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Discovering Prehistory on Ilkley Moor

by John Abraham

Winter Gardens IlkleyWith a population of only 14,000 and perched at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the town of Ilkley retains its Victorian charm in its architecture, tree-lined streets, and elegant shops and tea rooms. Though it is only 14 miles from Bradford and 17 miles from Leeds, two major wool-processing cities during the Industrial Revolution, its history lies much, much farther in the past!

Your first impression of the town might be of a traditional English seaside resort -- an impression strengthened by the buildings one sees from Station Road. One such building is the Winter Gardens, built in 1913, which has received National Lottery funding in the last couple of years to help stave off the ravages of time.

If, however, you look in a southerly direction from the town center, you will see, rolling upwards in the background and partially obscured by trees, Ilkley Moor. If you decide to take a walking excursion around the moor and neighbouring areas, I would advise you to obtain an Ordnance Survey map (The Landranger series No. 297, "Lower Wharfedale and Washburn Valley"), to ensure a safe and interesting journey. Follow Wells Road for a mile and you will come to the foot of the moor, with its carpet of bracken and stray boulders. One feature that you'll see halfway up the hill is White Wells cottage.


Most of the Wharfe valley, including where Ilkley is today, was an inhospitable swamp. The high ground, was inhabited by hunter- gatherers, who lived near the vast woodlands, which covered most of the uplands of Britain thousands of years ago, providing an abundant food source for both humans and animals. Traces of prehistoric activity are found in the forms of flint arrowheads or microliths, which date from the Mesolithic period (11.000-9.000 BC). These artefacts were found on the surface or at various depths across Ilkley and Rombalds moor.

Neolithic Art Near Calf Rocks

Over 250 rock carvings have been found within this area, and some experts believe that there may be more buried under the peaty soil. The rock carvings are found on cliff faces, especially near Cow and Calf rocks, and also on the boulders around the area of Green Crag Slack (Map Ref: SE1340). The local rock is known as Millstone Grit, a brownish-grey rough soft stone imbedded with quartz fragments. One question you'll hear from nearly every visitor is: "What do the carvings represent?" and can we find a cognitive thread of an Ancient Briton's mind through the glyphs etched onto the rock?

These carvings are referred to as 'cup and ring' marks and are more prevalent in the north of England. [See Exploring Northumberland's Rock Art, by Teri Gray.] Patterns vary from region to region; as some are angular or geometric, curved, and circular, while some have horseshoe patterns. One of the theories put forward by antiquarians and archaeologists is that these patterns may have been territory markers or configurations representing a spiritual deity -- but there is still plenty of room for other interpretations!.

Celtic Swastika StoneOne of the most well known artifacts in the area is the 'Swastika Stone,' situated near Hebers Ghyll, thought to date around 1800BC. Surrounded by iron railings, it can still be viewed without any restriction. Similar designs have been found in Sweden and Italy, and are thought to be one of the earliest forms of Celtic art.

1.5 miles south from Ilkley Crags, follow the path marked 'Dales Way' (a gradual climb if you take the path at the side of Ilkley Crags). All being well you should arrive at what is described as a Druidical stone circle known as The Twelve Apostles Stone Circle (Map Ref: SE12645). It is about 2000 years old, 52 feet in diameter with twelve 4-foot high stones. Originally, there were twenty stones with a seven-foot megalith in the centre. It is still used, like Stonehenge, for winter and summer solstice celebrations. The stones have been dislocated and are propped back by smaller rocks. It has good vantage point to the south looking over the Aire valley.

Legend states that is impossible to count the stones at the first attempt. Other tales over the decades involve sightings of floating white spheres among the stones. One such account happened in 1976, when members of the Royal Observer Corps followed a white ball three feet in diameter weaving around the stones.

Romans in Ilkley

Romans arrived in the region in 79AD, and built a fort on the southern side of the River Wharfe. The site is now occupied by an Elizabethan manor house, which is also a museum. Sections of the original Roman wall can be found within the gardens. Another segment of the fort can be found near All Saints Church. One theory is that Ilkley inherited its name from the Romans, who named the fort Olinica, but modern scholars have doubted this.

Roman House and Museum

An altar stone dedicated to the Romano-British water goddess Verbia was discovered hidden under the steps of a house. It contains the inscription.

Verbiae Sacrum Clodius Fronto D Praef. Coh II Lingon
(To sacred Verbia.Clodus Fronto, Prefect of Cohort, Second Legion).

Legend has it that Fronto was saved from drowning near one of the whirlpools in the River Wharfe. Out of gratitude, he established an altar dedicated to the goddess Verbia. The original could not located, but a copy can be seen at the Manor House Museum along with three other Roman altars, which can be found in side the parish church.

The Roman occupation lasted 300 years, whereupon the legions were recalled to defend Rome from the marauding tribes of Goths, Huns, Vandals, and Celts. The new invaders who settled in and around the town were the Angles, Saxons and Danes. All Saints Church was established before the Norman Conquest, and within the church are three Saxon crosses.

During the Middle Ages, the swamps were drained and gradually dwellings were constructed. The earliest recorded is the Manor House, whose foundations date to the 12th century. The building material was available and within arms reach from the dilapidated Roman fort, which provided sufficient stone to build the Manor House and enough to spare to rebuild All Saints Church.

Taking the Waters

In the 1700s, Ilkley's identity as a spa town began at White Wells, which is situated half way up Ilkely Moor. The whitewashed building you see now was originally only a two-roomed cottage. According to the local history, around 1780 a shepherd had an accident and severely damaged his leg. The wound refused to heal. But by daily immersion in the 'waters of Ilkley', the wound began to heal itself. Soon White Wells began to receive visitors seeking the therapeutic properties of the water. One of many famous recipients who took the plunge into the healing waters is Charles Darwin. He bathed here while his book Origin of the Species was being published. Other famous visitors also include Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson.

White Wells IlkleyThe modern White Wells is now a café serving hot beverages rather than cold baths (if you stop here for a 'brew' be sure to have small change handy). You will find the natural spring water at the back of the premises, still flowing and people are able to tap the source of the 'miracle cure' for themselves, so do not forget your water bottle.

Ilkley's reputation as a spa town associated with polite society and prosperity increased in the 19th century. An Ilkley merchant, travelling in Europe in1839, met a farmer in Silesia. The farmer rented a hut in his field to the merchant-- and the field just happened to sit on top of a natural brine spring. On his return to Ilkley, this merchant developed the idea of utilising the local source in a new way, and between 1840 and 1870, hydrotherapy clinics began to spring up around the area. Visitors used the recently formed railway network and would flock into the town to take the waters. Hotels and guesthouses were built to accommodate the tourists. Even the developments such as the wooded plantations in Mill Ghyll and Hebers Ghyll were landscaped for Victorian visitors.

Today, you can acquire the same elegance with modern facilities, along with teashops and award-winning restaurants and pubs. The town caters for both the outdoors person and today's sophisticated tourist.

Related Articles:

Exploring Northumberland's Rock Art, by Teri Foster Gray

More Information:

Ilkley Community Website


Ilkley Moor

Visit Ilkley

John Abraham holds a degree in archaeology from the University of Manchester, and specializes in the prehistory of Northern Europe. He currently works as an administrative officer for the Department for Work and Pensions, and is developing a local guidebook on the ancient sites within a 30-mile radius of the Manchester area.
Article and photos © 2006 John Abraham


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