Political boundaries begin when land is ‘filled up’ with no gaps in between territories. Natural boundaries such as rivers were usually the first ones to be settled upon. Later, man-made boundaries such as stone walls, banks and ditches were sometimes used, often more as a symbol of control and political power than as a defendable barrier. In the Dales, Iron Age hillforts such as How Hill, Downholme no doubt controlled substantial territories, but the edges of such territories are impossible to reconstruct and may not even have been marked on the ground. Some ancient linear earthwork boundaries do survive, but dating them is fraught with difficulty since they seldom contain dating evidence when excavated. Archaeologists generally have to rely on a process of elimination, working out how boundaries relate to each other to arrive at a final date.
In the Dales the first securely dated political boundaries appear during the chaos of the immediately post-Roman period. The system of banks and ditches or dykes in the Grinton-Fremington area of Swaledale were probably built to mark a line between native British territories and the advancing Anglo-Saxons. Tor Dyke delineates the edges of the British kingdom of Craven, overlooking the approaches to Coverdale from Wharfedale. Since linear boundary works are undefendable in themselves, both boundaries were probably erected more to symbolise the military strength of their builders than to actually keep people out.
The line of Tor Dyke survived to become the line of later political boundaries, from township to county and this may have been the case with many other boundaries. Part of the Swaledale dyke system on the other hand, runs right across the middle of the early medieval township of Fremington and so cannot have been in existence when the Fremington township boundary was settled.
By the time of the Domesday survey, people living and working on the land in the Dales would have been well rehearsed in the boundaries of their townships and manors and also those of their ecclesiastical parishes. The practice of supporting a church and priest from parish tithes started in Anglo-Saxon times and was obligatory by the 10th century. In the Dales, with a scattered, relatively poor population, the ecclesiastical parishes were huge and often contained several townships and manorial estates. It was the boundaries of the townships that communities most identified with, but all territorial units were important and parish priests jealously guarded the extent of their tithe paying territories. Confusion arose where neighbouring townships shared common grazing rights on the moorland pastures lying between them. Here there were often no boundaries until the surveyors of the 18th and 19th century Enclosure and Ordnance Survey maps arrived.
Remembering the boundaries and marking them on the ground would have been an important part of life for every person in the Dales. ‘Beating the Bounds’ of the ecclesiastical parish or township often became an annual custom. Local people were led by the lord of the manor’s steward, the township’s constable or the parish priest and his churchwardens and each point on the chosen boundary marked by proclamations or other events designed to impress them on people’s memories. Parish ceremonies were carried out at Rogationtide in the early summer, while manorial perambulations tended to avoid this date. A 12th century perambulation survives for the township of Hebden and it is possible to still follow most of it on the ground. Such boundary perambulations survived until the Ordnance Survey made them obsolete in the mid-19th century. In cases of dispute, the Ordnance Survey’s surveyors sometimes relied on the memories of locals who had taken part in ancient beating the bounds ceremonies.
In the Dales, various natural and man-made features formed these boundaries. Where streams or walls and banks did not exist, points along the boundary were marked, commonly with earth mounds or cairns of stones. Large numbers of both still survive. Currack is a local term for a stone cairn and an example called Windgates Currack can be seen on the boundary between Grinton and Askrigg parishes. Sometimes rocks were set in the ground and survive with enigmatic names such as Solomon’s Standard and Snowden Man. Other boundary stones were carved, such as Heugh Nick boundary stone and Robin Cross boundary stone both set up by the Erle-Drax family in the 19th century to mark the boundaries of Ellerton Abbey Parish.
The many monastic houses that came to own land in the Dales during the medieval period, were particularly mindful of the boundaries of their estates. Fountains Abbey and Bolton Priory both had land in and around Malham village and quarrelled bitterly over their extent and dues until 1222 when they agreed that “each party undertakes not to accept in future lands, pastures, or rents, from the fee of the other”. Monastic boundaries were often marked with stone crosses and examples survive such as the Shorn Cross on Starbotton Road probably belonging to Coverham Abbey and Weets Cross on Malham Moor, belonging to Fountains.
From Tudor times the civil duties of maintaining highways and supporting the poor were imposed on the townships and it was mostly these townships rather than the ecclesiastical parishes that were to become the civil parishes of the 19th century in the north of England. The location of the boundary of the civil parish remained extremely important. Until the local government reforms of the late 19th century, the civil parish you were born in determined your access to poor relief, schools and many other local charities.
Local responsibility for maintaining roads also continued well into the 19th century and led to the erection of many roadside boundary stones by civil parishes. One near Thoralby reads “Here ends Aysgarth Road 1833”. At Aysgarth another example reads “Here ends Aysgarth Bounds 1853”. In Ribblesdale, pairs of roadside parish boundary markers made from Helwith slate are a distinctive feature, for example a series around Stainforth.
Today, responsibility for roads, welfare, education and nearly everything else lies with larger political units and it is the district and county boundaries that affect most of us at a local level. As a result, few people could walk the bounds of their parish without the aid of a map any more. In the Dales however, some parishes have revived the practice of beating the bounds, often starting as a Millennium Year celebration.
Alexander, Ann (1993) ‘Perambulations and Boundary Descriptions’ in Le Patourel, H E Jean et al (eds) (1993) Yorkshire Boundaries Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society pp39-51
Beaumont, Heather M et al (2004) ‘Hebden Township Boundary, Past and Present’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp69-78
Fleming, A (1994) ‘Swadal, Swar and Erechwydd’ : early medieval polities in Upper Swaledale’ Landscape History Vol 16 pp17-30
Jensen, Gillian Fellows (1978) ‘Place Names and Settlement in the North Riding of Yorkshire’ Northern History Vol 15 pp19-46
Le Patourel, H E Jean et al (eds) (1993) Yorkshire Boundaries Leeds: Yorkshire Archaeological Society
Moorhouse, S A (1981) ‘Boundaries’ in Faull, M L & Moorhouse, S A (eds) (1981) West Yorkshire: An Archaeological Survey to AD 1500 Wakefield: WYMCC Vols1-4 pp265-289
Muir Richard (2000) The New Reading the Landscape Exeter: University of Exeter Press [Chapter 3 – Lines in the Landscape]
Raistrick, Arthur (1947) Malham & Malham Moor Clapham: Dalesman
Stainforth History Group (2001) Stainforth. Stepping Stones Through History Stainforth: Stainforth History Group
Winchester, Angus (1990) Discovering Parish Boundaries Princes Risborough: Shire Publications
White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books