Awesome family adventure - What To Do With The Kids reviews How Stean Gorge
We were recently invited to visit How Stean Gorge in the Yorkshire Dales to write a review for the site. A quick look at the How Stean website was all it took for us to make our decision and reply with a resounding ‘Yes please’.
Situated in an area of natural beauty, the gorge is a deep limestone furrow with a wandering labyrinth of footpaths, caves and potholes on each side through the rock walls. Once a hideout for Highway men, the Gorge became more civilised 100 years ago when the Victorians began to visit it as a visitor attraction.
But today, How Stean is a destination for thrill-seekers, young and old. The range of activities on offer at the gorge includes Gorge Scrambling, Abseiling, Rock Climbing, Caving and the new Via Ferrata – one of only two in the country. Also organised by the How Stean team are kayaking and canoeing on the nearby Scar House Reservoir or hill walks in the Nidderdale area. You can even stay on site at the How Stean campsite, if you want to carry your activities over a few days, or if you’re just too zonked to travel home after a day of all-action adventure.
Full equipment is provided, so all you need to bring are shoes with a good grip, clothes which you don’t mind getting wet or muddy (swimming trunks /costume advised), a bag of enthusiasm and a sense of adventure. Oh – and something dry to change into at the end of the day is essential.
All activities are led by fully-qualified and highly experienced instructors, so while every effort has been made to ensure visitors enjoy a maximum sense of risk and excitement from their visit, you will be in safe hands.
The day of our visit was warm but not too sunny, perfect for a day of activities out in the open. The drive over to How Stean is enjoyable in itself, with the rolling greenery of the Yorkshire dales on either side. We were greeted by Stan, the owner at How Stean, and Monty our instructor. After a hot drink in the cosy café, two of the WTDWTK team headed off to be kitted up with wetsuits ready for a gorge scramble with Monty, while I went on a brief tour of pathways with Stan.
THE GORGE PATHWAYS
How Stean is a totally unique visitor experience, and even though you are in the middle of the Dales, the site has a very different feel – a little bit like being in an Amazonian rainforest, or Jurassic Park – or Narnia. Stan and Ann, the present owners, have added the perfect touch to the entrance to the walkways – put on a hard hat and pass through wardrobe doors into the magical How Stean Gorge World. You might even spot Aslan along the way!
For those who are slightly less adventurous or differently-abled, a walk along the gorge path is a pleasant way to pass the time while the rest of your group take on the more strenuous activities. The paths are surrounded by lush, fragrant vegetation – ferns, wild garlic and harts tongue, and an abundance of wildlife, nesting yellow wag tails, grey wag tails, a ducks and a variety of insects. Look down at the paths and walls along the way, and you will notice that what at first appear to be twigs and roots on the rock surface is in fact a fascinating legacy of tiny creatures, fossilised into the stone. Some areas of the walkway are steep and slippy due to moss on the rocks, and handrails are scarce (Stan and Ann have been careful not to over-develop How Stean Gorge, so it remains an experience of enjoying nature with all the thrills and spills that go along with it!), so there is a need to tread carefully or stick to the dry paths if you’re nervous.
At some points of the walkway you might need to crouch down as there are low rock ceilings (which is why you’re asked to wear a hard hat) and you can also explore the narrow rock crevices along the sides and even down in the gorge, if you dare. A torch is provided to every visitor for this purpose, and you can take it home afterwards.
If you’re not very surefooted and prefer to avoid any risk of a tumble, there are a couple of spots along the way where you can take a seat, catch your breath and enjoy the sound of the birdsong and the rushing water below or peer down to the gorge and watch the activities taking place and take a photo or two.
THE ACTIVITY - GORGE SCRAMBLE
Now for the really exciting stuff…on the day of our visit, Neil and Richard from the What To Do With The Kids team were invited to do a Gorge Scramble – the signature activity for How Stean.
The adventure began with a descent down into the gorge by abseiling from the bridge. To avoid the usual scary climb backwards over the edge to start the abseil, a safety gate is opened on the bridge so you can just begin by lowering yourself down – much more achievable for children and first-timers.
There were a few squeals as participants hit the water and their wet suits filled up with cold gorge water – all part of the fun! Once in the water, instructor Monty led the group along the length of gorge, walking (actually clambering, slipping and falling) along the gorge floor, knee, thigh and sometimes neck high in the refreshing (icy) water. This is the essence of the activity – however it is by no means as easy as it might sound.
Firstly, you can’t see the bottom of the water in some places – so with every step, who knows where your feet will end up! Secondly, the rocks are slippy – so if you need to climb up, down or over any of them, the chances are it will take several attempts and some team work to get to where you want to be. And just to add even more fun to the experience, the Gorge Scramble is not just a case of merrily walking down the Gorge and back. You will be set a series of tasks along the way – slide down a slope on your belly, headlong into a whirling pool, climb up the rocks and dive bomb into deep water, or plunge backwards from a narrow ledge into the stream below.
For adults, it can take a bit of time to build up the courage to do some of the activities (none of which are obligatory if you really are too scared to give it a try), but kids are fearless and given a unique opportunity like this, they absolutely love the chance to push themselves and try out the various challenges, with enough risk involved to make it exciting, but with the safety of being supervised by an instructor.
Monty our instructor was truly excellent. As well as making the walk challenging and exciting, he also provided encouragement, reassurance, and a helping hand when required, meaning that everyone felt just enough out their comfort zone to experience the thrill of the gorge, but not so much as to feel in danger.
The views from down in the gorge are stunning and a fantastic part of the experience, however best enjoyed when you are not on the move, otherwise you might find yourself taking a comical stumble under the water.
The gorge walk ended with a walk through a couple of tunnels carved out by the river through the rock and then up and out back to the facilities for warm, clean showers (with large cubicles with private change compartments for families), and a tasty hot lunch back in the café.
Things we love
· Totally safe, but still a bit scary. All though the necessary handrails and safety features are all present, it hasn’t been overdone!
· The experience is filmed on a head camera by your instructor, and everyone is given a DVD souvenir copy of the film and photos taken at the end – FREE OF CHARGE! So refreshing to visit a place which doesn’t charge extra for something like this.
· Something for all the family. Even if there are people in the group who prefer a nice coffee and stroll to thrill seeking in the gorge, everyone is catered for.
· Our instructor – full points to Monty for keeping us all pumped and encouraging us through the parts of the gorge walk which we found a bit more challenging!
Good to know
· Length of experience – 2.5 hours. Children can get cold in the gorge water much quicker than adults, so in mixed groups there is a cut-off point where children will leave the gorge for a hot shower and dry clothes, but adults can continue on for more challenges.
· Cost £45 for a half day experience. Given this includes equipment hire and souvenirs (see above) we think this represents excellent value for money
· Minimum age for activities is 7 – however How Stean take a practical approach and will consider allowing younger children if they are strong enough for the challenge. There is a height restriction for the Via Ferrata.
· While this is a completely safe environment, physical activities like this always present an element of risk. Expect a few bruises, maybe some grazes and definitely some achy muscles by the end. It’s all part of the fun.
· There were quite a few flies around on the day we visited –you might want to take insect repellent.
· Mixed groups are allowed for the activities – meaning children and adults may undertake the same activity in maximum groups of 8. However the activities are designed for individuals to each participate to their own level of ability, even in a mixed group.
How Stean has a lovely campsite right next to the gorge, if you want to do activities over a few days, or use it as a base and see some of the surrounding countryside. The campsite has a beautiful view over the Dales and fields of sheep. There are only a small number of pitches and a strict ban on rowdy behaviour, making it perfect for family groups. Campfires and guitars are allowed, however, as How Stean encourages a traditional camping experience. On this note, there are no electrical hook ups. There is a clean toilet and shower block with a good ratio of pitches to facilities, and a washing-up area right next to the camping field. There is also a licensed café with a basic menu – but good, tasty and hearty portions, fairly priced, open till 5pm. A bunk barn over the equipment store is currently under development for larger groups.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day out at How Stean, and spent the whole of the journey home revisiting the events of the gorge walk. It was made even better by our hosts and the people we met in our group. Make no mistake – the gorge walk is not for wimps – but if you’ve got a spirit of adventure (and you’re over 7) this is an awesome way to spend some quality time with family and friends and make a memory which will last for a long time (or which the forgetful can remind themselves of with their free take-home DVD!).