The River Swale is the northernmost tributary of the Yorkshire Ouse with its headwaters located in the eastern Yorkshire Dales above the hamlet of Keld, from where it flows in an easterly direction. After passing through the major settlements of Richmond and Catterick, the river flows southwards and joins the River Ure at Myton-on-Swale in the Vale of York. The Swale has a catchment area of 1446 km2 (558 sq.miles) and a length of 118 km (73 miles). The main tributaries of the River Swale are Bedale Beck, Cod Beck and the River Wiske.
The name is from the Anglo Saxon ‘Sualuae’ meaning rapid and liable to deluge. It is said to be the fastest flowing river in England. Forty years ago, spate events took 3 days to build up and 3 days to run off. Now the river can reputedly rise 3m in 20 minutes and cause a bore similar to that on the Severn.
Historically, lead and other metals have been mined in Upper Swaledale; minewater and metal rich sediments can still cause pollution today.
Present day land use within the Swale catchment is mainly agricultural. Pastoral activities are predominant in Swaledale, down to Richmond, with sheep grazing on the lower quality moorland and permanent grassland in the upper and mid-dales. Cattle are grazed on better quality grassland on the valley floors and lower slopes. Arable agriculture dominates the higher quality land in the low-lying Vale of Mowbray. Commercial and industrial activities other than tourism are generally confined to the larger centres of the population such as Richmond, Catterick, Thirsk and Northallerton. Limestone is extracted from Barton and Forcett Quarries, situated to the north of Richmond, and sand and gravel is extracted from alluvial deposits and the river channel from quarries in the lower reaches.