Water is an essential commodity for life and it comes as no surprise that some of the earliest artefacts found in the Yorkshire Dales were discovered near to springs. Late Palaeolithic flint tools have been found on Carperby Moor, about 50 metres away from Thackthwaite Beck spring. Mesolithic stone artefacts are often found near to springs on the limestone uplands where water can sometimes be in short supply. During the Bronze Age, springs are also associated with human activity in the shape of burnt mounds for example at Haw Beck Springs, near Thoralby. Field workers in Wensleydale and Swaledale have identified nearly a hundred of these enigmatic features all of them on or near the spring line. Whether used as feasting sites or for ritual sweat lodges, a close supply of spring water was apparently a necessity.
In more recent times, other springs were considered important enough to have their own names. At Hebden, Thruskell Well is a natural spring with apparently an Anglo-Scandinavian name. Cast Away Well on Witton Fell, is named for the practice of throwing a small offering such as a pin into the water. There are also several springs named after saints. St Helen’s Well, Eshton is a particularly well-known example along with another St Helen’s Well in Great Asby. The name Nanny Spout, near Hebden may be a corruption of a dedication to St Anne. Our Lady’s Well in Threshfield is named for the Virgin Mary and even has a local legend about its protective powers attached to it. The holy nature of these wells may be long lived. Iron Age people are known to have venerated wells and springs in Britain from the artefacts that are sometimes discovered during excavations.
Constantly flowing springs were also important enough for settlements to be named after them, such as Keld, in Swaledale (Anglo-Scandinavian) and Kettlewell, in Wharfedale (Anglo-Saxon). It was always vital to protect and regulate the village water supply and many wells were capped with pump housings, a few of which still survive such as in East Witton and Arncliffe. In Feizor the early 19th century cast iron pump and stone water trough survive in situ, whereas the impressive village pump and troughs in Grassington were moved to their present position quite recently.
As communities grew, demand for a convenient supply of water also grew. This might be a simple village pump such as the fine cast iron example at Beamsley manufactured by Glenfield of Kilmarnock. It might on the other hand involve extensive piped water supplies. In the late 19th century, Bradford Corporation Water Works exploited the moorland water catchment area above Burnsall in order to fill their reservoirs at Upper and Lower Barden. The result of this diversion of water was that Burnsall village was left short of its own water so Bradford Water Works agreed to pipe water to three points in the village for general use. All three ‘compensation’ taps survive with their decorative stone surrounds and a double cattle trough at Holly House that once served the farm there. In Reeth a local benefactor erected two village pumps on the green for the use of the inhabitants in 1868. Sedbergh had an impressive 19th century water supply system consisting of a series of iron pipes bringing water from a reservoir built sometime around 1890. Drinking fountains were also supplied by local benefactors. The example in Langcliffe was later converted into a First World War memorial. A particularly magnificent example, the Cavendish Memorial has recently been restored.
With the growth of tourism in the Yorkshire Dales in the 19th century, some wells became tourist attractions in their own right. The Ebbing and Flowing Well at Giggleswick is a well-known example. Poems were even written about its strange qualities.
On a more humble level, drinking troughs for farm stock are still a common feature of the Dales landscape. Gritstone was a common material used, with the trough simply being carved out of blocks of the stone. Where Helwith slate was available, sheets of stone were clamped together using iron staples to create water-tight containers. Some of these stone troughs lie alongside roads and tracks such as a fine pair near Town Head Farm in Grassington. At Hartlington, a wayside trough carries an appropriate Latin inscription, while a decorative example in Threshfield was moved from its original site to commemorate the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. Other smaller examples can still be seen collecting water from springs on far-flung hillsides.
Laurie, T C (2003) ‘Researching the Prehistory of Wensleydale, Swaledale and Teesdale’ in Manby, T G et al (eds) (2003) The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 3 pp223-253
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
Lodge, Eric (1994) Wharfedale Village : a detailed study of the History of Burnsall & Thorpe-sub-Montem Otley: Smith Settle
http://www.bath.ac.uk/lispring/journal/home.htm – Living Spring Journal hosted by Bath University
http://www.bath.ac.uk/lispring/sourcearchive/front.htm – archive of Source, a journal that contains several articles about Yorkshire wells and springs by Edna Whelan