Friday, 21 February 2014

Afternoon Antiquities
Ancient Wonders of Wharfedale and Beyond

I had just a few hours to spare and fading light this afternoon.  What better than to head into Wharfedale and visit one or two ancient sites, which somehow have more atmosphere in the short winter days.  

Heading along Moor Lane north-east of Grassington, the first signs of ancient man can be seen in the field systems, with the famous settlements of High Close visible in the field at top right, just east of Grass Wood. This enclosure, centred around a massive Bronze Age cairn, contains settlements ranging over thousands of years of history.  We'll give it a close-up study later in the year.

Yarnbury is an impressive farmhouse close to the Grassington lead mines, themselves well worthy of study. However, with limited time I decided to pay a visit to Yarnbury's special attraction, tucked away in a pasture on the opposite side of the road, and just to the south.

Yarnbury Henge from the air.  Grassington is off the picture at bottom left.

The most obvious feature of the superb Yarnbury Henge is the massive banking, 100 feet or so in diameter. Such henges are believed to have been important meeting places, perhaps to negotiate trade, particularly of such implements as stone axes, of which there was a well established insustry in the north of England.  The traditional view is that causewayed camps came first, in the Neolithic, followed by henges and then stone circles, but there is much debate over their history and origins.  In their great book, 'Journeys Through Brigantia', John and Philip Dixon suggest the Yarnbury Henge was sited with a significant view of the sacred Pendle Hill in mind.  The hill in the background here is Cracoe Fell with the reef knoll of Elbolton just visible to the left of the wall.

The outer banking of Yarnbury Henge predates the inner Bronze Age (2300 - 700 BC) disc barrow contained within, being Neolithic (New Stone Age) in origin; in other words - well over 4000 years old!!.  Henges were often developed and utilised by later peoples with a complete change of purpose.  These disc barrows, low level and with a scarcely visible mound, were often associated with the burials of important females - containing jewellery, pottery and sewing implements rather than the 'macho' weapons of the men!  It's amazing to look at that grass banking today and think that, through all the great civilisations and events in history, and after a hammering from horrendous weather .... it's still holding strong!!!

The henge even has its own adjoining ditch, clearly visible on this photograph.

These barrows to one side of the ditch have always intrigued me.  Are they small burial cairns - or clearance cairns to make more of the field available to early farmers?  They seem too close to the henge to be anything other than burials.

This photograph, in better light, shows the construction of the outer banking and inner ditch of the henge, as well as the southern side of the disc barrow.

Looking further to the south and Grassington Mire, with the ditch and banking showing up well.  On a clear day, the views from Yarnbury are amazing.  Groups of traders coming to the henge in Neolithic times would have been easy to spot in time to get the kettle on! (only kidding)

This photograph shows the causewayed entrance into Yarnbury Henge, splitting the ditch in two at centre. The inner ditch would once, of course, have been considerably deeper.  With only one entrance, this is known as a class 1 henge, being one of the earliest examples.  Later henges had the luxury of several entrances.

Panoramic view of Yarnbury Henge - one of those wonderful wild places you can never forget.

The outer banking of the henge can here be seen on the skyline - easy to miss when you are walking past, and this strategically placed gritstone boulder may well have an association with the ancient structure.

Reluctantly leaving Yarnbury behind, I drove up Wharfedale towards my next port of call, before being interrupted by the awesome sight of Kilnsey Crag.

The great protruding mass of Kilnsey Crag, 170 feet high, was formed when a glacier neatly 'trimmed off' or 'truncated' the towering limestone valley sides during the last glaciation.  Its famous overhang was first climbed (obviously with artificial aids) by R. Moseley in 1957.

From the north, the crag resembles the face of a sleepy old man, with protruding nose and closed eye.  It is one of the most impressive features of the limestone dales, despite its proximity to the road!

The daunting overhang - one of the most challenging and excting routes in the country.  Even with artificial aids it demands great strength and determination.

As I turned from Buckden into the stunning valley of Langstrothdale, where the Wharfe runs in its infant form, one or two views were well worthy of the camera.

Light was fading fast and the skies were moody.

The sleepy hamlet of Yockenthwaite is not only beautiful, but if contains a wealth of interesting features: a lovely packhorse bridge, quaint old postbox, several superb caves, a gorgeous stretch of river ... and a magnificently preserved stone circle.

Here's that famous postbox - a sign that things from the real world do actually operate round here!

The Packhorse bridge, over which ponies will once have taken goods before heading over the Horsehead Pass into Littondale.

It looks even better from the other side!

The Wharfe above Yockenthwaite quite often flows underground, with just a few pools to show for its existence.  Today, however, it was more than a little active ....

So much so that the usual ford linking to the famous stone circle was impossible to cross.

There was only one thing for it.  I would have to retrace my steps to the hamlet, cross the bridge and then head back through those fields on the opposite bank ... hardly an unpleasant journey!

Great views of Birks Fell opened up, with patches of snow on the upper reaches.

How about this for an impressive lime kiln?

Then came the ultimate: one of the best stone circles in England.  Tiny, but so well preserved.

This circle has a larger stone at the south (left) which may have coincided with the sun's position at noon in winter, when it is invisible behind the fells.  It dates from the Bronze Age, and a small mound at the very centre may well indicate a burial.  There is speculation that this may well have been a hut that was converted to a burial site, but the larger stone at south always seems to discount this in my mind.  Why have such a huge boulder embedded into a supporting hut wall?

Close up of the Yockenthwaite Stone Circle, showing the entrance at east, facing the rising sun, and the largest member at south (right).

To the west there is evidence of a double ring structure.  If it was a hut, this is similar to the 'walled passages' of Iron Age settlements around Malham - and it is often debated that these may have been used for storage. This feature may not even be contemporary with the main circle and could be a later addition.  There is still much to consider!

Yockenthwaite Stone Circle from the air. (click for large image)

Panoramic view of the stone circle, with the River Wharfe lying over the wall to the right.  The entrance can be seen, positioned to face the rising sun between the hills in the east.

The southern sector of the stone circle, facing the fells to the south of Yockenthwaite.

A last view of Yockenthwaite Stone Circle, in its romantic setting.

Remember to cause no disturbance to ancient monuments - and to leave all investigations to the skills of experts: otherwise these spiritual places are there to be savoured.

Stephen x


  1. You are an excellent writer; instructive yet open minded, inquiring, and giving the reader the feeling we're walking along together in this magical place. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Many thanks for that. Much appreciated and nice to know all this has an impact across the ocean!
    Stephen x