Much research time has been spent trying to work out exactly what great prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge and Avebury were actually for. The general consensus is that they were used for spiritual activities and ceremonies associated with the cycle of the seasons. By analogy, the many smaller henges and stone circles found throughout Britain must have been built with a similar purpose in mind. The lives of the Neolithic farming communities that constructed the henges at Yarnbury, Castle Dykes and the stone circle at Gamelands, would have been intimately bound up with the changing seasons of the year. The shortest and longest days would have been particularly significant in an area with long winters and short summers. Though relatively small compared to some of the great henges found elsewhere in the country, these structures represent a considerable investment of time for a subsistence community and also the presence of a political and religious leadership. It implies that these communities were producing a large enough food surplus to support people not immediately engaged in the work of the farm and hunting.
Henges and stone circles are recognisably ceremonial, but other archaeological features from these times are not. Both on the southern and northern edges of the National Park, archaeologists have recorded a series of enigmatic carved stones. On Addleborough examples of this rock art have been incorporated into a Bronze Age cairn. We will probably never know what these carvings represented, and can only guess that they may have had some sort of ritual significance.
The late Neolithic and early Bronze Age apparently saw the arrival of a new set of spiritual beliefs from the continent. The dead were no longer buried collectively in great chambered tombs, instead individuals were interred under cairns or barrows, sometimes with a new form of pottery, the beaker. Earthen henges were replaced or embellished with stone circles as at Stonehenge. In the Dales several stone circles have survived. At Bordley, the Druid’s Altar may be the remains of what is called a four-poster circle, although there are other interpretations. In the heather moorland above Hebden, lie the remains of another much ruined stone circle. Archaeologists have to be careful in their interpretations however, the so-called stone circle at Yockenthwaite is now thought to be the kerb of a long vanished Bronze Age burial cairn.
By the end of the Bronze Age in Britain, there seems to be a general shift towards rituals associated with watery places. In the Yorkshire Dales, the discovery of a probably ceremonial spearhead in Semerwater may indicate that the lake was a focus for such activities.
We have to wait until the Romano-British period before there is more evidence for places of worship in the Dales, although even this is equivocal. The Craven Dales are well known for their limestone cave systems. In Victorian times, many of the more accessible caves were explored by antiquarians, who discovered unusual deposits of Romano-British material. They speculated that the caves might have been used as places of refuge by the local romanised population during times of trouble among the native tribes.
Since then, archaeologists have re-examined the assemblages and current thinking is that they may instead have been part of ritual deposits and that some of the caves may in fact have been used as shrines. The best known example is Victoria Cave near Settle. Here collections of Romano-British brooches and unusual bone artefacts were found which are quite obviously not the result of accidental loss. Even more spectacular were the finds excavated from Attermire Cave in the 1930s and 40s. Collections of Romano-British brooches were found inside the cave while on a ledge outside, a hoard of ironwork was discovered. This included parts of a chariot and a Roman lamp stand, both highly unusual in such a remote place.
The Anglo-Saxon colonisers who followed the Romans arrived as pagans but within a hundred years they were converting to Christianity. Their places of worship in the Yorkshire Dales do not survive, but stone carved crosses provide us with clues as to where their simple wooden churches might have been. At West Witton fragments of an early 9th century carved slab have been found built into the vestry, as well as the arm of a carved stone cross. The Anglo-Scandinavians who followed were similarly converted to Christianity and again, stone carvings show us where at least one of their places of worship may have been at Burnsall.
By the time the Normans arrived, many manors in the Dales may have already had their own churches. The new landlords rebuilt what they found in stone as a way of establishing their authority on the land and its people. Few of these Norman churches survive intact in the Dales, but large numbers contain fragments of their original 12th century architecture. Horton-in-Ribblesdale is one of the more complete with its 12th century nave, while the 12th century fabric of St Andrew’s Church in Grinton has been continuously restored from the 15th to the 19th centuries and little survives.
The medieval period saw more parish churches built such as the fine example at Castle Bolton. Parish churches associated with manorial estates were complemented by the churches associated with monastic houses established in the Dales from Norman times. Indeed, following the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, the remains of the priory church at Bolton Priory went on to serve as a parish church.
The Tudor period saw many older churches restored and extended such as the church at Grinton mentioned above. Some new ones were also built, for example the late 15th century parish church in Kirkby Malham. The name of the village of course betrays the fact that it has been the site of a Christian church or ‘kirk’ from probably pre-Norman times.
Old habits died hard in rural areas however, and even in medieval and Tudor times, local people were still making offerings and saying prayers outside the formal surroundings of the parish church. Several holy wells are known in the area, most now with the names of Christian saints, such as St Helen’s Well near Eshton or Our Lady’s Well in Threshfield. Cast Away Well on Witton Fell is so-named because of the tradition of casting a small item such as a pin into the water before making a wish. Locals also call it ‘Slavering Sall’!
Some of the poorer, more sparsely populated parts of the Dales could not support a priest or a parish church and so people had to travel many miles to worship or bury their dead. Where sufficient funds could be got, chapels-of-ease were built such as St Simon’s Chapel in Coverdale. This did not remedy the lack of consecrated ground for burial however. In medieval times, the graveyard at St Andrew’s Church in Grinton served the whole of Upper Swaledale. This continued until around 1580, when the chapel-of-ease in Muker was given consecrated ground, thus allowing the more remote communities of Swaledale a chance to bury their dead nearer home.
From the 17th century, the independent spirit and widely spaced parish churches of the Christian establishment in the Dales provided fertile ground for the growth of new religious movements. When George Fox preached to a thousand people above Sedbergh in 1652 he gained many converts to the Quaker cause. His preaching spot on Firbank Fell is now known as Fox’s Pulpit and Quakers still gather there in his memory. A Quaker Meeting House was built at Brigflatts near Sedbergh in 1675 and others followed such as the one built in Countersett in 1710. Because these new sects refused to pay tithes to the established church, persecution and imprisonment often followed.
The 18th century saw even more non-conformist sects being established and each struggled to raise the money to build its own place of worship. Nearly every village in the Dales had at least one chapel of whichever denomination. High Chapel in Ravenstonedale is an example of one which has changed denomination more than once, it was originally Presbyterian, it then became Independent (Congregationalist) and latterly United Reformed. The many varieties of Methodism were the most popular and there are many fine Methodist Chapels still being used for worship such as the Wesleyan Chapel built in 1883 in Langthwaite. There were other more obscure sects. The Village Institute in Gayle started life as an Inghamite chapel around 1755, but its builders shortly afterwards became followers of Robert Sandeman who seceded from the Scottish Church.
In the 18th and 19th centuries the established church became increasingly alarmed at the influence such non-conformist sects were having on the lives of the working classes. This coincided with a rising population supported by new industries such as lead mining and textiles in the Dales. A determined effort was made to restore derelict parish churches and build more chapels-of-ease. 19th century restoration work gave new life to many old churches, but much architectural detail was also lost. At Langthwaite, the derelict parish church was abandoned altogether and a new one built. Only the original churchyard at Arkle Town remains. Lunds Church and St Peter’s Church in Hebden are both examples of new chapels-of-ease. In Tebay in the Westmorland Dales, a large influx of railway workers were housed in railway company-owned terraces and St James’ Church was purpose built to serve their spiritual needs by the North Eastern Railway Company.
The 20th century saw the building of several notable places of worship such as the Catholic church, St Margaret Clitherow in Threshfield, the Arts and Crafts church at Stalling Busk and Scargill Chapel near Kettlewell. Christian worship of whatever denomination is still thriving in the Dales, joined in the 21st century by those of many other faiths as the horizons of local people have expanded.
Green Hill Pasture stone circle
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