Over the past two and a half years, some 1,300ha of woodland (often wild and isolated) across four counties have given up their secrets to painstaking archaeological investigation. Scattered across North Yorkshire (19 locations, 274 archaeological sites), South Yorkshire (13 locations, 78 sites), West Yorkshire (7 locations, 50 sites), and the East Riding of Yorkshire (1 location, 4 sites), over 400 spots of historical interest – from ruined pubs and wartime graffiti to industrial architecture and ghostly abandoned villages – have been carefully recorded, half of them having never been entered into any archaeological database before.
This wide area was explored by J B Archaeology Ltd on behalf of Yorkshire Water, in order to provide them with information about the range, age, significance, and condition of archaeological sites lying within the woods around their many reservoirs. This data could then be used to help guide woodland management and habitat conservation work without compromising any historic remains.
It was a huge undertaking, and one that produced a wealth of illuminating information. Unsurprisingly given the region in which we were working, the majority of sites that feature in the survey were small farmsteads and their associated barns, often linked by historic trackways – structures reflecting the post-medieval development of this mainly agricultural landscape. First recorded on historic mapping in the 18th/19th century, some of these farmsteads may well have their origins in the later medieval period.
Other sites – including several 18th-century mills, the majority of which were submerged or demolished for the creation of the reservoirs, as well as the infrastructure of the 19th-century reservoirs themselves – can be linked to the use of water power and water supply. Still more are linked to quarrying, whether small-scale extraction for local building, or larger workings for the construction of reservoir dams and associated features, and the remaining group of less-easily classified sites had diverse functions: three deserted medieval settlements, an abandoned navvy camp, two 19th-century rifle ranges, a vicarage, and a colliery. Within such a wealth of features, we have uncovered a host of interesting stories.
What went before
Long before the rise of the reservoirs in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the landscapes featured in our investigations were almost entirely devoted to agriculture, and quite often sheep farming – this is Yorkshire, after all. These practices have left their mark not only in the traces of medieval ridge-and-furrow cultivation that still ripple the landscape, but in the number of abandoned farmsteads lying lost in the woodlands.
Typical examples of these are Gill Becks (Timble Ings, North Yorkshire) and Far Swinden (Langsett, South Yorkshire). The place-name ‘Swinden’ probably derives from either the Old English swin or Old Norse svin, ‘pig’, with the Old English den, for ‘woodland pasture’, hinting that this area was almost undoubtedly under some form of cultivation during the early medieval period. Gill Becks, meanwhile, is a group of dispersed buildings shown on historic mapping, most of which are gently decaying ruins but two are still occupied – the former Dolphin and Anchor pub is now a farm.
The woods surrounding it – the delightfully named ‘Timble Ings’ – are home to another pub, the Besom Inn, whose substantial standing remains highlight the importance of the now overgrown and largely unused trackways that criss-cross these landscapes – contoured tracks leading to fords and quarries, as well as hollow-ways leading to drowned fields – significant routes that all evolved long before the advent of the motor engine. If we needed more evidence that the demise of pubs is not a totally modern phenomenon, our survey also recorded the now-lost Grouse and Trout Inn at Redmires (South Yorkshire) and the Gate Inn at Thruscross (North Yorkshire).
It is not only pubs and farmsteads that are abandoned for economic reasons, though, but whole settlements – such as the medieval sites of Ramsden (Yateholme Reservoir) and Hoowood and Hoobram Hill (Digley Reservoir) in West Yorkshire. More dramatically, there are also a number of farms, settlements, and, most often, mills that have been drowned – sacrificed to the creation of the region’s reservoirs. Typifying this loss of home and livelihood is the village of West End, which now lies at the bottom of Thruscross Reservoir in North Yorkshire. There the whole settlement was flooded, along with several mills – parts of one, Low Mill, can be glimpsed when the water levels are depleted.
A few miles downstream, the remains of an extensive and complex water system still runs almost the entire length of the Washburn Valley. It once supplied the now long-gone West House Mill (which once stood a short distance north of Blubberhouse Bridge), and some of the system’s features probably date from the original mill in 1797: an important survival of the pre-Industrial Revolution ‘industrial landscape’. Other aspects, from weirs and ponds to a series of open and covered leats, reflect the mill’s numerous expansions and changes of use in its heydays between 1850 and 1864.
The birth of the reservoirs
The creation of many of the reservoirs we see today started in the 19th century as developments by local councils or private enterprise. These ventures were to supply clean, fresh water to the rapidly growing cities and towns of the northern powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution. Of the 30 or so reservoirs investigated, two in particular stand out for very different reasons. The first is Lumley Moor Reservoir which, although it is very modest and tucked away in a remote part of North Yorkshire, can be seen as a fine example of Victorian civic pride. Built from local stone in the mid-19th century by Ripon Corporation Water Works and finished in rusticated style, the site still retains almost all of its original infrastructure, including stone bridges, a large causeway to carry the former road, the spillway, and the remains of filter beds and various other buildings.
Why was such a small, relatively isolated reservoir, built to supply what was effectively a large market town, created to such a high standard and in the latest architectural style? These efforts write in stone the degree of pride that Ripon Corporation must have felt in supplying its citizens, for the first time, with clean fresh water.
Probably the most impressive reservoir, though – certainly from the extent and nature of the remains that surround it – is Scar House, also in North Yorkshire. It was built, starting in the late 19th century, by Bradford Corporation and, together with two other large reservoirs (Angram and Gouthwaite), its construction in Upper Nidderdale was undoubtedly the biggest event ever to happen in the valley. The earliest of the three was Gouthwaite (started in 1893), which was actually followed by Haden Carr in the early 20th century. By 1921, though, the latter was being subsumed into the considerably larger Scar House Reservoir. Angram Reservoir was completed in 1919, and much of its equipment and workforce moved on to Scar House, labouring between 1921 and 1936 to bring the huge repository into being.
Our woodland survey only investigated the area in front of the dam, but combining this research with an earlier investigation carried out for Nidderdale AONB on the remains of Scar House Village revealed that the land around the eastern end of the reservoir contained the extensive and well-preserved remains of a regionally (possibly nationally) important early 20th-century navvy camp, as well as the engineering infrastructure for the building the reservoir.
This is a rare survival. The majority of the surviving works are arranged on a number of large terraces that had been cut into the valley side. Along these ran a series of railway lines that had once supplied the materials to various cranes during the building of the dam, and which are depicted on various contemporary plans and photographs. Meanwhile, the upper terraces on the southern side housed a range of maintenance facilities – a sawmill, a carpenter’s shop, a blacksmith’s, and so on, and the remains of the locomotive shed bases can also still be seen. Dwarfing all of these, though, the largest surviving structure within the woods is the remains of a colossal cement mixer. This mighty construction also supplied the cranes used in building the dam, via a complex of railway lines which ran along both sides of the valley.
Home from home
In stark contrast to these industrial relics, we also recorded domestic elements: the remains of the village that was created for the more than 1,200-strong workforce and their families. The original settlement was made from recycled materials, formed around dismantled and re-erected buildings that had initially been used further up the valley for the construction of Angram Reservoir. This did not provide enough accommodation, though, for the ever-growing workforce, many of whom travelled daily from the workhouse in Pateley Bridge 11 miles away, using the specially constructed Nidd Valley Light Railway.
The village grew to meet this demand, an expansion that was carefully planned and built from lightweight materials (mainly corrugated iron and timber) over concrete bases – bases whose remains can still be seen today. Scar Village contained all the facilities of a small town, from a hospital and mortuary through to a school, fish and chip shop, bake house, church, slaughterhouse, laundry, shop, sewage treatment plant, and sports facilities including a billiard hall and gymnasium. The only building it lacked was a pub, the nearest (official) one being in Lofthouse, some four miles down the valley.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the workforce that enjoyed these facilities was composed of single males who lived in a series of hostels terraced into the hillside. Each contained its own kitchen and a bathroom with running water; tradesmen had their own separate and better accommodation arranged at either end of the settle-ment. Even so, all of the digs were of a far higher standard than was found for workers in similar circumstances elsewhere. The village at Scar was, though, destined to have a short life.
With the completion of the reservoir in 1936, the workforce no longer had a purpose, so the various buildings of the village and associated works were sold off at a two-day auction in 1937. Many of them were dismantled and re-erected elsewhere: the bungalows went to Norwood, the mission hut to Heaton, and the canteen is now the Darley Memorial Hall (which opened in 1947). Today, only patterns picked out by concrete bases mark the former locations of many of the structures, although a few upstanding buildings have survived – the projection hut for the cinema and the outside wall of the gents’ toilet from the canteen are probably the most obvious.
With the advent of the Second World War, there was a very real fear that, as we were bombing the reservoirs of the Ruhr Valley (1943’s Operation Chastise, the ‘Dambuster’ raids), so too would the Germans try to attack our water stores. This led to a series of defensive measures of varying degrees of effectiveness. The simplest of these efforts generally involved providing a machine-gun emplacement and accommodation for a Home Guard detachment (the rebuilt Tradesman’s Bungalow at Scar House, for example), but more elaborate initiatives were also used. At Langsett Reservoir in South Yorkshire, there are the remains of the once extensive and rare reservoir catenary defences, part of a group of features linked to safeguarding the reservoir and dam, which included an anti-torpedo net and anti-aircraft guns.
The catenary defences themselves comprise an unusual structure that took the form of two large pylons on either side of the reservoir, supported by a series of wire stays. Strung between the pylons was a horizontal wire with a series of weighted vertical wires hanging down from it, effectively creating a large wire lattice whose purpose was to prevent enemy aircraft from approaching close enough to bomb the dam. The metalwork was salvaged during the 1950s, but most of the concrete bases for the pylons and stays remain in situ.
The moorland around Langsett Reservoir was also used extensively as a Second World War tank and infantry training area, activities that have left enduring footprints including the remains of a tank firing-point, weapons pits, and a tank bridge. We have also recorded the tank road that led into the ranges – its hardcore is made of crushed brick, material sourced from the bombed-out ruins of Sheffield houses that had been destroyed in the Blitz. If you look closely, you can see fragments of fireplaces and broken china within its surface. More picturesque are the nearby remains of an 18th-century farmstead called ‘North America’ which, after evacuation, was used during tank training for target practice and now lies in very striking ruins.
The Human Touch
Above all, the sites that we investigated have shed vivid light on the everyday life of the communities who lived in this area generations ago – those who struggled in the now abandoned farmsteads to win a living from the marginal soils higher up the valleys. What drove these hardy people to ultimately abandon their settlements? For the likes of Scar House, it is obvious that when the dam-building came to an end the now-redundant workforce would move on, but what does it take for a whole community to abandon its roots and move away? In the case of many of the farmsteads, it was probably due to a combination of the loss of land to the rising waters of the reservoirs, and eviction by the water authorities, concerned over livestock polluting these new facilities.
Mostly, the archaeology we recorded represented large groups of people, but within this wide range of sites there were also sometimes glimpses of individuals – and often the simplest of discoveries can be the most revealing. At Ryburn in West Yorkshire, for example, there is a series of arborglyphs (tree graffiti) dating to the First and Second World Wars – etched initials that may be the poignant last record of men going off to fight, some perhaps never to return. There are also a number of arborglyphs dating to the 1920s, when the reservoir was built, some of which may belong to the enigmatic individuals who capriciously arranged leftover pre-cast concrete units from the dam into a somewhat rustic version of a ‘druids temple’. More prosaically, in 1966 at Underbank Reservoir, South Yorkshire, someone seems to have been having a rather quiet fishing trip – at least, they had time to record their day out in the bark of a nearby tree: ‘PJ 30.6.66 CAME FISHING’.
Finally, what of the men who constructed the reservoirs? Apart from the rare remains of Scar House Village, little evidence survives for the daily lives of the reservoir builders; one exception is at Butterley in West Yorkshire, where there are the remains of the quarrymen’s hut, cosily tucked into the hillside with the remains of the fireplace, where chilly workers could warm themselves after a long day labouring outdoors, still surviving. Immediately adjacent to this humble structure stand the extensive remains of the quarry used to build the dam – mighty constructions contrasting starkly with the more intimate lives of the people involved in their creation.
ALL photos: J Buglass.
Diana Parsons, The Book of the Washburn Valley: Yorkshire’s forgotten dale, Halsgrove, £24.99, ISBN 978-0857042408
Many of the reservoirs mentioned here have public and permissive footpaths around them along with parking facilities. Should anyone wish to visit, they should first check the relevant Yorkshire Water website for access details. Please note: not all areas of the woodlands are open to the public.