Western Howgills

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Saunterings:  Walking in North-West England

Saunterings is a set of reflections based upon walks around the counties of Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire in North-West England (as defined in the Preamble). Here is a list of all Saunterings so far.
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10.  The 'Hillfort' of Addlebrough

Mike Harding – singer, songwriter, comedian, author, poet, broadcaster and multi-instrumentalist, according to his website, and also a Lancastrian enamoured of the Yorkshire Dales and a former president of the Ramblers’ Association – wrote in his 1986 best-seller Walking the Dales that the first century Brigante chief Venutius “hoped to contain the power of the Romans … [and] as well as the massive fort at Stanwick [near Brough], he built forts on Ingleborough, Gregory Scar (north of Grassington) and on Addlebrough in Wensleydale”. It is a romantic thought that the brave British Brigantes built a fort on the prominent flat-topped hill of Addlebrough in order to face off the Romans based down in the valley at Virosidum, their fort at Bainbridge, but is it likely?

Addlebrough, from the north-west

The second part of the name Addlebrough is presumably derived from the Old English word burh, meaning "a fortified place”. However, the Ordnance Survey does not use its special font to mark an ancient hillfort on Addlebrough although it does indicate ancient settlements and cairns on and around it. Perhaps Harding assumed an analogy with Ingleborough, where a hillfort is marked by the Ordnance Survey. However, Johnson (2008) doubts that the evidence of ancient constructions on Ingleborough signifies a hillfort, despite what the Ordnance Survey has marked.

Perhaps it depends what exactly we mean by a ‘fort’. If we adopt the standard dictionary definition of a “military building designed to be defended from attack” then, yes, a hill-top barracks, surrounded by a wall, is rather difficult to attack. However, there is little need to attack because the garrison therein is no threat and does not have the means (water and food) to survive there for long. Although the Brigantes were hardy people, it seems somewhat perverse for them to expose themselves to the worst of the elements on Ingleborough and Addlebrough (perhaps less so on Addlebrough, as it is only 480 metres high), although the climate was rather warmer and less windy at that time.

However, if we doubt the existence of a hillfort on Ingleborough and especially on Addlebrough then we need to explain what the ancient constructions were. As far as Ingleborough is concerned, Johnson suggests that the ancient hut circles are from structures that may have served more of a ceremonial function. In Addlebrough’s case, we seem to have settlements marked not on the plateau top but to the west and south of it. I went to try to absorb the atmosphere of these ancient settlements, without, of course, expecting to find any answers.

Wensleydale, from near Bainbridge

I walked from the triangular green of Bainbridge to Thornton Rust, a quiet village of fine houses and a tucked-away car park, from which a bridleway heads up to Addlebrough. I detoured south to Greenber Edge to have a look at the remains of old settlements, that is, the lines of old walls and a large pile of stones forming the cairn of Stony Raise. Of course, not all ancient people settled in the higher regions. That is just where there are still remains. The remains of those who lived in the valley of Wensleydale no longer remain, because the farming since has obliterated them. Anyway, clearly some people had long ago settled themselves upon this high ridge, with a view of Addlebrough across Thornton Mire.

I settled myself there to have a snack and to imagine their life. Radiocarbon dating studies of the mire have shown that 8,500 years ago it was a pine forest, that by 4,500 years ago birch, alder and hazel predominated, and that by 2,500 years ago the woodland had been cleared. I don’t know how they survived then but if they had lived here now they could have had a rabbit-rich diet, as the hill was full of them.

Addlebrough from the ruins of the ancient settlements

I reflected also upon the geology. The scars below Addlebrough, and of Addlebrough itself, are obviously of limestone but the walk up the bridleway headed towards the darker hills of Black Pasture and Stake Fell. One or two grouse flew past, and a shooting hut and butts could be seen. This hill becomes heather moorland, with the heather growing upon millstone grit, not limestone. The Greenber Edge settlers seemed to use slate, not limestone, for their walls and cairns.

The view from Addlebrough was splendid. The spring green valley of Wensleydale was stretched out below, with the River Ure meandering therein and with Abbotside Common and Askrigg Common rising above. The only discordant note lie on the horizon, which was disfigured by patches of rare, medium and thoroughly burnt heather. How did we come to accept this as natural?  And how did the Commons come to be uncommon, reserved for a few to kill birds?  I turned away, west, where a fine view opened out of Semer Water, the second largest natural lake in North Yorkshire, Malham Tarn being the largest.
Semer Water

Semer Water, from Addlebrough

I wandered about the top of Addlebrough. I could see nothing that, to my inexpert eyes, seemed similar to the remains of ramparts and hut circles that even I can make out on Ingleborough. Addlebrough has a natural defence to the north, in its limestone cliffs, but that seems all that might support a hillfort theory. My doubts are reinforced by a 2014 report by the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group that says categorically that “there are no defended settlements, or hillforts, in Wensleydale.” I conclude that Mike Harding was carried away in his enthusiasm.


    Date: April 30th 2018
    Start: SD934903, Bainbridge green  (Map: OL30)
    Route: SE over bridge – Brough Scar – E – Cubeck, Thornton Rust – SW, SW on bridleway, S – Greenber Edge – W – Stony Raise – N – Addlebrough – W – Devil’s Stone – NW, N – Bainbridge
    Distance: 8 miles;   Ascent: 260 metres

The two following items:
     12.   Uplifted by High Street
     11.   The Struggle over Boulsworth Hill
The two preceding items:
       9.   "The Prettiest Mere of All" Lakeland
       8.   What Price Catrigg Force?
Two nearby items:
     33.   Is Nappa Hall Napping - or Dying?
   162.   A Cracking Bit of Wensleydale
A list of all items so far:

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    © John Self, Drakkar Press, 2018-


Top photo: The western Howgills from Dillicar; Bottom photo: Blencathra from Great Mell Fell