Village Layouts

Essays describing the historical development of a selection of villages in the Yorkshire Dales.


  • Bainbridge, Wensleydale
  • Carperby, Wensleydale
  • East Witton, Wensleydale
  • Gayle, Wensleydale
  • Gunnerside, Swaledale
  • Muker, Swaledale
  • Reeth, Swaledale
  • Thwaite, Swaledale
  • West Burton, Wensleydale


For more detailed Conservation Area Character Appraisals please see the document library section


Bainbridge, Wensleydale

The position of the village has always been a strategic one, attested to by the presence of the successive Roman forts of Virosidum on Brough Hill. Continuously occupied between AD 90 until near to the end of Roman period, in the early 5th century, Virosidum may well, like many other military forts, have had a civilian settlement or vicus nearby. Camden, a 16th century antiquarian, notes the ‘traces of many houses’ below the fort to the east. However, the identification of at least one medieval tenement in that area may indicate that it is not necessarily the site of a vicus. Excavations of the Roman fort have suggested that only the south and east gateways would have been used by wheeled traffic. The best known Roman road leading from Virosidum exited to the south west towards Lancaster via Cam Houses and Ribblehead. It seems likely that this road would have crossed the River Bain to the south of the present road bridge, above the head of the shallow waterfalls.


The origins of the present settlement, arranged formally around an irregular, but basically rectangular village green, almost certainly date back to the 12th century, when ‘Beynt Bridge’ was known to have been established to provide a dwelling house and 9 acres of land each for 12 foresters. This was probably located in what was then a clearing of the edge of the then Forest of Wensleydale. Many planned villages, arranged around similar large village greens, are thought to have been established elsewhere in the Dales at about this period.


The period following the Norman Harrying of the North in 1069 up to the 14th century was one of rising population and economic expansion. Accurate and reliable information on the development of the village, however, is scarce until the early 19th century, when map evidence shows that there were formerly a series of tofts or long garths to the west of the village, and this would also tend to support earlier evidence that growth of Bainbridge was a result of organised planning.


The village green itself has been held in trust since the mid-17th century when villagers brought the manorial rights from the City of London. It seems likely however, that this did not necessarily prevent development encroaching onto the village green. The positioning and alignment of houses set gable onto the village green in the long, but narrow garths to the west side of the village green suggest that Back Syke may have once formed the west edge of the village green and that those houses now situated to the east of the Back Syke such as Riverdale House, Brough View and Delany Cottage were encroachments onto the green in the 18th or 19th centuries. Other buildings such as the former Institute/School building and possibly the Congregational Chapel were built on the green in the late 19th century.

Carperby, Wensleydale

The origins of Carperby as a place name are somewhat obscure and open to various interpretations. The most popular opinion is that the name is Scandinavian in origin, probably dating back to the occupation of the area by Danish Vikings in the 10th century with –by meaning farmstead or holding, while – kjarr is ancient Danish for a bushy bog area. However, an alternative theory is provided in Smith’s book The Place Names of North Riding. He quotes Professor Ekwall who suggests that, given a Celtic derived spelling Kerperbi is found in the Domesday Book of 1086, it may have a greater association with Scandinavian settlers who travelled into the dales from the west, via earlier settlement in Ireland. Ekwall suggests that “Cairpre” and later “Cairbre” is a Celtic or old Irish name for a person who was named after his occupation as a charioteer.


Even if either interpretation is correct this would not necessarily mean that there was a village here in the 10th or 11th century. Such a place name might be simply a topographical description or refer to the existence of a single farmstead. Neither is entry in the Domesday Book a guarantee of such status.


However, by the late 13th century there must have been a sizeable community here for in 1305 Carperby receives a Market Charter, one of the earliest in the northern dales, for the holding of a weekly market and two fairs, one on the Saint’s Day of St. James in July and one on Saint Andrew’s day in November. This market may have fallen into disuse after 1587 when Askrigg began to acquire the greater focus of commercial activity in the Upper Dale, only to be revived once again in the 17th century. The surviving market cross, with its date of 1674 may possibly commemorate this re-activity.


Evidence from 18th century maps of the village suggests that the east end of the settlement was formerly a more prestigious and important focus for village life than it is today. Significantly, the area that stretches in a wide arc from the Village Institute, northwards towards the bungalow known as Wegber and then eastwards to a point approximately 100 metres beyond East End Farmhouse, formerly contained a whole series of small garths or tofts. Before the 18th century these would almost certainly have contained houses and other buildings, for in the pre-modern age garths were associated more with human activity than with agricultural use.


At that time the area to the south of these garths consisted almost entirely of a large triangular open space which is today occupied by the houses, gardens and small fields of The Bastile House, East End Cottage and, more intriguingly, Chapel House.


The latter is significant because Speight in his Romantic Richmondshire (1897) records that there was formerly an old Chapel of Ease in this area. He indicates that this was a small building with a thatched roof and that remnants of this structure were incorporated into the porch of Chapel House. There is no sign of this material today, although some 17th century material is clearly visible in the porch of the neighbouring East End Cottage. A small building is revealed on all of the surviving maps up to 1810 in what is today the garden of East End Cottage. Given that this structure had disappeared by the time East End Cottage first appears on a map of 1839, this could well be the building in question. The historic origins of this Chapel are unknown, but it may well have had the name of St James as a St James’ Well is located by the roadside a short distance to the north east.


The probable siting of a Chapel in this area of the village suggests that this area was formerly more central to village life. Additional support for this view can be found in the nearby location of Manor Farm and in adjacent field names such as Hall Croft and Great Close, which could all be interpreted as suggesting a manorial presence at this end of the village.


It is also possible to interpret the large area of open space to the south of the possible Chapel site as having been the location of the medieval market place. The location of a small pound or pinfold, for the coralling of wandering farm stock, at the south west corner of this former open space is also suggestive.


However, this area was completely redefined in the period between 1799 and 1810 as new road boundaries were created and the enclosure of the former large open area took place. These changes were presumably undertaken as part of the re-routing and alterations that were taking place in an effort to improve the Richmond to Lancaster Turnpike route. Prior to this, access to the village from the east was made by Hargill Lane, which led up to the moor to connect with Castle Bolton via Bolton Parks and Ellerlands. The present road to Redmire appears on 18th century maps as little more than a farm track, although it may once have continued, as Low Lane did, towards the medieval township of Thoresby to the south east.


Following the redesign of this area sometime around 1800, an area of open water develops in front of what is now East End Cottage. This is named on the 1856 6” Ordnance Survey Map as Chapelmire Dub and it may be that this feature was deliberately created as a duck pond or formal washing area for the village.


While the east end of the village has seen quite significant changes over the last 250 years, resulting today in a quite open character, the reverse appears to have happened at the West End of the village. Map evidence suggests that prior to the 19th century the arrangement of buildings was somewhat more random than it is today, and that the strong linear aspect of the south row only developed in the second half of the 19th century. A significant factor in these changes could well be the devastation caused by a major fire which is reputed to have taken place in the early part of the 19th century and which is said to have caused the destruction of some 12 thatched buildings. Significantly, map evidence reveals that some 9 buildings disappear from the north and west sides of the green between 1819 and 1856 suggesting that any such serious conflagration may well have occurred at the north west end of the village.


The other area of the village that demonstrates a notable change in form is that part of the main street between the Wheat Sheaf Hotel and East End House. These two buildings date from the mid- and late 18th century respectively. They sit within a pair of parallel rows and face each other across what was formerly a wide rectangular open space or green. This space became enclosed shortly after 1800, again probably as a result of road improvements, but the historic significance of this former space is still recognisable today in the way that the building lines of the southern row appear to veer away from today’s angled road line.


One other noteworthy historic feature was situated beyond the well-defined western boundary of the built up area, to the south west of the house now known as Conifers. Although not visible on the early extant maps of the village, a sizeable large area of open water appears on the 1799 map in the corner of a very large unenclosed piece of land shown as Sleights. By 1810, when this large field has become partly enclosed and its eastern part divided into narrow strip fields for allocation to villagers, the area of water seems to remain unenclosed by boundary walls. By 1856 that area of water, now shown on maps as Deadman’s Hole, had grown to fill almost all of this small parcel of land. However, by 1897 the water had been drained from this feature and today’s field pattern had become established.


Little development seems to have taken place in the first half of the 20th century. The Village Institute dates from 1926 while the new public housing dates from the 1950s or 1960s. Most of the other modern development dates from the last decades of the 20th century as various gap sites, particularly along the southern side of the village street, were filled in with modern housing and bungalows. A number of large modern agricultural buildings were also erected in garths and fields to the rear of earlier building lines in more open locations at each end of the village.

East Witton, Wensleydale

Nearby place name and earthwork evidence suggests that the area was settled by prehistoric, Anglian and Danish peoples. The place name ‘Witton’ or ‘Wutton’ probably means the ‘farm in the wood’ and is almost certainly Saxon in origin and this might well indicate that a settlement had not been established here before the time of the Norman Conquest.


However, deliberately planned village layouts, such as East Witton, where houses are laid out around a large, formal village green, are sometimes found to have been associated with the resettlement of the Pennine uplands following the Norman Harrying of the North in 1069. This could have been the case at East Witton for it is known that the village originally possessed a twelfth century ‘ Norman’ church which records show pre-dated the establishment of Jervaulx Abbey in 1145-50. This church, recorded in a papal letter of 1291 as ‘St Elisius in Wutton’ was, however, located away from the centre of today’s village at Low Thorpe, 600 metres to the south east. It was demolished in 1809. It is quite possible that this Norman church was the focus for an original settlement in the late 11th or early 12th century.


It is far more probable that the planned layout of today’s village results from a deliberate attempt by the monks of nearby Jervaulx Abbey to establish a market and cattle fair on their land in the form of a large ‘market green’, a charter for which was finally granted in 1307. This may well have led to the slow depopulation of the settled area around Low Thorpe during the mediaeval period although, because of the church site, it was never completely abandoned and a scatter of houses still survives there today.


Despite the support of Jervaulx Abbey, East Witton faced stiff competition as a market town from the establishment of a market at nearby Middleham in 1389. The siting of this later market, within the shadow and security of the medieval castle and with the patronage of the influential Neville family, may have inhibited the growth of East Witton as a viable town during the medieval period. The new market certainly continued in some form until at least 1563, when a severe outbreak of plague is recorded in the village, which led to the market’s removal to nearby Ulshaw Bridge.


Although the impression formed from the main road junction is that the green forms a cul-de-sac headed by Town End Farm, in fact Braithwaite Lane branches out from the north west corner and follows the line of an ancient route connecting Jervaulx Abbey with Coverham Abbey to the west.


Jervaulx Abbey undoubtedly had a significant influence on the village’s historic development and the monks are known to have been operating a fulling mill and corn mill at East Witton at the time of the Dissolution. These strong links were maintained following the award of the monastic estate by King James 1 to Edward Bruce in 1603. Bruce was a forbear of the Earl of Ailesbury whose family continued to own the majority of the land and buildings in and around the village until well into the twentieth century.


A map prepared in 1627 by William Senior reveals that the form of the main part of the village has survived almost unchanged to the present day. However, almost all of the houses around the green were demolished and rebuilt, in almost exactly their same positions, by the Earl of Ailesbury, during the period 1795 and 1820. A number of houses at the head of the green where replaced by Town End Farm and some of the routes leading out of the village were probably modified at that time.


The village has been subject to hardly any 20th century development and, as a result of the continuing influence of the Jervaulx Estate and the generally sound management of residents, there has been very little harmful impact made on the 19th century cottages during the modern period.

Gayle, Wensleydale

The 19th century writer Edmund Bogg suggests that the village “…is probably one of the most ancient in the dale’’ and probably of “Celtic founding’’ but there is surprisingly little evidence available which might shed light on the origins, or subsequent history of the settlement until the modern era. Earthwork remains situated near to Blackburn Hall, 500 metres to the east of the village, were excavated in the late 1970’s. The inconclusive results of this work suggest that this feature may have been a partially defended shieling or summer outstation dating from the mid-9th century. The relationship of this substantial feature to an almost adjacent field system, which survives as series of low earth-banks, remains unclear.


The present day name is probably derived from a Norse topographical description – seldalegale – meaning a ravine situated in a ravine-like valley. A vaccary, or dairy farm, called Slebaledal, and a lodge called Sledabigail (possibly the same place) are recorded as having existed in the 13th century and land at Hawes and Gayle was in Crown possession at the time of Richard II. No other material has come down to us from the medieval period. A survey of Crown land carried out by James I in 1603 reveals that, at that time, Gayle was probably the largest settlement in the upper dale with 42 men having land while nearby Hawes only had 19. This situation began to be reversed once Hawes received its market charter in 1700.


By the later 17th century Gayle had become renowned for its knitting trade, a factor which no doubt influenced the establishment of an early cotton mill at Gayle in around 1784. The houses on either side of Clints House were originally built as workshops and warehouses to serve this burgeoning textile industry, although a proud local tradition of hand knitting continued in Gayle until well into the 19th century.


Leases for the prospecting of coal were made in the early 18th century and a colliery, which employed men and women from Gayle, was established at Storth, 2 miles to the south, by the end of the century. The 1851 census records that 22 people from Gayle were employed at ‘Storth Pits’. Stone was extracted from the Beck, opposite the Beckstones, in the late 18th century for use on Alexander Fothergill’s improvements to the Richmond – Lancaster Turnpike. Sandstone, for walling and for floors and roofs, and limestone for the liming of ‘sour’ agricultural land, was won from quarries at nearby Scaur Head and East Shaw Farm in the 19th century and men from Gayle may also have travelled to the Burtersett slate and stone quarries to work during the boom years from 1850 to 1880. Gayle is recorded as having a butcher, Jeffrey Spenser, in 1803 and at the end of the 19th century there were, apparently, four shops and at least one public house in the village. Gayle Mill had become a sawmill by this time.


Development in the 20th century was not extensive until the 1960s and 70s when the Little Ings estate development was built to the west of Gayle Lane, followed by a smaller group on the narrow strip between the road and Gayle Beck in the 1990s. Further houses have been built on an individual basis, as infill in the West End area, and as a ribbon development of bungalows along Marridales. Taken together, this modern housing provision has more than doubled the size of the village in the last 40 years, resulting in a design style and layout of buildings which is completely alien from the historic core of the village.

Gunnerside, Swaledale

To judge from scattered burial monuments and occasional finds of flint, the earliest settlement activity in Swaledale may well have begun before or during the Bronze Age. Human settlement increased in density during the Iron Age and into the Roman period, when lead was probably first extracted from the nearby hills. Despite this lengthy history, the surviving system of walled fields and stone field barns, spectacularly visible on the southern dale side and in the dale bottom when approaching Gunnerside from the east, is mainly a product of enclosure which took place from the end of the 18th century and into the beginning of the 19th century.


Upper Swaledale appears to have had its own distinctive identity at least from the pre-Conquest period, and has been identified as the location of the 10th century kingdom of the Swale – ‘Swaldal’ in tenth century Norse. The name Gunnerside means ‘Gunners saetr’ – a summer pasture, or shieling, belonging to Gunnar, dating probably from the 10th century. The shieling may, like others in the dale, have continued into the Middle Ages as a vaccary, or dairy farm. In 1298 Gunnerside was one of the 12 vaccaries, or dairy farms, named in the inquisition post mortem of Gilbert de Gaunt. Cattle-raising was probably the principal activity at this time, and at the time of the Dissolution the vaccary was in the possession of Rievaulx Abbey.


Through the later medieval period the farming economy continued to be based on cattle and dairy produce, using cheap family labour and supplying a growing demand for butter and cheese. By the end of the 17th century butter was carried to Yarm for export to London, and the trade continued into the 18th century.


The confirmation of ancient tenants’ rights and the documented improvements to the Wharton estate in the late 16th and early 17th centuries provide the historical context for the building of the stone farmhouses in the village. There was a water-powered corn mill by 1635 and research indicates a settlement was well established by that date. No wheat was grown in the upper dale after 1600, from which time it was brought in via the Richmond markets. Gunnerside has the important feature of a steady and reliable water supply that could be channelled into a leat to power the corn mill. Oats continued to be grown and would have been ground here along with the bought in bread wheat. In 1614 James Harrison of Gunnerside had a loom and was probably spinning and weaving his own wool.


Land ownership in the dale was passed on through a system of partiple inheritance, the land being divided between children rather than passing to the eldest son. This resulted in a tradition of small holdings, necessarily supported by a mixed economy with spinning, knitting, weaving, quarrying and lead mining combined with agriculture. By the early 19th century Baines Directory of 1823 listed six farmers living and working in Gunnerside, and even at the end of that century the number had only risen to seven.


Lead was being mined by the late 17th century and tenants paid low rents throughout the 18th century. The sons of farming families were often miners, and the building of cottages onto existing family farmhouses was common, while miners from outside the village built cottages on Lodge Green, the steep hill slope across which a maze of paths leads to the mines and smelt mills. The Blakethwaite and Lownathwaite lead mine levels were worked at the top of Gunnerside Gill in the early 19th century – a time when Britain was the world’s leading lead producer. Both mines were badly affected by the 1830-31 trade slump but from 1837 the industry was re-organised under a new leaseholder and work continued again until the early 1870s.


The important role of the lead industry was paralleled by the wool trade, which developed from the early 18th century. This was controlled by dealers who bought fleeces and controlled the production of cloth by supplying local skilled workers with carded wool for spinning or yarn for weaving. Specialisation in hand knitted clothing gave employment to many, and the wool merchants traded directly through Richmond. Developing industry expanded the range of occupations – the early 19th century directory listed a carrier, shoemaker, flour dealer, shepherd, butcher, and income tax collector. By the late 19th century Kelly’s Directory advertised the King’s Head Inn, as having ‘every accommodation for visitors’- a time when Swaledale was becoming popular with tourists, a trend consolidated with the development of the motor car and the popularity of motor touring in the twentieth century.


To the visitor, Gunnerside appears as a village of two halves, the west side of the Gunnerside Gill is a settlement around a green, linked by the bridge to another, eastern, settlement spread out along the road through Lodge Green. This simple division, however, masks a deeper complexity brought about by changes in Gunnerside over the past three centuries, and in particular by the interplay between agriculture and industry. In Gunnerside it was industry, now mostly disappeared, which eventually left the greater mark.


Although now dominated by buildings which reflect the importance of the lead industry in the later 18th and 19th century, the structure of Gunnerside west of the beck still owes much to underlying agricultural origins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The long green running up beside the beck is finally stopped by the largely blind walls of the mill, which probably sits on the site of a 17th century predecessor. A cottage near Heath View has traces of 17th century fabric suggesting that it may have begun life as a farm, only later to become incorporated into one of the south-facing blocks that characterise the structure of this eastern part of Gunnerside. Brow Hill farmhouse, crouched low and south-facing on the western edge of the village, was built, or more probably re-modelled, in 1695. Collectively these suggest that nucleated settlement first developed here on the west of the beck.


These remains are important in that their fabric and location still speak of a more thinly populated agricultural village, with substantial stone constructed farms scattered around the edges of a green that lay beside the western side of the beck. Except where function or ownership dictated otherwise, houses were generally built south-facing to make the most of the sunlight. Tracks and footpaths radiated outwards to fields and pasture beyond the farms, more locally to the mill and outlying farms, as well across the beck to more distant markets.


In this western part of Gunnerside the houses, workshops and other buildings connected with the lead industry, and other commercial and social developments of the later 18th and 19th centuries, are now the obvious components of the village structure, but they consolidated the pattern of the earlier agricultural settlement. Successive development filled in gaps between buildings and blocks of buildings, encroached upon what was once a larger open area at the centre of the settlement, and also at the edges of the built up margin, wherever possible. The north west sector, limited by slopes and subject to erosion by the beck, acquired a more industrial character complete with public buildings, while the western sector was dominated by domestic buildings which reached an architectural high point with Spensely House, but which continued to acquire additions during the later 20th century, accommodated unobtrusively on low-lying slopes. The south west sector, now dominated by the Methodist Chapel, appears to have been re-oriented along the road to the early 19th century Swale bridge, the beck and the meadows limiting its expansion.


The well-defined area bordering Gunnerside Gill, leading up to the mill is also the area that today provides the most obvious indicator of former industry in Gunnerside. The mill provides closure to the little valley, but additional blocking is provided by Ghyll Edge/Ghyll View. Further infilling is created by Rose Cottage and the smithy. The smithy extended its influence across the road to the beck side, evidenced by workshop paraphernalia, an important and increasingly rare reminder of the impact and importance of the industry in the heart of a Swaledale village.


Earlier buildings appear to be a framework which influenced the positioning of the three south-facing blocks of buildings which became established along tracks extending westwards from the green and towards the crossing point of Gunnerside Gill. The east ends of these house rows provide a clear edge to settlement form, while later, east-facing end buildings created the effect of a village square. This effect is enhanced by the low stone wall flanking the edge of the beck, by the south gable of the four-square Literary Institute, and by the bulk of the King’s Head Inn and its neighbour. East of the bridge it is the road itself which is firmly defined, first by high flanking buildings, then by the service aspects of south-facing buildings, and on the north side, a low parapet wall to Lodge Green.

Muker, Swaledale

The settlement name is Norse, and means ‘narrow acre’, implying a small area of cultivated land. The earliest recorded evidence for occupation in and around Muker takes the form of a skeleton found, with flints, on Muker Common in the early 20th century. Details suggest a burial of Bronze Age date. Although Swaledale contains a variety of earthworks, many of which appear to be evidence for field systems of Iron Age or earlier date, there is little earthwork evidence for early agricultural or settlement activity in the immediate vicinity of Muker. Slight traces of former earthwork field boundaries may be discerned underlying the field system to the east of the village and south of the present main road.


Agriculture continued to underpin other economic activities in Muker as elsewhere in the dales. During the 1830s there was a series of bad harvests, and a sheep rot outbreak. Larger farms increasingly grew cereals during this period, following the 1815 Corn Laws. However, during the second half of the 19th century mixed farming which included the cultivation of potatoes, turnips, swedes, oats, and corn was being abandoned for the pastoral farming which dominates the area today. The agricultural round was reflected in Muker show, held in September on a field up the lane past the church, while the annual tup (male sheep) sale took place in October, in the field below the vicarage.


The early 19th century – the period of the Napoleonic Wars and the Peninsular War (1808-14) – was the period of greatest mining activity, evidenced in Muker by an increasing number of cottages and workshops. From the mid-1820s, however, the price of lead dropped and there was a continuing decline in the industry. Despite the trend, new mines were opened and individual mines had periods of great prosperity, with something of a revival in the Crimean War 1853-56.


Muker was a major centre for both lead mining and hand knitting by the late 18th century. A variety of buildings must be associated with these industries, and the period 1795-1815 was one of continuous rebuilding throughout the upper dale. The King’s Head group built on the south side of the old green area may have been connected with the storage of wool, its distribution (‘putting out’) to private houses for spinning and knitting, and the collection of finished articles before transportation to Richmond, the main market centre. The 1851 census shows that hand knitting was then still a commercial industry in the village.


Lead mining was in decline by the middle of the 19th century and ceased to provide any wealth for the community by the early 20th century. Even by 1891 the market, which had probably been established in the 18th century, had shrunk to just two butchers’ stalls. Farming remained the principal occupation, together with maintenance of the moorland for shooting. From the late 19th century inns and tea shops increasingly catered for visitors and holiday-makers, and by the 1920s tourists were becoming a common sight in the Yorkshire Dales.


The present settlement plan at Muker has been consolidated by the formalisation of the river crossing and the road along its north bank. The earliest settlement at Muker, however, may have been sited on a platform on the hillside overlooking the beck. It is not clear to what extent this was a nucleated settlement, nor whether there was originally a green here. The church and the remains of a 17th century domestic building lie to the eastern side of this possible early focal point. The church was rebuilt in 1580, when burials were permitted, and from then onwards settlement consolidated around an open green area, itself later encroached upon.


Formerly the main communication route along the upper dale between Muker and Thwaite may well have kept to the north side of the Straw Beck, leaving Muker on the line now maintained by a terrace of houses which extends from the southern edge of the upper settlement. The present bridge over Muker or Straw Beck was rebuilt in 1907, on a site likely to be that of an early river crossing, as old routes, including one from the north east and Scotland, converge here. The limited amount of level ground along the beck, and its tendency to flooding, ensured that the beck crossing never became the principal focus of settlement, although occupation along the beck side, perhaps begun in the 18th century, was extended and consolidated by the latter part of the 19th century.

Reeth, Swaledale

Early settlement is more obvious around Reeth than anywhere else in Swaledale. Its location appears to have been attractive to settlement since at least the Iron Age, indeed, elsewhere in the region many similar river junctions attracted Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement. Maiden Castle, a substantial earthwork enclosure on a terrace on the southern bank of the Swale, may be a settlement of Iron Age date, its location reminiscent of Reeth itself. An adjacent mound is likely to be of Bronze Age or earlier date, while there are also the foundations of prehistoric round-houses nearby. The Iron Age period is represented by the earthworks of co-axial field boundaries, particularly obvious at times of low sunlight or light snow, in the fields between Reeth and Healeagh.


Reeth has an Old English name, translating as ‘rough place’, and its location may once have been the eastern boundary of an early English kingdom, established perhaps as early as the 7th or 8th century AD. Even then Reeth may have been the pre-eminent settlement in Swaledale, with outliers at Daggerston, Grinton, and Kearton. The best evidence for this ancient territory is the series of linear earthworks, or dykes, which cross the dale between Reeth and Fremington and may, at times, have marked an eastern boundary. Traces of similar earthwork boundaries are also shown on early maps beneath what is now the eastern edge of Reeth, above the Arkle Beck.


While place names and some surviving earthworks suggest settlement during the post-Roman centuries, no evidence for actual occupation has yet been found for these centuries. The same can be said for much of the medieval period, although documentary evidence provides more sure grounds for speculation about the extent of settlement in and around Reeth. Ridge and furrow remains of medieval arable agriculture survives below Riddings Farm, and this, together with the lynchets and pattern of field boundaries, suggests the layout of open fields around Reeth, although the extent and plan of the village at that time is unclear. Cattle would have been maintained in parks set in what would have been still well-wooded countryside around the settlement, and it is likely that grazing was particularly important in the more sheltered areas east of Reeth. The higher moorland would have provided turf, peat, timber, heather, and game, all of which would have been exploited, together with lead and coal.


Lead working took place in Swaledale during the Romano-British period, but thereafter probably ceased until renewed interest by monastic institutions during the Middle Ages. An early indication of the economic importance of Reeth is provided by 1301 crown tax lists, which show land in the upper dale under Reeth, distinguishing the settlement from the administrative centre at Healaugh and ecclesiastical centre at Grinton. After the Dissolution, trade and agriculture provided the mainstay of the economy until the 18th century. Reeth was not always readily accessible because of flooding – the 1547 will of Jeffrey Charder of Reeth left 20 shillings towards the building of Grinton Bridge, which was repaired in 1565 and again in 1575. The 1671 Hearth Tax return for Reeth notes the existence of 191 houses, although these may not all have been in the area of the present village.


During the 18th and 19th centuries the lead industry was again the basis of economic development which was coupled with a considerable rise in the population of the dale, and the consolidation of settlements which still reflect this industrial heyday. Reeth, as the commercial centre for the area, benefitted greatly from its involvement in the ‘cleaner’ end of the lead industry. The broader base of commerce in Reeth meant that it was better able to weather the decline of the lead industry towards the end of the 19th century, and in a better position to exploit the tourist interest that developed thereafter.


Through the later medieval period farming was chiefly concerned with cattle and dairy produce and the exporting of butter and cheese. Arable agriculture was undertaken, but to an increasingly limited extent. During the 17th century local corn growing was discontinued and grain was brought in from Richmond to be ground at Reeth mill. A 1606 survey showed that former arable fields named Wheate Close and Corne Close had by then become meadowland, while a 1613 survey of Francis Charder’s lands in Reeth noted recently improved land. In 1771 Arthur Young described enclosed fields manured by peat and coal ashes, cows and horses, and high grass enclosures. He had met Thomas Elliot of Reeth/Fremington ‘one of the greatest improvers of moors in Yorkshire’.


Philip Lord Wharton was a major figure in the economic development of Swaledale, developing coal and lead mines during the 17th century, and acquiring a market charter for Reeth in 1695. He was a Protestant Dissenter, and supported others, in his chapels and as mine managers. His influence in the dale accounts for the strong Nonconformist history here.


Improved roads and, in 1773, John Carr’s new bridge at Reeth encouraged the further development of the lead industry. In addition, hand knitting became an important element of the dales economy during the 18th and early 19th century, and it is likely that many families in Reeth would have relied on a variety of occupations. Before the end of the 19th century the Dales lead industry had finally declined, leaving agriculture and trade as the mainstays of Reeth’s economy, increasingly augmented by income from travellers.


By the 1930s the motor car was increasingly opening up Reeth to visitors, though as Marie Hartley and Ella Pontefract wer able to write in 1934, ‘…one forgets the motorists when the last horn has blown at the bend, and Reeth settles down to be itself again. And for many months of the year it is itself all the time’.


The existing layout of Reeth owes much to re-modelling undertaken in the 18th century, which established domestic and commercial premises around an extensive square green. How much of this layout already existed, and how much was new in the 18th century, is now hard to establish. Historians have suggested that in the medieval period Reeth formed a rough T-shape, with a straggle of houses along a road following a terrace overlooking the Swale, and with a further row of houses extending north from these on a line fronting the west side of the Green. It may be, however, that the re-modelling of Reeth around its green disturbed a more complex development plan.


The acquisition of a market charter in the late 17th century may have done much to influence the consolidation of the Green and settlement around it. Before that time population levels were somewhat lower and there may have been more fluidity in the arrangement of the settlement pattern. A significant aspect of the character of Reeth is that, even today, there is a striking contrast between the large amount of space provided for commercial activity, on and around the Green, and the much more limited amount of space this has left for domestic settlement, which has had to make best use of the remaining areas of a platform of land which falls away along much of the southern and eastern sides.


Today’s pattern of settlement also relates to the position of the present main road as it enters the village and to the Arkengarthdale road. In addition, a number of paths, as well as the tracks shown on old maps, suggest the possibilities of other routes along which settlement may once have focused. The Back Lane towards Healaugh, which now bypasses the heart of Reeth, and a track leading west from Anvil Square are good examples as is the former approach to the Green, which appears to have taken a more westerly alignment.

Thwaite, Swaledale

The place name is Norse, ‘thveit’ – a clearing, implying that this was woodland or a forested area in the 9th or 10th century. Other local names are Great Shunner Fell, Norse, ‘sjon’ or ‘sjonar’ – a look-out hill, and Lovely Seat, Scandinavian ‘saetre’ – a seasonal outstation or shieling. It has been suggested that the settlement began as an intrusion into the territory of Muker – perhaps in the 10th century.


Isolated farmsteads in a largely wooded landscape had probably existed from the Iron Age if not before, but there is little recorded archaeology. An enclosure, comprising an earthwork bank and ditch, is set on a small rounded knoll to the east of Thwaite. By analogy with sites elsewhere, this and other knoll-set enclosures in Swaledale such as How Hill, Downholme are thought to belong to the pre-Roman Iron Age.


Although Swaledale contains a variety of earthworks, many of which appear to be evidence for field systems of Romano-British date, there is little earthwork evidence for early agricultural or settlement activity in the immediate vicinity of Thwaite.


Upper Swaledale appears to have had its own distinctive identity at least from the pre-Conquest period, and has been identified as the location of the 10th century kingdom of the Swale – ‘Swaldal’ in 10th century Norse. Settlements, which place names suggest were established at that time, may have survived to become vaccaries (dairy farms) in the 12th century (i.e. post-Conquest). Walter de Gaunt established a hunting forest of Swaledale that took in all the old land of Swale. Away from the settlements the valley and hillsides were still wooded. Grants of land were made to Bridlington Priory and Rievaulx Abbey – both were involved in dairy farming. Early lead mining is not recorded, but had probably been important from the Roman period onwards.


It has been suggested that the prehistoric enclosure on the knoll was later the site of the dairying settlement of Waylle, recorded in 1301. The location, like others in upper Swaledale, has a Norse topographic name ‘hvall’ – round hill.


After the Dissolution in the 16th century, lands held by Bridlington Priory became the manor of Grinton, and lands held by Rievaulx Abbey became the manor of Muker. It is probably from this time that sheep farming developed intensively after a long period when dairy farming had co-existed with hunting forests. The area became the manor of Healaugh and parish of Grinton – an enormous tract of land from which was separated the parishes of Muker in 1719 and Melbecks in 1838.


The extensive forest and woodland cover which had existed from prehistoric times would still have been reflected in extensive managed woodland during the medieval period and it is likely that the clearing of the ancient woodland reached a climax in the mid-19th century. Early 20th century photographs reveal that the tree growth along side the beck has regenerated since that time.


Early settlement in Upper Swaledale was comprised of widely scattered farmsteads dependent on mixed farming – grazing sheep and cattle, with only small areas of arable land. Woodland and mineral resources were exploited with varying intensity – the more intensive activity that developed during the Romano-British period dropped largely away until the medieval period, receding again until the 18th century. The 19th century saw prolonged economic development, coupled with a considerable rise in the population of the Dales, and the consolidation of the settlements that still reflect this industrial heyday, although the end of the century saw drastic depopulation.


Agriculture has always underpinned other economic activities. During the 1830s there was a series of bad harvests, and a sheep rot outbreak. Larger farms increasingly grew cereals during this period, following the1815 Corn Laws. Oats were the staple cereal, rushes and bracken were used for animal bedding. In the second half of the 19th century mixed arable – potatoes, turnips, swedes, oats, and corn – was being abandoned for the pastoral farming of today. The Garth family of Crackpot are said to have bred the Swaledale sheep from black-faced moorland ewes and Leicester tups, the offspring had a thicker fleece. Knitting of the resultant wool into stockings was an important source of income by the mid-18th century and continued into the 20th century.


Thwaite Fair was held in the autumn. Sheep were brought down in mid-October and until about 1900 sold privately, not through an auction. A pack of hounds, kept at Low Row, was used in a hare hunt during the morning and the inn was the centre of festivities.


In the late 19th century the population of Thwaite was in decline with the end of lead mining leaving industrial and domestic buildings in decay. Gardens and outbuildings destroyed by a flash flood in 1899 were still not rebuilt in the 1930s.


Compared with other settlements in the dale, Thwaite appears to have been less involved in lead mining activities and may always have depended largely on agriculture. However, many of the village buildings seem to have been built during the periods of mining activity that affected all the upper dale.


The early 19th century – the period of the Napoleonic Wars and the Peninsular War (1808-14) was the period of greatest mining activity. However, between 1825 and 1833 the price of lead dropped from £33 to £13 per ton. From this time onwards there was continuing decline, although new mines were opened and individual mines had periods of great prosperity, especially during the Crimean War (1853-56).


It is not clear when a nucleated settlement was first established at Thwaite. The Tithe Award map of 1839 shows the village very much as it is now, and no buildings older than around 1760-1780 have been identified. It may well be that consolidation of the settlement from a few closely spaced farms into a village proper was only a development of the 18th century.


The north side of Thwaite is neatly marked by a row of buildings with a common frontage, in contrast to the somewhat haphazard placing of buildings to the south. This frontage runs along the street that formerly extended as a route eastwards out of the village towards Muker as a path above the north bank of Thwaite Beck, across the south-facing slopes of Kisdon Hill. The route is still partly marked by surviving field boundaries. While it has been suggested that a second, south, row is evident in the village plan, the earliest map (1839) points up the contrast between the neat arrangement of buildings along the north row and the much more informal arrangement of buildings to the south. The layout of these buildings combines with the absence of gardens and boundaries to suggest that they were established on what was once an open green area, which now survives only as irregular patches between the buildings.


Although Thwaite is now crossed by a road leading from the east over the present bridge, this may be a fairly late restructuring of the village plan, since the path along the north side of the river might have provided a more reliable all-weather route. The present substantial bridge was widened in the nineteenth century, probably when the road to Hawes market became important to the farming community. The west side of the present bridge incorporates a narrower packhorse bridge, which may be of 18th century date. There appears also to have been an earlier, or alternative, river crossing by ford downstream from the present bridge.


The turbulent nature of the beck, with sudden rises in water level, suggests a path to Muker along the north bank would have provided a more reliable all-weather route, to be preferred before a bridge was constructed.


Little building work has been undertaken in the village during the last hundred years. However, improved road communications has led to easier access into the dales and some houses have been bought by families whose higher incomes are generated from outside the dale.

West Burton, Wensleydale

Bronze Age settlements exist high up on Burton Moor, 1 mile to the east. But, whilst there are numerous Norse and Danish place names locally, the first settlement of the existing site may have commenced in the Saxon era, Burton probably deriving from the Saxon ‘Burgh Town’ or ‘important farmstead or centre’. There are no known references on modern maps or other documents to there having been an East or any other Burton in the close vicinity.


The village is described as a relatively small settlement, along with nearby ‘Ecinton’ or Eshington, in the Domesday Book but it had grown sufficiently to have obtained manorial rights by the 12th century. Land in and around the village formed part of the Scrope family’s estate at Castle Bolton from 1404 until the early 19th century, although it is now difficult to assess the importance of such status on the form and the development of the settlement during that period.


It is not clear how or when the present village plan developed. Broad greens such as at West Burton often evolved from Anglo-Saxon defensive enclosures which would both repel aggressors and allow the corralling of stock from nearby isolated farmsteads and hamlets. However, many planned settlements were created in North Yorkshire early in the 12th century in an effort to recolonise land laid to waste during the early Norman era. The apparent growth of a manorial settlement at West Burton in the 12th century might support a later date for the creation of the village’s present form.


The present group of buildings date mainly from the late 18th century and 19th century with only two buildings displaying obvious pre-18th century origins. West Burton was certainly a thriving small town in the 18th century when 30 landowners were recorded in the village in 1746. The emergence of nearby coal and lead mining, and stone quarrying in the 19th century is reflected in census returns. Numerous people were involved in commercial and service industries such as shopkeepers, milliners, dressmakers, tailors, a sempstress, as well as traders and craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, saddlers, and cordwainers (shoemakers). In the 1851 census return, only 17 of the 92 houses then existent in the main village core were occupied by farmers (only one third of townsfolk seem to have been involved in agriculture related activities at this time) and the existence of such trades and services reveals how prosperous the village was by the middle of the 19th century. The grand 1820 Obelisk or market cross on the green is a tangible reminder of that prosperity.


The layout of the village has changed very little in the intervening years with one or two buildings disappearing in the 20th century while a number of new houses have been constructed in recent years. Generally, development in the latter part of the 20th century has been reasonably discreet and has, for the most part, followed traditional building lines and forms. However, almost all the craft and service occupations described above have now ceased and West Burton is now mostly residential in character.



Fieldhouse, R & Jennings, B (1978) A History of Richmond and Swaledale London: Phillimore

Fleming, Andrew (1998) Swaledale. Valley of the Wild River Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Hartley, Marie & Pontefract, Ella (1988) Swaledale Otley: Smith Settle