Stone is one of the most ubiquitous and useful resources in the Yorkshire Dales. Houses, field walls, barns and bridges were built using it. Limestone had a further use in that it could be burned to produce lime, used for sweetening upland pastures, making lime mortar and also as a protective whitewash for buildings.
As a heavy, but readily available resource, stone would rarely have been carried far from its find spot, at least not before the advent of railway transport. A Bronze Age burial cairn such as Stoney Raise in Wensleydale was constructed from thousands of tons of stone probably collected up from fields surrounding it as they were cultivated by early farmers. Thousands of year’s later, dry stone wall builders used it as a convenient source of stone for their walls. Stone buildings at the Roman fort at Bainbridge indicate that there must have been locally exploitable sources of stone at that time. The soldiers probably acquired it by cutting back natural scars and outcrops.
From the time of the Norman Conquest, demand for stone became too great to be satisfied by surface collected material and quarries began to be opened up. New Norman estate owners funded the construction of grand stone churches on their land and all had to be built from locally sourced stone. Major building projects like Castle Bolton required their own quarries although more decorative stone items might be brought from further afield. The Great Rebuilding in stone which spread through the Dales from the 17th century meant that nearly every township in the Dales would have had at least one quarry by that time. At Austwick the site of the township quarries can clearly be seen, the whole area is pockmarked with workings.
Most of the earliest stone houses and barns in the Dales would have been heather thatched but the opening of specialist quarries producing stone roof slates led to buildings being altered to accommodate the heavier, more durable roofing material from the early 18th century onwards. The steep pitched gables of heather thatching were built up to produce a flatter roofline. The old, steeper rooflines can still sometimes be spotted within house end gables as for example at New House in Bishopdale. The arrival of the railway in Wensleydale in the 19th century allowed roofing slate quarries such as at Burtersett to expand greatly. Here in Wensleydale, sandstone of the Yoredale series was laid down in thin beds that were easily split and cut into flags and roof tiles. At Burtersett and also Gayle and High Abbotside, stone was extracted in underground workings, split and finished above ground and then carted away to Hawes. From here trains took it to the rapidly expanding industrial towns of Lancashire and West Yorkshire.
At Helwith in Ribblesdale, the hard, dark grey-green mudstone quarried there is much in demand today for producing skid resistant roadstone. In the 19th century however, it was split and sawn and used to make a wide variety of useful items such as water cisterns, stall partitions in barns and boundary stones such as those found around the parish of Stainforth. A smaller quarry at the head of Crummackdale was known for its colourful banded whetstones.
Millstone grit was exploited on a large scale in the Dales. Every prehistoric home needed a quernstone to grind corn into flour and examples made from locally collected gritstone have been found all over the Dales. From medieval times, every manor had its own corn mill and these too required gritstone for their millstones. Place names show us where some of this stone was quarried, for example Millstone Hagg, above Kingsdale. In Arkengarthdale, on the millstone grit outcrop above Turf Moor Hush several unfinished millstones can still be seen lying where they were abandoned after they split during the drilling of the central hole.
One of the staple grains grown and milled in the Dales was oats and these were often turned into oatcakes. By the 19th century these were often baked on a special built-in flat stone called a bakstone. An example can be seen in the farmhouse kitchen display at the Dales Countryside Museum. The stone required was a fine, soft, micaceous sandstone able to stand heat. Again, place names show us where these stones were found, Backstone Edge on Hebden Moor for instance.
Not all the stone quarried in the Dales was used for purely utilitarian purposes. Early 19th century Dentdale was one of several places in the western part of the National Park where a fine limestone, with fossils, was found to be capable of being highly polished. It was called Dent marble although strictly speaking it isn’t a true marble. At Stonehouse, near Artengill, two water mills were used to saw and polish the stone. The remains of the wheelpit of one, Low Mill, can still be viewed. An industry grew up and many early Victorian homes throughout the country were furnished with Dent marble fire surrounds. Examples of the three different types of stone quarried can be seen in the floor of St Andrew’s Church in Dent. When the Settle-Carlisle Railway crossed over Dentdale, the fine hard stone was put to good use building Dent Head viaduct. The viaduct went right through the quarry but the owners were fully compensated as well as doing good business supplying marble fire surrounds for several of the Settle-Carlisle railway waiting rooms. The industry began to decline from the early 1890s onwards partly due to the importation of true marbles from Italy but also because of changes in late Victorian fashion and taste.
Stone quarrying remains the largest, indeed, the only heavy industry surviving in the Yorkshire Dales today . The major use for most of the stone extracted is in road building and as aggregate in concrete. The detrimental environmental impact of such large-scale quarries has long been recognised and from 2010 when planning permissions begin to run out, it is expected that more and more will cease operation.
Jean Armstrong (1982) ‘Dent Marble Works’ SDHS Occ Newsletter No 3 pp11-12
Boulton, David (1985) Discovering Upper Dentdale Dent: Dales Historical Monographs
Hall, David (1985) Burtersett Quarries, a Wensleydale Mining Community Hawes: Wensleydale Press
Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (1997) Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales Otley: Smith Settle [‘Oatcake’ pp21-28]
Moorhouse, Stephen (2003) 'The anatomy of the Yorkshire Dales: deciphering the medieval landscape' in Manby, T G et al (eds) (2003) The Archaeology of Yorkshire: an assessment at the beginning of the 21st century Yorkshire Archaeological Society Occasional Paper No 3 pp298-362 [‘Quarries’ pp334-336]
Raistrick, Arthur (1951) ‘The Story of Dent Marble’ Dalesman Vol 13 pp538-539
Raistrick, Arthur (1991) Arthur Raistrick’s Yorkshire Dales Clapham: Dalesman [‘Yorkshire Stone’ pp57-62]
White, Robert (2002) The Yorkshire Dales. A Landscape Through Time Ilkley: Great Northern Books [Chapter 8 - ‘Legacies of Industry’]