Take a walk back in time

Frederic Manby reports on a rural community with a rich past and an insider’s view of a Dales gem.

The sun was out, the sky was blue, there was nothing much to spoil the view up Wharfedale from Grass Woods. Bleached cobbles left dry and high showed where the Dale’s river had changed its course from season to season or decade to decade.

Further on, we can see the beaky overhang of Kilnsey Crag, one of many limestone wonders in a landscape of limestone beauty. I’d like to say curlews where circling and peewits flapping – but it’s the wrong time of year for those displays in these parts.

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Kilnsey, the village, is a seemingly unplanned sprawl of mostly desirable stone cottages and houses. The road proper skims the edge, on its way from Grassington to the higher reaches of Wharfedale, or you can take a side curve into Littondale.

If you have been to the area, you’ll know how lovely it is. If you haven’t, then you should. Unless you halt there’s not a lot visible at Kilnsey. There’s the inn, called the Tennant Arms after the chap who established it for the gents who came to fish and didn’t care for the rougher ways of the Anglers Arms – though I think I may have liked it, but it shut in the 1930s.

There is Kilnsey Park with a trout farm, cafe, fishing lake and a fascinating nature trail owned and managed by the Roberts family, who own much of what you see and in the male line are descended from Sir James Roberts, a farm lad from what we now call Brontëland, who made good at the famous Salts Mill and eventually owned the company and was able to buy Strathallan Castle from the Earl of Perth. In his later years, he bought Haworth Parsonage for the nation.

The fields opposite the hamlet are thronged on a day in September with an agricultural show – now so popular that one wonders whether it ought to be a two-day event.

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Take a detour behind the inn up a narrow road and admire a recent restoration of Kilnsey Old Hall, sold by the Roberts family to David Hood who made his fortune in Pace electronics, makers of TV set top boxes, established in part of Salts Mill – so there’s a money circle there. He decided the dilapidated building would not suit his plans and sold it at auction.

A tall, lean woman called Sonia Wilkinson is shepherding a group of men and women along the road, telling them about earlier times at Kilnsey, none of this 20th century stuff.

Sonia and her husband, Timothy, bought the Old Hall in the 1998 auction. Her restoration has won an award and ample admiration. The pile – truly a vertical stack – dates from the mid-17th century and its restoration has already been described in this paper.

For most people one monumental project would have been enough, time to relax. Instead, Sonia Wilkinson started looking into the hall’s history and that of the Wade family who lived there and this took her into wider research, which has produced her self-published book, Kilnsey A Dales Township.

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Before moving to Kilnsey, the Wilkinsons lived near Harrogate, where Sonia had been manager of the Ski Club until 1990, then lecturing in Financial and Management Accounting at Harrogate College of Further Education. Her husband is a solicitor.

“I was eager to find out more about the history of the house and the people who originally were responsible for its build, but it also became clear that the site was so entwined with the past, it was necessary to find out more about the general history of the area.

“I joined local groups involved with history and archaeology, I was able to listen to talks by experts and join field trips. Adding to this I began to research documents, historic books and the landscape relating to the area to record my findings.

“Eventually I decided it was worth writing a book pulling all the reliable information together in chronological order, so anyone looking at the history or archaeology of the area would have this information in one publication and provide a platform for further research. There is still so much to learn about the history of the area,” explains Sonia, who leads the Vernacular Building Study Group section of the Upper Wharfedale Field Society.

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“Learning to read the history of the area from buildings and landscape features can add to the enjoyment of a country walk. Each area of the country is unique and conditioned by local materials and resources, so no matter where you are, it is possible to observe the past as you walk.”

Our guided walk was one of several she had arranged to promote the book, attracting like-minded historians, on walks in the valley bottom and on the hills, with a break for a packed lunch in the garage at her house. On this winter Saturday the roads are mercifully quiet. Horses from the yard at Conistone, across the river, march past. We walk as far as the long bridge over the river, then turn back and go through a quaint strap-iron gate, narrow enough to squeeze the knapsacks off the backs of the walkers. In the rough contoured pasture there are discussions on river courses, conjecture about the purpose of some wooden posts seen at low water one summer, the possibility of earlier bridges, the various stock passageways in the walls and the bridge itself.

There is learned chatter about hemp growing, walls, enclosures, farming, buildings and monastic matters – the area was once the domain of Fountains Abbey. We hear a discourse on how the hemp was retted – a process using water in ponds to dissolve and wash away the outer tissues to leave the fibre with which rope and cloth was made.

Kilnsey is well served with water. Sykes Beck delivers a million gallons a day in heavy rain. It enters near the village green – a topsy old hillside far removed from, say, the pleasant level sward downriver at Burnsall.

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Kilnsey’s houses – all 17 of them – probably are there because of the abundant water. The springs never dry up and most of the properties get water from a private supply, with the appropriate de-bugging before delivery through the taps.

Sykes Beck powers the water turbine which has made Kilnsey Park not only self-sufficient in electricity (barring a particularly arid summer) but sending surplus into the national grid. On its way to the turbine, it waters the trout hatchery. After the turbine it runs into the fattening area for the mature trout.

There was a turbine in the area in the 1920s and in 1933 the estate had a hydro-electric generator, of which only the stone shed and dam remain. The Park uses a water heat pump to heat a spa building and another for the restaurant and shop.

At the entrance to the walking trail we see an old clapper bridge – formed by laying a slab or slabs of stone across water. “Our lore says that it was used by the monks as they walked from the Old Hall up to the Chapel at Chapel House,” says Anthony Roberts, of Kilnsey Park.

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Along the road towards the craggy overhang we are shown a barn – any old barn at face value. Quite an old barn, actually, called Scar Lathe, with ancient truss beams bearing tool marks from previous use, and similar signs of earlier utilisation are seen on the limestone masonry.

Christine Johnson, a farmer’s wife from Felliscliffe, in Nidderdale, gave us an explanation of how crops would be winnowed on the threshing floor of this barn, the chaff being blown away by a through draught between the door and a window – a word derived from a hole where the wind came in.

Returning to the village’s heart we stop at Crag Cottage. This is a lovely place with good gardens and evidence of once being thatched before the roof was raised. It has a baffle entrance, a wall which stops a gust from the opening door disrupting the drawing of smoke up the inglenook chimney.

Pat Harrison, who lives there with her husband Rob, was outside doing some autumnal garden task. She called out to Sonia: “I must come on one of your walks to learn about my house.”

The community, one feels, has that cosy togetherness.

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Kilnsey A Dales Township, by Sonia Wilkinson £12, from Kilnsey Park and other local shops.

More information about the guided walk dates, the book and active groups in the area: 01756 753887.

Kilnsey Park: 01756 752150.

Tennant Arms: 01756 752301.

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