Why this elegant Yorkshire spa town should be your next weekend escape

Cow and calf Ilkley
Wander up onto the moors to see the Cow and Calf Rocks Credit: getty

Mention Ilkley and, almost without exception, people adopt a funny face, bob their heads and begin singing about the dangers of walking on the town’s moors without a hat – On Ilkla Moor Baht ’at – usually in a terrible Yorkshire accent. But there’s more to the West Yorkshire town, at the gateway to Wharfedale, than its heathery and rocky moorland, wonderful though that is. 

From its Roman origins and rare Anglo-Saxon crosses, to its spa-town heritage, promenades and riverside walks, it has much more than a casual glance might suggest. Yes, it has smart shops and tea rooms, but also real-ale pubs and thriving festivals and is, according to many, more down-to-earth than its rival, Harrogate. Throughout August, its summer festival (summerfestival.ilkley.org) features a continental food market, jazz and swing bands, guided walks plus a rock concert.

So about this hat – will I really need one?

The weather can be contrary on the moors, so pop one in your pocket and set off for the Cow and Calf Rocks. These massive grit stone outcrops, formed by glacial action at the eastern end of the moors, dominate the skyline.

Of course, most locals know they are really here as a result of Giant Rombald (the moor is part of the larger Rombald Moor) having a domestic with his wife. On a clear day, the views are stupendous: north-east to Almscliffe Crag and the Vale of York, and west up the green folds of Wharfedale.

Where to next?

Head west, watching out for grouse, curlews, and rock carvings known as cup-and-ring stones – thought to be either Neolithic or Bronze Age – to the huddle of whitewashed cottages above one of the moor’s tarns. Built in the 18th century to house plunge-pools fed by a nearby spring, at White Wells (visitbradford.com) you can see the origins of Ilkley’s establishment as a fashionable Victorian spa town. 

Ilkley was established as a fashionable Victorian spa town Credit: getty

Next take the 15-minute downhill walk through Mill Ghyll to the top of Brook Street. Here you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest views of Ilkley. The street stretches down to the River Wharfe and up to the wooded slopes on the far side, while to the left sprawls the tree-lined boulevard of The Grove with its canopied shops, colourful flower beds, steepled Christchurch and jolly bandstand.

Isn’t there a famous tea room on The Grove?

Indeed. Bettys – a Yorkshire institution – is celebrating 100 years of fine teas and fancy baking (bettys.co.uk) this year. The loose-leaf teas and cakes served on gilt-handled trolleys are worth the prices.

Treats at Bettys

Anything else worth seeing in town?

Absolutely. In Cunliffe Road you’ll find another Ilkley institution: Mortens, a family-run hardware store (established 1937) whose Tardis-like interior can sort you out with everything from ostrich feather dusters to watering cans. While The Grove used to be the premier shopping street, for a mix of smart and quirky, try Leeds Road. 

At The Plant Point (theplantpoint.co.uk) you can buy exotic houseplants while Fuggle and Golding (fuggleandgolding.co.uk) sells batch-brewed craft beers, and The Commute (thecommuteyorkshire.com) offers coffee as well as bicycles. Across the road, the glossy counters of Lishman’s butchers (lishmansbutchers.co.uk) present a startling variety of meats from Yorkshire black bacon to prize-winning pork pies and gigantic sausage rolls called, with immodest Yorkshire style, Sausage Rolls Royces.

I’m full to bursting. I might need another walk now...

That’s the spirit! Head down to the river, calling in at the Manor House Museum (ilkleymanorhouse.org; open on Saturdays and Sundays; free). The town’s most historic building, it dates back to the 14th century and has a medieval core, built on the site of a Roman fort, Olicana.

Run by volunteers, events held here range from photographic exhibitions to Roman fun days. Next door, the parish church is worth a visit for its rare carved Anglo-Saxon crosses (allsaintsilkley.org). Next follow the riverside path, below the church and over the pedestrian suspension bridge into Middleton Woods; a haze of bluebells in the spring and magical in any season.

Take a woodland walk at Bolton Abbey Credit: getty

For more woodland walks, drive the six miles up the valley to Bolton Abbey, part of the Devonshire estates (boltonabbey.com; £10 per car). Explore the ruined 12th-century Augustinian priory, testing your balancing skills on the Welly Walk or stepping stones, or strolling through Strid Wood.

Is there anywhere to cool off?

You bet. Ilkley is home to one of England’s best-preserved – and Grade ll-Listed – lidos. An Art Deco swirl with original Thirties café and sun terrace, a highlight of the lido is the peerless view to the moors (bradford.gov.uk; adults £8.30, children £4.10). Be warned, it’s unheated, but that just makes it all the more refreshing.

Swimming always makes me hungry...

No problem. Bistrot Pierre (bistrotpierre.co.uk; from £12) serves up classic French dishes such as boeuf bourguignon and moules-frites in a Parisian-style dining room of mirrored walls and colourful banquettes. In the former local newspaper offices, Friends of Ham (friendsofham.co.uk; sharing boards around £13) has a hipsterish feel and specialises in charcuterie, cheeses and craft beers.

And where can I lay said hat?

Slap-bang in the centre of town, The Crescent Inn (telegraph.co.uk/tt/the-crescent-inn-hotel; doubles from £89) has boutique-simple rooms, a smart restaurant, a real-ale bar and French-style breakfasts. Alternatively, Olicana Park (olicanapark.co.uk; short stays from £200) has cosy cottages and striking Swiss-chalet-style log cabins. 

Inspiration for your inbox  

Sign up to Telegraph Travel's new weekly newsletter for the latest features, advice, competitions, exclusive deals and comment.  

You can also follow us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram