Village Focus: Letting off steam in Embsay

It is a village that is defined by the past, and one in which a warm welcome could not always be taken for granted.


A century ago, incomers had little choice in the matter. Embsay, two miles from Skipton and at the very foot of the Yorkshire Dales, was where Bradford sent its tuberculosis patients – to a sanitorium erected by the city guardians across eight acres of the neighbouring settlement of Eastby. It operated as a branch of the workhouse and its old admin block lives on as a private house.

The steam railway brought people there, and, though no longer connected to the main line, it still does. The Embsay and Bolton Abbey line has been carrying around 100,000 passengers a year on the four miles via Holywell, since its reopening at the beginning of the 1980s, a decade and a half after Dr Beeching shut it down.

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Come bank holidays, plastic faces are fixed to the smokebox doors of the locomotives and children come from all around to see Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends.

But the tourist trade is a polarising factor within the village, said Andrew Wilson, who produces its local newsletter.

“People see visitors coming in and not putting anything into the village, although the pubs benefit. But what they don’t see is the bigger picture and the knock-on effect to the local economy. They just see people parking outside their homes, whistling and smoking.

“It divides opinion. Many other people are very supportive,” Mr Wilson said.

The division may reflect the nature of the population itself. Many of the residents – 1,758 at the last count – have been there most of their lives but others have come to take advantage of its renowned primary school and to be in the catchment area of Skipton’s two traditional grammars, where the 11-plus remains a rite of passage.

“The population is far more transient than it was 50 years ago,” Mr Wilson said.

“The commute to Leeds and Bradford starts about four in the morning. It’s just a fact of life now,”

The reliance on cars – intensified by the absence of weekend buses to Skipton – notwithstanding, Embsay retains its distinctive village character. Two pubs remain – the Elm Tree and the Cavendish Arms – and there is a shop with a post office, a library, playgroup and a village hall, shared with Eastby.

It also remains farming country, with cattle and sheep in abundance on the surrounding hills.

Three settlements comprise the present-day village – the former Millholme water mill area among them. But the old boundaries will be further erased by a proposal to build 100 or so new homes on either side of the cricket field.