Bienvenue à Gunnerside

Unsurprisingly, given that we are known throughout England for our cosmopolitan sophistication, parts of Yorkshire have recently become a departement of France. Apparently there is going to be some kind of bike race next month. I took our second and third year students into the French-speaking dales this week to look at later prehistoric landscapes. In particular we went to look at the amazing Iron Age field systems and enclosures of Swaledale.


We started here, at the settlement at Cautley, which I know isn’t in Swaledale,  but it is nicely on the way. Mysteriously, even though it’s in Cumbria it is in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It used to be in Yorkshire. I think we do this sort of thing on purpose to confuse fifth columnists. As you can see, Cautley is an enclosed settlement, in its own secret valley, beneath the Cautley Spout waterfall. The consensus was that we could happily live here.

From Cautley the plan had been to drive up to Kirkby Stephen and across to the top end of Swaledale. Two years ago when I tried to do this we got to Nateby and discovered that the road was closed for repairs. This time, not wanting to have the same unscheduled diversion through Mallarstang and Wensleydale, I carefully looked up road closures on the internet before we went. The Northern Echo website said it had been closed, to get the road ready for le Tour, but the work had finished in April. Except, when we got to Nateby, oh look, road closed again. Round the Buttertubs pass we went after all.

Even the rain hasn’t limited the Tour de France fever all over the Dales. The cafes and bike hire shops have themed yellow-painted bikes outside them, Muker is having a ‘King of the Mountains’ festival (I suppose ‘King of the Really Quite Steep Hills’  doesn’t somehow have the proper ring to it) and there are bilingual signs everywhere.



This what we actually came to see. This is a later prehistoric field boundary on Copperthwaite Allotment above Reeth. About twenty years of dedicated work, first by Andrew Flemming and colleagues and more recently by the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group, has shown that, by the end of the Iron Age, the whole dale was divided up into a centrally planned system of parallel rectangular fields. These co-axial field systems are one of the wonders of British later prehistory. There are more at Grassington, some in the Derbyshire Dales and, most famously, on Dartmoor. Although the individual boundaries are a bit unprepossessing (especially in the rain) the investment of labour and thought represented by the system as a whole is staggering.


Swaledale also has a series of later prehistoric enclosures within the field systems. This is one of the biggest, Maiden Castle, on Hakerside Moor. You can see the substantial heather covered bank and ditch behind us as we trudge back down the fell towards the minibus. Despite its impressive ramparts, Maiden Castle probably wasn’t built for defence. Harkerside Moor is so steep that the southern rampart is actually lower than the ground immediately outside it. What the bank and ditch would have done is provided a distinctive boundary around the roundhouses inside. You can see from the photo what an excellent view of their planned landscape the people who lived here would have had. One day I will bring a trip up here when it is dry and sunny.


1 comment
  1. So close to home (as in where I come from – Barrow in Furness, not where I live now – Ireland) and I never knew! Great post!

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