, jumped to their deaths but instead of falling, they floated mysteriously to safety, winning the old man’s approval as he witnessed the miracle and proclaimed their love to indeed be true. We picked our way carefully down a steep shale ravine to get here where the foliage grows thick in scraggly impenetrable brush and the air hung thick around us, full of a warm fermenting odour of plants pleading for water, their green leaves tinged yellow at the edges, cooked up crispy in the sun. Everything is wilting in this heat, every living thing is crying out for rain, and we treked along the empty bank, now exposed, grey and long dried up, the old riverbed stone hot under our feet.

The rocks were nicknamed back in Victorian times, they’re called things like the Dancing Bear, the Sphinx, and the Camel. I’m sure you’ll agree to this rock belows uncanny likeness to a certain extra-terrestrial from a movie yet to be released for another hundred years and so instead of the E.T. rock, this is known as the Druids Writing Desk .


Walking around, on and over these Goliath boulders is enough to make anybody feel small. We passed lots of walkers, hikers and families and the children were thoroughly enjoying the natural playground of the rocks and the abundance of potential climbing frames everywhere you look.

If we are taking a picnic along we take both backpacks to spread the weight as carrying 3 litres of liquid AND the rest is no fun. We don’t have expensive bags but both are decent quality with sturdy padded straps, waterproof with many pockets. Personally I like to claim the front pocket of Williams bag as my own, it’s easy to access without stopping the walk and I keep all kinds of things handy in there like tissue paper and tobacco. Picnics consist of anything we have in the van really, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, fruit, crackers and cheese, a bag of mixed nuts, usually cheap and cheerful and high protein. We keep any foodstuff in a sturdy fabric lunchbox to avoid any messes like finding your bag strap covered in Branston pickle, which does happen.

This impressive statuesque rock below is called the Druids Idol or Idol Rock, over 180 tonnes of rock balancing on a base just 3 and a half foot in diameter. It, unlike the other larger based formations came about by sandblasting, where weaker rock is weathered quickly away by ice exposing the strongest plinth right down the middle of the strange thing, standing there 15 foot tall, defying physics.


Reminiscent of the Cheesewring Tor we visited once in Cornwall, the strange stacked stone looks likely to tipple in any slight breeze but no, how many millions of years later and the Idol still stands solid. There was an incident of vandalism in the park just last month we heard and some damage was done to one of these ancient crags (not the Idol) and to a cliff face, unfortunately there will always be those kinds of people, I dare say they just don’t understand the significance of this site. I was reluctant to even touch the stones when we first started to visit these ancient places, or walk through a sacred circle, for fear of exactly what I’m not sure, upsetting the karma maybe? These unique, unusual places command our respect and awe and usually don’t attract antisocial behaviour as far as we have seen. Disappointing for sure.


The Idol is a magnificent sight and we found a good flat stone nearby and rested for a while in its shade. It is also point #36 on a busy park-wide orienteering trail so we enjoyed a seemingly unending procession of fast-moving, sweaty but cheerful joggers all counting aloud for company with our coffee. In between the exercisers the park was still and quiet except for the echoing birdsong and buzzing hum of bees.

We passed a huge rock overhanging the path with an old oak tree sprouting out from inside, at least 250 years the tree is hanging there as it features in an 1804 sketch of the property by Moles Griffiths, and still growing strong with tiny new green buds on its wizened brown fingertips.


I always carry an extra layer in my bag, usually a long sleeved cotton shirt, no matter what the weather. It is a very lightweight coverup that I have been extremely grateful for at times, for both warmth and shoulder shade. For comfort we both pack our shades, especially these glorious days. In winter the bags gets heavier with hats and scarves, rainwear and my trusty waterproof socks but right now Yorkshire is hotter than even Bermuda and liquids for drinking take higher importance. We buy litres of juice concentrate and mix into our carry bottles. Once, we had to turn back on a walk due to a shortage of water, what a rookie mistake. Sometimes we have an option of a quick walk or a longer guided hike, why limit ourselves?

Last month in Fife, with Dixie parked inconspicuously under a little red lighthouse, we sat on the step and watched as a large, boisterous family arrived in two cars and proceeded to unpack their bags and empty their boots of cooler boxes, blankets, chairs and all the other items. After a loud and rowdy discussion the crowd decided to go up the steep grassy hill and down the other side to the beach at Silver Strand. There was much dragging and wrestling of a BBQ and wood and food and paraphernalia and plenty of panting and complaining in the hot afternoon until one by one from largest to smallest the mob ascended the hill and disappeared from our view. About 10 minutes later a few of the older children appeared back over the hill and approached us, the only other people around for miles. They’d forgotten to pack matches and needed to borrow a light. To start the fire to cook the food. Theres a lesson in that story, packing more things is not the same as packing the right things and we also always carry an extra lighter in both bags. Smokers seldom forget a lighter anyway.


The forest around Brimham Rocks is for the most part growing wild and is teeming with wildlife, we met squirrels and rabbits and lots of colourful little birds but one rather unwelcome friend of the flora variety (which showed itself too late of course to stop me walking right into it) is Urtica Dioica, the common nettle, the common stinging nettle to be precise. Stealthing like a spiky ninja in the long grass, if there is one around, my flip-flopped foot and naked little ankle will find it. Nettles hold their tiny blade-like stingers close to their stems and once contact is made, push a mix of chemicals onto your skin and into your blood stream, things like histamine, serotonin and choline which cause that itching inflammation and burning sensation immediately and can lead to painful swelling and bruising in some, depending on your level of sensitivity. Though the famous cure of dock leaf, once applied to the worst site of needling, can relieve the first burn of the Urtica, in truth any green leaf works, lots of leafy green ferns grow in the shadows of the rocks and a couple of these rubbed onto my foot helped immensely, whether psychosomatically or not. Flip flops and Brimham Rocks are simply not compatible, no matter the weather, when you visit wear good walking shoes and for the sake of your poor ankles, wear socks!

We climbed up closer to the E.T. rock to get a better look. The druid must have been a giant if this was his desk! The views of the dales from this height are simply stunning. And at last, we got to talk about a movie I HAVE seen, probably hundreds of times, and the cinematic masterpiece would still make me cry today. Beeee gooooood!


I’m not one for reaching for medication quickly, preferring the natural dock leaf type of cures if possible but we do carry antihistamine cream for bad stings, bites and scratches as well as plasters (band-aids to you on the other side of the Atlantic), extra sunscreen, tissues and wet wipes. A can of jungle spray comes with us too, I spray my shoulders and feet and that seems to do the trick. We have also aborted hikes mid way previously due to other simple, easily fixable things like unbearable clouds of insects or forgetting to bring a torch (flashlight) when the light is leaving the day. We aim now to be overly prepared in a smart way!

At times during our day at Brimham Rocks we stopped to scan the scene around us, to gasp and to wow and to doubt that we were in England at all, above us the wide blue cloudless skies stretched on forever and the huge sculpted rocks are more at home in the deserts of Arizona or the iconic Grand Canyon but deviate from the marked path at any point to the outskirts of the property and you’ll find acres and acres of the familiar brackish brown moor of Yorkshire to remind you where you are, the expected earthy, gorsey smell, the purple bruise of heather slowly smoothering the hills, steadily strangling the green.

20180627_185307.jpgThis little rock looks like a frog. In fact, it’s called The Frog.


Here is William again showing the massive scale of the boulders below. I suppose he only works as a measuring stick if you know how tall he is, so next time I will include something else too. Climbing around the naturally eroded steps and ledges is good fun, great exercise and sometimes a little dangerous. People do get hurt here. We definitely should have worn more appropriate footwear, shoes or boots with good grip.


We carry a large plastic bag or two in our backpack in case we need to do a litter pick along our walks but in reality we have not needed to and certainly not in these kinds of places, the National Trust keep these properties spotless, that’s what your admission fee is for, and there are always bins provided. One other thing we carry is nuts to distribute on the forest floor in the hopes of one day befriending one of the many little beady eyed squirrels we see or at least bribing one into co-operation and capturing a great close up photograph. Also a plastic reusable shopping bag which doubles as a seat in damp weather. The well packed backpack makes a huge difference to a few hours away from Dixie, we can sort our minor annoyances, solve any little irritants as they arise and keep ourselves comfortable and safe along the way. Even if we set out to explore a town or city the backpack has us ready for anything.


Reluctantly, after exhausting every little trail, walking every path and taking hundreds of photographs we dawdled out from under the trees and back to Dixie, wide smiles on our dusty sunwarmed faces and the soles of our feet black with dirt. We did not drive too far away that night, just a couple of miles down the road where we found a quiet spot by the river just waiting for us to pull into, rest up and think about our day. Brimham Rocks is a strange, wonderful place, an ancient spot, and thanks to the National Trust a relatively safe, scenic playground for walkers and fun for climbers of any ability. More lunar than Yorkshire, more Grand Canyon than Great Britian, this place is an unexpected gem in the Dales, one we highly recommend a visit to, and one we will certainly return to in the future.


P.S. We came to find Dock leaves have no more magical properties to heal nettle stings than any other leaf. They prefer the same sandy soil to nettles, that’s all, they just grow beside each other and are often the first plant available after the sting. That’s still not going to stop me looking for them first!

5 thoughts on “Why Brimham Rocks (or, What’s in the Bag?)”

  1. Hi! Lovely post and photos! I have many happy memories of family (well, me and Mum and Dad and dog, Chammy) picnics at Brimham rocks! We lived in Copt Hewick near Ripon when I was in my late teens, and went quite often on sunny weekends during the school holidays. I was away at boarding school in the South East during term time. I think I visited again, later, when I was at college in York, too. Thanks


  2. One quick thought about William, if you got him to carry a six foot tall wooden pole painted in red and white sections everywhere he went, then he would be more useful at indicating the size of things.


  3. Photos of the rocks are amazing! On my to visit list. Pleased you’ve joined the NationalTrust, there are some wonderful places to visit and hopefully you will be able to visit lots of them. I first joined at an NT site on Hadrians wall. (about in the middle of it) loved this piece x


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