Anyone wishing to survive the harsh weather of the Yorkshire Dales for any period of time is forced by necessity to build some sort of shelter. The hunters of the Palaeolithic may have chosen cave mouths or tents made from animal skin, but until new evidence is discovered we can only speculate. The Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who exploited the animal resources around Malham Tarn left evidence of campfires, but no structures have been found. Chapel Cave overlooking the Tarn was used but may simply have been a lookout post rather than an overnight shelter. During the Neolithic and Bronze Age, several caves in the Dales had evidence for fires and pottery, Elbolton Cave and Thaw Head Cave are two well-known examples. Such places were always cold, dark and damp however so it seems unlikely that we are seeing domestic occupation.
Field archaeologists investigating the enigmatic burnt mounds of Swaledale and Wensleydale have noticed faint circles of stones near some of them and concluded that they may be evidence for tent shelters built while people were participating in the feasting or ritual cleansing/sweat lodge activities associated with the burnt mounds. These seem to date from the late Neolithic through to the middle Bronze Age.
By the later Bronze Age we find the first evidence for permanent occupation. Very few of the hundreds of prehistoric settlement sites identified in the Yorkshire Dales are securely dated but the settlement on Burton Moor seems to be one of the most likely Bronze Age candidates, with its circular stone built huts surrounded by small stone and earth walled enclosures and a wider field system.
Such circular huts are typical of the prehistoric and even Romano-British period in the Dales. They probably had timber, turf or wattle and daub upper walls and timber rafters covered in heather or turf. Huts built with earthen or wooden walls leave no above ground traces but may remain to be discovered through excavation.
The rectangular house shapes characteristic of the Roman period are only seen at Gargrave villa and Bainbridge fort. The native population, such as at Healaugh, continued to prefer curved walls to straight ones. By the time of the Viking invasions things are beginning to change. The 9th century farmhouse at Ribblehead is in the characteristic Viking long house shape and later medieval timber frame and stone houses are all rectangular in shape.
Excavations at Crosedale in the Howgill Fells have revealed the stone foundation walls of a small sub-rectangular building that may have been an early medieval shieling. These were built as summer housing for farmers watching over cattle and sheep brought up from the main settlements to graze on the fells. The excavators suggested that it might have had turf or timber upper walls. The roof may have been covered in turf. The structure was probably occupied from the late 12th to the mid-14th century. Such relatively crude stone, timber and turf structures evolved into more sophisticated timber frame houses during the medieval era.
No medieval timber frame houses survive in the Dales but their components do as for instance in Cracoe where a building survey discovered parts of several cruck houses reused in later stone structures. Fold Farmhouse dates to the Tudor period and is a rare survival of a timber frame house, encased inside a later stone structure.
By the time of the Great Rebuild of the 17th century, timber had become scarce and expensive so the newly prosperous farmers who rebuilt farmhouses like New House, in Bishopdale used stone instead, although here, the roof was at first heather thatched. The great landowners of the Dales from Roman times onwards also displayed their wealth through their homes. Bolton Castle was designed more as a comfortable residence for its lord than as a defensive structure and the culmination of the trend was the fashion for polite architecture among the 18th and 19th century gentry of the Dales where no expense or luxury was spared. Eshton and Swinithwaite Halls are classic examples of complete rebuilds whereas the medieval gatehouse at Bolton Priory was converted by its aristocratic owners into a residence worthy of their status.
The homes of the poorest members of society are much harder to find. From medieval times, many would have been of timber and so have disappeared without trace. Others would have started life as grander structures but ended up in multiple occupancy, evidence for which is also missing except in the historic record. It is not until the 19th century, when housing was deliberately provided for lead miners and mill workers that we find the lower end of the domestic housing scale surviving. Cottages converted from farm buildings for lead miners can be seen along Chapel Street in Grassington, while short, purpose-built mill and quarry workers’ terraces survive in Hebden and Langcliffe.
Privately built industrial housing of the 19th century was added to by the social housing of the 20th. Many villages in the Dales had council houses built after the First World War and well on into the 1960s. Most are now in private ownership priced beyond the reach of low paid families. Such local families are increasingly being helped by the provision of low-cost rented housing built by Housing Trusts.
Today, the vernacular styles and traditional materials that are so characteristic of the National Park are expensive to use. Since 1954, Development Control by the National Park Authority has limited the use of the cheapest materials and the unsympathetic designs that crept in after the Second World War, but agricultural workers dwellings were sometimes an exception to the rule. The control over planning tries to ensure that villages and landscapes are not blighted by out-of-place developments. The price we pay is that much late 20th and early 21st century domestic architecture of the Dales is characterised by pastiches of what has gone before rather than embracing contemporary design.
Fairless, Kenneth J (2004) ‘Burton Moor Settlement’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp99-104
Fleming, Andrew (1998) Swaledale. Valley of the Wild River Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press [Healaugh settlement]
Gilks, J A (1995) ‘Later Neolithic and Bronze Age Pottery from Thaw Head Cave, Ingleton, North Yorkshire’ Trans. Hunter. Archaeological Society Vol 18 pp1-11
Gilks, J A (1973) ‘The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Pottery from Elbolton Cave, Wharfedale’ Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol 45 pp41-54
Goldthorpe, Ian (1998) Grassington Towards the Millennium Grassington: The Dales Book Centre
Hair, N & Newman, R (1999) ‘Excavation of Medieval Settlement Remains at Crosedale in Howgill’ TCWAAS Vol 99 pp141-158
Hatcher, Jane (1990) Richmondshire Architecture Richmond: C J Hatcher
Joy, David (2002) Hebden. The History of a Dales Township Hebden: Hebden History Group
King, A (1978) ‘Gauber high pasture, Ribblehead – an interim report’ in Hall, R A (ed) (1978) Viking Age York & the North CBA Research Report No 27
Laurie, Tim (2004) ‘Burnt Mounds in Wensleydale and Swaledale’ in White, R F & Wilson, P R (eds) (2004) Archaeology and Historic Landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 2 pp79-88
The Langcliffe Millennium Group (2000) Langcliffe Settle: Hudson History
White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books