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Buttertubs Pass & The Buttertubs - What's in a name?

One of the most famous roads in Yorkshire is Buttertubs Pass, the high road between Wensleydale and Swaledale with fantastic views over the surrounding valleys and fells.

This road crosses the high moors for nearly 6 miles between Thwaite and Hawes, before travelling past Simonstone Hall as well as the actual Buttertubs that the pass is named after (more on this in a bit).

Buttertubs Pass came to prominence during 2014, when the Grand Depart of the Tour de France came along the road. It was of the King of the Mountains climbs, with German rider Jens Voight first to the summit, securing the first the first polka dot jersey of the race. The road still sees many cyclists testing their fitness on the long climb up and their skill on the steep descents.

The route was to feature in the 2019 UCI Road World Cycling Championship, but the race was re-routed because of torrential rain and flooding.

The road has been described by former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson as “England’s only truly spectacular road” and featured in his series Clarkson’s Car Years in the Motoring and New Romantics episode.

It was actually after Clarkson filmed on Buttertubs Pass for Top Gear, that his fateful altercation with his producer occurred at Simonstone Hall, when Clarkson was unable to get a steak after returning to the hotel late, punched his producer and was sacked by the BBC. There is a plaque in the bar of the Hall which commemorates the event!

By co-incidence, I was training as a guide at the time and drove past Clarkson filming the day before he was sacked. It had snowed overnight but I managed to get a good picture out of the window of our mini coach.

The road rises to a summit at 1,725 feet, but whilst not the highest road in England it is not for the faint-hearted as there are steep drops with just metal ropes to protect dropping over the edge!

Close to the summit there is a pullover spot at the actual Buttertubs which give the pass its name. These are giant limestone pot holes which sit on either side of the road. The carboniferous limestone formed over 300 million years ago has been gradually eroded away by acidic rain, particularly along cracks and bedding planes in the rock which have since collapsed.

This has left deep, almost cave like structures which are over 20 meters deep in some places. The edges are fluted and when its wet and rainy, you can see water flooding into the potholes eroding them further.

It’s a great place to stop on my tours for a nip of home-made sloe gin – no matter what the weather!

Buttertubs are part of the Cliff Force Cave Geological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

But why were they called The Buttertubs?

It’s believed that the name comes from the Swaledale farmers who would travel over the packhorse route to bring their produce to market. Many would bring cheese and butter to sell, but any remaining stock they hadn’t sold, they would lower down in baskets on long ropes into the potholes to keep cool. This would stop save them carrying the goods all the way back to Swaledale.

The temperature at the bottom of the narrow potholes is much lower than above ground, so they would act as medieval refrigerators!

Others picture farmers resting at the summit after a long climb on a hot day and again lowering their goods in to the potholes to make sure it didn’t melt and stayed cool.

Whilst some people even think that the name just comes simply from the fact that the potholes actually look like Buttertubs, whatever the heritage of the name, this iconic route is well worth travelling along and do stop to take a closer look at the strange Buttertubs and take in the dramatic scenery.

1 Comment

Jan 12, 2022

Another superb, well researched and interesting blog by Tim Barber @RealYorkshireTours and one I will be reading and learning from many times over! Thanks Tim

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