VISITORS to Harrogate normally head into the town to enjoy its shops, cafes and parks.

Tourists and locals flock to the elegant parades for a little retail therapy and to dine in its cafes and restaurants. Some may stop off at the historic Royal Pump Room to taste the spa waters before strolling along the Valley Gardens.

But if, after a meal at Bettys, you’re looking to stretch your legs a little further, you don’t have far to go to enjoy a walk in an area that does not feature on the usual tourist trail.

On the northern edge of the town, the suburb of Bilton lies on the lip of the Nidd Gorge, a dramatic steep-sided valley that wends its way towards nearby Knaresborough, before the river enters open countryside on its way to join the Ouse near York.

The feature was created during the last Ice Age, around 21,000 years ago, when a 120ft gorge was carved through the soft sandstone beneath.

From Bilton - where there is an information board showing the different footpaths - walkers can access the wood along an easy-to-follow track, leading to a series of steps and duckboards that take you down into the valley.

Heading upstream along the river brings views of the magnificent Bilton Viaduct, part of the 40-mile Leeds & Thirsk railway which closed in 1969.

Downstream, the woodland grows more dense, with a mixture of deciduous and conifer trees towering above the river. The trees will now be coming into their own, with wonderful displays of autumn colour.

Covering 114-acres, Nidd Gorge is made up of five woods: Coalpits Wood, Bilton Banks, Spring Wood, Scotton Banks and Gates Wood. All are managed by the Woodland Trust.

The riverside path - a mixture of earth and duckboards - offers views through the trees of the slow flowing Nidd, with reflections to admire along the way.

We met numerous families out for the afternoon, one enjoying a picnic on one of the small sandy beaches along the river bank.

The gorge is heaven for dog walkers, especially those with pets who enjoy a swim. We met many happy dogs that day, bounding about, many shaking wet coats.

The wood is brimming with birdlife - more than 80 species have been recorded. The sides of the gorge are alive with birdsong. We spotted a heron silently patrolling and saw numerous dippers.

Mammal species include roe deer, bat, badger, squirrel and fox. Of these we spotted only squirrel, but, as we rounded a corner, we heard a splash from the opposite river bank. From the size of the waves that resulted, we are sure an otter was responsible. We waited silently for a while, hoping the animal would surface, but sadly he didn’t.

Once home, I checked online and, sure enough, otters have been sighted along the gorge.

The southern bank of the gorge is designated semi-natural ancient woodland. Mature sycamore makes up around half the trees, with the rest being a mix of oak, ash, beech, birch, rowan, elm, hazel, wild cherry and holly.

Trees along the river bank are mainly alder, but Bilton Banks - as the area closest to the viaduct is known - contains several yew trees that are more than a century old.

As well as broadleaved woodland, the area to the north of the river includes conifer stands containing Scots and Corsican pine, hybrid larch, western red cedar and Sitka spruce. The Woodland Trust is gradually thinning the conifers to allow more light into the wood and encourage the broadleaf trees and native flora to regenerate.

Standing on the southern bank, with the river and towering pine trees opposite, you feel cut off from the world.

It was dry the day we visited. I imagine the going would be tricky in wet conditions.

There’s a wooden footbridge across the river, leading to other points of entry to the landmark.

As you climb out of the gorge, views along the valley are far-reaching, but are probably better in winter when many trees are bare.

We followed a circular path, starting and finishing at Bilton, where there’s a characterful pub, The Gardeners Arms, with an open fire and large, walled beer garden, where you can enjoy a drink.

*Access can be made from Bilton Lane, where there is a small car park or, from Knaresborough, via the B6165 towards Ripley. After 1.5 miles there is a small, free car park, just before Scotton Drive.

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