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A brief history

Littondale lies to the west of Wharfedale and, unusually, is not named for its river, the Skirfare (from Old Norse, skírr ‘bright’ or ‘clear’ and far ‘river-course’). The dale is typical of the glaciated landscape of North Yorkshire and its winding, U-shaped valley was formed by a glacier around 20,000 years ago. An example of a retreat moraine, left by the receding glacier, can be found at Skirfare Bridge, close to the confluence with the River Wharfe. Like its neighbour Wharfedale, Littondale is formed mainly of Great Scar Limestone and Yoredale rock. The dale has a number of shake holes and sink-holes that lead to cave systems such as at Boreham Cave. At the head of the dale is Pen-y-ghent, one of the Yorkshire Three Peaks.

The name Littondale is first recorded in 1198, but there is archaeological evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlements on the higher ground along the dale and the remains of an Anglian field system are very clearly seen above the hamlet of Hawkswick. From this period comes an Anglo-Saxon reliquary – a box that held an item of Christian religious significance – found in the dale and now on display in the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes. After the Norman Conquest, the dale was used as a hunting chase, then granted in the 12th century to the monastic house of Fountains Abbey and, in part, to Sawley Abbey, which led to disputes, mainly over the ownership of the corn mill at the foot of the Foss Beck in Litton. The Cistercians established sheep farming, and Littondale continued in use as a monastic grange until the Dissolution in the 1530s.

Although the valley is named for the village of Litton, the main settlement is Arncliffe, which has one of the few village greens in the Dales. Its church, St Oswald’s, was rebuilt in the 16th and 18th centuries (in ‘Churchwarden Gothic’ style) to replace a building from around 1100, built on the site of a wooden Saxon church. The medieval church tower remains, and according to John Betjeman, ‘This church should be visited for no other reason than its breathtakingly beautiful dales setting beside the River Skirfare … Charles Kingsley found inspiration for The Water Babies here.’ Kingsley was a frequent visitor, describing Littondale as ‘a quiet, silent, rich, happy place’ and ‘a narrow crack into the earth, where the bottom of the valley was just one field broad’. The village is now a Conservation Area.

Arncliffe was the original setting for the fictional village of Beckindale in the TV series ‘Emmerdale’ (its name thought to come from ‘Amerdale’, the ancient name for Littondale). The Falcon was used as ‘The Woolpack’ and still serves ale from the jug in the traditional manner. The steep Monks Road leads up behind the pub towards Malham Tarn, some four miles away.

Further along the Dale, the village of Litton (from the Old English hlið ‘hillside’ and tūn ‘farmstead’). It has a number of fine houses dating from the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was notorious for its cockpit, where cock fighting and badger baiting took place.

At the head of the Dale is Halton Gill, a hamlet with some fine old buildings, including a Reading Room. From here a road leads to Foxup and the isolated farm buildings at Cosh. The Silverdale road climbs Fountain Fell past the high peak of Pen-y-Ghent towards Settle.

The ancient parish of Arncliffe was part of Staincliffe Wapentake in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The parish also included the townships of Hawkswick, Litton, Halton Gill and Buckden, which became separate civil parishes in 1866. Littondale was transferred to the county of North Yorkshire in 1974.

Further reading

Bedford-Payne, Brontë. Charles Kingsley, Christian Socialist: Malham Moor, and Tom the Chimney Sweep. North Craven Heritage Trust Journal, 2011.
http://www.northcravenheritage.org.uk/NCHTJ2011/2011/kingsley/kingsley.html
Hawkswick

Hawkswick

Named for Hauk’s dairy farm, this is the first settlement as you come up the dale from the Skipton-Kettlewell road on the tiny back lane across Wind Bank.

In 1893, the vicar William Boyd described ‘the sunny hamlet of Hawkswick, sheltering under the hill, and trapping every ray of sun that shines in the valley throughout the day.’

There are signs of early medieval ploughing to be seen on the fellside here: long narrow terraces, called strip lynchets, formed by the plough. Oats and barley were grown here and oatcake and porridge used to be eaten throughout the dale, which is too wet to grow wheat. The hamlet has no public building but it used to have a ballroom, no less, in a barn. It is now a house and still proudly called The Ballroom.

Arncliffe

Arncliffe

Arncliffe (Old English, earna-clif: eagle cliff) is the largest village in Littondale. ‘The situation of Arncliffe Church is extremely sweet and lovely’, wrote its vicar, William Boyd in 1893. ‘It has no wonderful architectural pretension, but there is a soft repose about its pleasant old tower and a cared for appearance throughout.’ Arncliffe is home […]

Litton

Litton

Litton, meaning village on a roaring stream or torrent, has a tiny village green. Crystal Beck and Potts Beck pour off the hills to the north of the river, and the Foss (force or waterfall) to the south. Old Litton snuggles below the Foss. Now just one farmhouse and the remains of another called Spital […]

Halton Gill

Halton Gill

Meaning a farmstead in a narrow valley, haugh and gill both mean narrow valley. In the early 17th Century the Fawcett family who had farmed Upper Heselden since the days of the monks gave money for the support of a curate to serve Halton Gill chapel. Two served with great distinction. Miles Wilson, a Cambridge […]

Foxup

Foxup and Cosh

At the very top of the dale, Foxup means upstream with the foxes. This is where the River Skirfare begins its journey through the dale to join the Wharfe. Until quite recently there were three farms in Foxup; now only one remains. The hamlet is only a quarter of a mile from Halton Gill and […]