Only for the Brave: Swaledale’s Extreme Waterfalls

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Swaledale: Scribbled by dry stone walls; stippled with ruined barns, and home to the fastest rising river in England.

The end of the heatwave brought violent storms to Yorkshire, so it was with trepidation that we approached the banks of the Swale at Keld. The tiny village, while possessing an attractive charm, has an ‘end of the road’ feel and is certainly remote, positioned in the far north-western corner of the Yorkshire Dales National Park; as far north as Windermere.

The word Keld literally means, ‘running water’ and it was this that we had come to find.

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Daniel Start’s guidebook, ‘Wild Swimming’ provided the inspiration for our journey, and a helpful information board gave the directions.

We followed a steep, rough path (part of the Coast to Coast walking route) down to a wooden footbridge spanning the river, which provides access to the north bank. Small, orangey rapids raced beneath, and I spent a while pondering the ideal canoe line.

After a short climb onto a grassy knoll, East Gill Waterfall plunges on its way to the Swale. Unsurprisingly, this waterfall is part of a beck called East Gill.

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The small, peaty plunge pool seemed ideal for a quick dip, however today I was unprepared, with no trunks, and I definitely wasn’t going in without.

We enjoyed the sunshine on a bench commemorated to Alfred Wainwright, before descending and recrossing the river, in search of Kisdon Force.

After following a blind path almost over the edge of a cliff, we eventually made our slippery way past rock formations and crumbling stone to the lip of Upper Kisdon Force.

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The brown water disappeared into an abyss with awesome force, as a solitary rope swing taunted the maelstrom from above. The blinding spray seemed almost to ignite the air. Trunks or none, swimming here is only for the brave.

Lower Kisdon Force is detectable just downstream. The river descends so sharply, it has the appearance of a giant’s stairway, with the waterfalls as two enormous steps.

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The height of my bravery was to ‘abseil’ down the path to the lower fall on an orange rope thoughtfully placed to assist with access, or in my case, to make it look like I was doing some extreme climbing.

The struggle is rewarded by not only a clearer view of the upper fall, but the chance to stand beside a truly breathtaking part of our natural heritage.

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People actually kayak down this. A massive, grade V drop, tens of feet high, water wrenched by gravity over impossibly hard rock, fissioning into an opaque cauldron before erupting into Niagara spray.

In a magical paradox, a complete rainbow haloed this watery vision of hell.

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