River Swale, Richmond, North Yorkshire

Richmond is located in one of the most beautiful areas in North Yorkshire, and is a natural entry point to the Yorkshire Dales National Park – the seventh UK National Park to be formed, on 16th November, 1954. The Yorkshire Dales is one of three National Parks traversed by the Pennine Way, the 267 mile long trail which stretches from Edale, in the Derbyshire Peak District to the south, to Kirk Yeltholm just over the Scottish border in the North. Not only that, but the magnificent ‘Coast to Coast Path’ starting at St Bees Head in Cumbria on the Irish Sea and ending at Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea Coast (which also traverses three National Parks, ‘Coast to Coast Path’ was first laid out in 1972 by that doyen of British fellwalkers, Alfred Wainwright, and as you can imagine, this part of Northern England is a mecca for hikers, although it also contains many interesting and beautiful things which will satisfy the casual visitor.

The River Swale which curls around the town, rushes swiftly from its source, the junction of two moorland streams, the Birkdale Beck and the Great Sleddale Beck 1,200 feet up in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and it drains a catchment area of 520 square miles on its way to join the River Ure below Ripon and, ultimately, the North Sea. Its 73 mile length stretches along a glaciated valley, now known as Swaledale, as it carves its way through Carboniferous, Permian and Triassic rock formations. These are often riven with vertical or inclined faults, many containing the principal ore of lead – galena, lead(II) sulfide. For millenia, this has been mined and smelted to produce lead and a lead/silver alloy. As in my native Derbyshire, this was often sought by the Romans when they invaded their new province of Britannia, and this activity was considerably expanded in Mediaeval times, proving economically viable well into the Victorian era.

Although the heather, peat and bracken ecosystem of the moorlands was not too attractive for settlers, save for rough grazing by sheep and some cattle, the lush valley meadows of the Dale proved more attractive to the waves of Danish invaders who followed the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in the early 5th century – what Norse bands there were in the successive waves of settlers tended to favor the higher ground. When the Normans swept up from the south, they imposed feudal rule and held the land in an iron grip from their newly-built castles. William the Conqueror savagely put down the Northern Rebellion against him in 1069, and gave the land around Richmond (and many other valuable manors) to Alain Le Roux de Penthièvre of Brittany who began building a strong castle on the hill; so heavily fortified was it, that the walls of the 100 foot high keep were over 11 feet thick! The castle was mostly neglected from the 14th century onwards, but the remains still dominate the town of Richmond; they are now administered by English Heritage, and the view from the keep offers a spectacular panorama of the nearby countryside. Swaledale’s rich meadows are used for some cattle farming, but its most famous product throughout history has been the wool from its hardy species of sheep – the Swaledale – this wool was exported to Europe in the Middle Ages, and made the region’s wool merchants (some of them based on religious houses) very rich.

The River Swale is preserved by the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust, a Registered Charity, which was founded “in order to provide a concerted and holistic approach to the protection and enhancement of the rivers and catchments of the Swale, Ure, Nidd and Wharfe”. According to the YDRT, the word Swale comes “from the Anglo Saxon, ‘Sualuae’, meaning rapid and liable to deluge” and the Swale certainly lives up to that. Indeed, it is said to be the fastest flowing river in the whole of England, and flows have been measured in excess of 3 feet/second, even when it is NOT in flood. The river has been known to rise up to 10 feet in only 20 minutes, and it has even been said to exhibit a ‘bore’ at times, rather like the famous one on the River Severn (a bore is a soliton, or self-reinforcing solitary wave). The Trust works to conserve the environment around the rivers and the riverine wildlife. Peat ecosystems in the upper reaches of the River Swale are particularly fragile, and the YDRT is working with local landowners, farmers and other bodies to minimize run-off damage and erosion. The rich, ‘tea’ color of the Swale is typical of that of moorland rivers, and carries it a heavy load, not of soil, as lowland streams do, but of minute peat particles. This accounts for both the characteristic color and its acidic nature. It does suffer, somewhat, from eutrophication caused by the common modern agricultural pollutants including nitrates, ammonium compounds, soluble reactive phosphorus, and organic phosphorus. The level of these pollutants vary, of course, according to the season and which feeder tributary is immediately upstream (the idea of a river as a horizontal moving ‘tank’ of uniform chemical and physical characteristics has long been discounted).

The river is rich in wildlife, with many species of fish including the European Chub (Squalius cephalus) and Barbel (Barbus barbus), both prized by coarse anglers (indeed, there are many videos online showing battles with Barbel in the Swale). A recent study focussed on the three species of the parasitic fish known as lampreys which are found in the river – the River Lamprey (Lampetra fluviatus), the European Brook Lamprey (Lampetra planeri) and the larger, anadromous Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus); the later has been seen preparing redds, or spawning beds of mixed sand and fine gravel, on the bed of the Swale at Fawdington during February and March each year. These redds are later utilized by coarse fish such as Chub and Barbel.

The Environment Agency – a U.K. Governmental body – has a Dales Area, which covers this region of Yorkshire and is monitoring water abstraction via the Catchment Abstraction Management Strategies model. This is a complex matter and includes balancing the needs and aspirations of the following bodies:- The Canal and River Trust (formerly British Waterways), North Yorkshire County Council, the Farm & Wildlife Advisory Corporation, the Quarry Products Association, the National Farmers Union, the Yorkshire Water Services Ltd and no less a body than the British Canoe Union!

Here we see the famous Richmond Falls, just below the Castle. The River Swale here is partially hemmed in by rock strata to the south, and partially by man-made stone retaining walls on the north bank; it is a well-frequented tourist spot, with its own small riverside cafe, and a nearby pub. Oh, and do not miss the amazing Swaledale Festival (this year, 24th May – 7th June) a festival of ‘music, poetry and the visual arts’. This year the Festival’s many events, spread across the Vale, will feature the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and include a special appearance by the preserved LNER A4 express steam locomotive “Bittern”!

The Swale – a very interesting example of a moorland river, set in spectacular countryside.






4 comments on “River Swale, Richmond, North Yorkshire”

  1. Fascinating geological look in the photo, Ross, and it looks like many hours worth of interesting investigation 🙂


    • I thought that you, especially, would appreciate this one! Peat uplands are particularly fragile systems and I have always found them fascinating (coming from Derbyshire that almost goes without saying!)


  2. In the 20th century Richmond Castle was used to house conscientious objectors during World War I.


    • Absolutely! There are many stories and legends associated with the castle and the military barracks which were erected in its grounds. The rather strange tale of the drummer boy of the local regiment, the Green Howards, is worth reading (see below)


      The only problem with starting one of these small pieces is what to leave out. Thank you very much for commenting!


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