Time Brings Change

Over the centuries there have been several intrusions of the outside world into the Valley:

  • Bronze Age cup and ring stones show evidence of man’s presence in the valley thousands of years ago 
  • the Romans built a road passing across Blubberhouses Moor
  • the valley was part of the ancient Royal Forest of Knaresborough, a Norman hunting ground set aside in the 1160s for the royal family. It includes significant stretches of the Forest boundary which was marked out in 1767. A number of well preserved carved boundary stones are still in position. The land was not a forest as we would know it, but was woodland, heath and moorland with farming practices strictly controlled. The use for hunting gave rise to the hunting lodges at John O’Gaunt’s Castle and Dob Park, parts of which still stand. 
  • the geology of sandstone and shale with the unusual feature of a fossil rich shell bed encouraged quarrying for building materials 
  • there are remains of a medieval bloomery related to the iron industry in Fewston and Blubberhouses. Archaeologists believe that the main purpose was to supply the raw materials for the manufacture of iron arrowheads on an industrial scale at Knaresborough Castle 
  • the power and purity of the River Washburn have been valued for centuries. Evidence of corn, fulling, cotton and flax mills is still visible in the form of leats, goits and waterholding dams. Among the numerous mills in the Washburn Valley the Westhouse Mill at Blubberhouses was the most historically significant. It was one of the first in England to use the apprentice system for its workforce and when it was built it had one of the largest waterwheels in Europe. 
  • damming and flooding of the Valley in the late 19th century to create four reservoirs to supply water to Leeds.The reservoirs brought the massive impact of Victorian industrial development to the valley. They were needed to provide healthy clean water for the growing city of Leeds.

A former vicar of Fewston famously said, “Fewston must die so that Leeds may live”. The reservoir construction demanded a huge workforce, which was temporarily housed on site. The construction of Lindley Wood reservoir between 1870 and 1874 required a “navvy camp”. This was historically significant as being one of the first camps where the layout, conditions and activities were regulated. The camp had its own school, wooden church, drinking shop and a constable. This was largely because of the work of Elizabeth Garnett, daughter of the vicar of Otley, who became known as the “navvies’ friend”. She went to live on the site, started a Sunday School and published a newsletter to highlight the navvies’ conditions. When the water levels are low the site of the camp is exposed, with brick and pottery remnants sometimes visible. The impact of the reservoir construction on the communities of the time was huge.

“It was in 1870 that the Leeds Corporation commenced the construction of three immense reservoirs, in the upper reaches of Wharfedale, to dam a mountain river and then convey its pure water to Leeds seventeen miles away. The lowest of these reservoirs was made at Lindley Wood, a tree-covered vale in the heart of the hills….within a month the ground was cleared and three long rows of brick huts were erected, also stables, a food shop and a shant to sell beer, but neither church nor school for these people was considered necessary in those days.”

Extract from How and why the Navvy Mission Society was formed, by Mrs Charles Garnett, circa 1885

  • Landscape protection arrived in 1994 when the valley became part of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). In recent years Yorkshire Water has made a major commitment to providing easy public access to the reservoirs and surrounding woodlands, making these readily available to people who might not otherwise be able to enjoy the countryside – its natural scenery, plants and wildlife.


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