The story of domestic life in the Yorkshire Dales is told through many strands. It starts with the need for shelter in the often inhospitable climate. The hills of the Dales are rich in the archaeological remains of domestic buildings ranging from the prehistoric roundhouses of Burton Moor to the Anglo-Scandinavian farmhouse at Ribblehead.
It is not until medieval times, however, that we really begin to get any idea of how life was lived in these dwellings. Timber, cruck built and then stone built houses formed village communities that grew in complex ways, sometimes planned, sometimes developing organically. Up until the arrival of the railway, the materials used to construct these settlements came from the immediate locality, stone, timber and heather thatch. From the late 19th century, new, cheaper materials started to arrive such as the welsh slate and clay pantiles used to roof Bridge End in Grassington or the shuttered concrete used to build Highfield Villas in Sedbergh in 1883.
The house you lived in spoke volumes about your status in society. Grand houses such as Friar’s Head, Winterburn, date to the late Tudor period. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the wealthy were building well-appointed, luxurious country houses. The ‘polite’ architecture of the period is exemplified by such houses as Eshton Hall and Swinithwaite Hall. Grand houses also had exceptional parks and gardens. Earthwork remains around Barden Tower show that even from medieval times, a well-appointed garden and park was an essential for the wealthy landowner. By the 18th century, ornamental parks were laid out on a grand scale such as those around Eshton Hall and Marske Hall.
Away from the great estates, village life revolved around its institutions. Apart from the church and chapel – the school, and in the 19th century, the reading room, were vital to village life. The public house also had a role to play much to the annoyance of the God-fearing middle classes. Women were excluded from many of these more public places, but the village pump was an important meeting point in the daily round of looking after the house and keeping the family and its clothes clean. Although it has been moved a short distance from its original position, the 19th century cast iron pump in Grassington Square is still a focal point for the village. It was not until well into the 19th century that people began to understand that clean water supplies and good sanitation were crucial to avoiding disease. The stone ‘netties’ or earth closets which still stand in many of the gardens of Dales cottages show how long it took for this message to get through. At Gayle several toilets originally appeared to open straight out into the river.
Becoming ill was the fear of all the rural working class since provision for those too ill or old to work was rudimentary. Medieval and later almshouses such as Fountaine’s Hospital provided for the lucky few. The 19th century workhouse such as those in Bainbridge and Reeth were the very last resort due to their harsh regimes.
More enlightened times have brought running water and sewage farms, while the TB hospital at Grassington was demolished to make way for luxury houses in 1996. Few would wish to return to the old days although one can still be nostalgic for the warmth of Dales community life as recorded by writers such as Adam Sedgwick who describes a vanishing 18th century world in his book about Dentdale and Marie Hartley in her many books about Dales life written with Ella Pontefract and Joan Ingilby in the first half of the 20th century.