Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Grassington's High Close Settlements
A multi-layered history

This is history with a capital 'H' - or prehistory with a capital 'P'; however you want to put it. Tucked away on the limestone slopes behind Grassington, in Upper Wharfedale, is the wonderful collection of features making up what archaeologists call the 'High Close' settlements.  Last Saturday, in a biting wind - somehow appropriate for a place refusing to give away its inner most secrets, I set out to immerse myself in another time.

I can't afford a helicopter so I cheated here, but this shot gives some idea of the unique appeal of this landscape: a mesmerising network of ancient stone and turf banks - many super-imposed on each other, with a massive burial cairn (bottom right) dominating the surroundings.  Despite unrelenting Yorkshire weather, it has remained: a testimony to the skills of our ancient ancestors.

On first entering High Close the turf covered bankings of rubble forming these fields are impossible to miss - but just what were these enclosures used for?  Agriculture?  Animals?  it has never really been decided upon despite years of study.  Even more interesting - who built the majority of these bankings?  The traditional view dates them to the Iron Age (about 700 BC to the end of the Roman occupation) - yet the great burial cairn in the field has proved to be from the Bronze Age (2300 - 700 BC) making the origins much earlier than was thought.  At the same time there is speculation that some of the huts and features are Viking in origin as well as Medieval.  In High Close we have thousands of years of history in one field!

Let's have a look at the field structures at the southern end of the enclosure.  Here you can see the turf and rubble bankings very clearly.  Arthur Raistrick (1896 - 1991), the great Dales geologist and historian, spent much time studying High Close, and he reckoned that the regular outlines of the enclosures seen here mark them as considerably later than those at the top end of the field.  Makes sense, I suppose!

Arthur Raistrick (1896 - 1991) a man who loved the Dales and spent his long life uncovering their secrets.  We have a lot to thank him for and his books are brilliant.  Cheers, Arthur!

Every time I look at the tremendous width of these bankings, I can't help wondering 'why were the field divisions so wide?'  Obviously they strike you as being collapsed walls, but you wouldn't bet against somebody being buried in there, would you?

Now, then!  How about this for a piece of the past?  A massive arc of standing limestones at the west side of High Close, standing on a clearly excavated banking.  Quite splendidly, it is known to locals as 'The Circus' which I think is a great name for it.  Edmund Bogg, writing in 1902 about the wonders of Wharfedale, called this a 'druid's altar.'  He may well have been a bit over the top - but looking at the arc, there is no doubt that the ancients had something special in mind here.  Yet Arthur Raistrick dismissed it as being merely part of the possible ancient boundary of the settlements long before the days of enclosure.  Can we disagree with the top man?  Well - all historical enquiry is open to opinion.  To me, The Circus is an ancient meeting place - or, as the name suggests, a place of ancient celebration.  

This is The Circus - minus elephant and ringmaster - looking to the south, towards the impressive gritstone uplands of Cracoe Fell.  Drystone walls in the Dales are works of art, but here I think the ancients are the winners - don't you?

A view of The Circus in better light.  The land enclosed by the half ring is very smooth and flat.  It's a place of intrigue and a great place to sit in solitude.  The views from The Circus extend to the sacred Pendle Hill, which may have played a part in its positioning.

The banking and arc of limestones making up this wonderful place.

Just to the east of The Circus is this presumed Iron Age Settlement, consisting of smaller enclosures with a variety of huts.  The Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group have done much work re-surveying this important area.  

Following the perimeter wall around High Close, we reach this ruined house, built into the wall.  At first it appears to be a sheep shelter, but Raistrick noted it was far too well built and was more likely to have been some kind of habitation from more recent times.

All around there is a scattering of limestone blocks.  Are these in their natural positions, one wonders ... or were they strategically placed by ancient peoples, perhaps linked in some way to The Circus or the burial cairns?

The individual 'fields' at the northern end of High Close, such as this one, are generally more varied and irregular in outline, with the turf bankings not as pronounced.  It is quite obvious that they originate from a different period.  Were they first established as far back as the Bronze Age?

I say this because they surround this turf-covered mound, believed by Raistrick to be a Bronze Age cairn. It's fascinating to stand by these and consider who might be lying just a few feet away.

The cairn is a large one, and it must have taken considerable man power to construct.

Compared to this one, though, it's a midget.  This massive cairn - the same one that so dominates the aerial photograph, was once presumed Iron Age - but in 1892 excavations revealed four skeletons, one of which lay in typical Bronze Age crouched position.  Even more decisive was the fact that a decorated clay beaker lay with the body - one of the earliest examples to be found in Britain. It is thought that beakers were buried with the bodies to provide food for the long journey to the afterlife.  The cairn has been ruined considerably by these early explorations.  Never be tempted to move any stones and please leave all investigations to archaeologists. They now do a much more sensitive job than the explorers of the past.

Here you get some idea of the size of the Bronze Age Cairn.  It is one of the finest examples in the country. Current speculation is that there is still much that it could be hiding.

Nearby, smaller cairns, possibly single burials, are placed randomly around the central cairn.  

In fact, they stand out like a sore thumb!

Can you ever describe possible burial cairns as 'cute'?  This one isn't far off!

The main Bronze Age Cairn from the south, showing the excavated rubble from the original investigations.

The cairn is surrounded by a low ditch, clearly visible in this photograph.  Many Bronze Age burial sites such as this were used for later, secondary burials.  In other words, why build a new cairn when you could easily use the hard labours of people who came before you?

The Bronze Age Cairn from the north - showing the obvious disturbance to the surface by early archaeologists.

The beautiful beaker that was found with the crouched skeleton, on display in the Craven Museum in Skipton.  The pattern was made by stretching a chord across the clay before firing.  The museum is a fascinating place, containing a wealth of relics from the archaeological sites and caves of the Yorkshire Dales.  

Just to the east of the cairn is a large enclosure with the foundations of a hut built into the northern wall, visible in the centre of this photograph.  Raistrick could not date it with any certainty, but it is most likely to have been used during the Iron Age.

This circular structure at first appears to be a hut, but its bulky, rounded banking is more in keeping with is being a Bell Pit - a very primitive form of early mining, perhaps for lead.  The well-like shaft has filled in over many years.

The Bell Pit in High Close Pasture.

A final view of the Bell Pit, showing the massive, circular banking where material was thrown out of the shaft and helped to prevent further material falling in on those below.

Returning to the southern end of High Close - this enclosure stood out with its central stone, which may well have had some significance.

Banking or burial? This is another intriguing example at the southern end of High Close.  By this time the wind was unrelenting and fingers could scarcely hold the camera ....

It was time for a drink .... to the health of the High Close Brigade!

High Close is a delicate environment and not on a public right of way - though many people do visit. Grassington lies just off the image at bottom left. It is best to ask permission at the farm (bottom right) and a gate gives access at the southern wall.  As with all sites of this nature, it should be treated with the great respect that an ancient site deserves.  Stick to the field edge as much as possible, which should allow access to the most interesting features.  For a true lover of history and landscape, it is up there with the very best features in England.

Stephen x


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