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.