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About West Witton

West Witton is in the heart of Wensleydale, 4 miles west of the market town of Leyburn on the A684. It is a village with a long history. Its origins lost in what is known as the 'settlement period'.

The Romans left Britain to its own fate in the fifth century AD, and who remained in the Dales may never be known. Archaeology gives us occasional glimpses of anonymous remains, and topography and place-name evidence help to some extent. Up until the Doomsday Survey of 1086 little is certain except that West Witton had become an established village, with a Christian church.

West Witton at sunrise

West Witton at sunrise

In the Anglian period some land was administered by a system of 'multiple estates' and West Witton was a component of such an estate organised from East Witton. Other 'berewicks' were Akebar, Burrill, High Thoresby and Wensley. Each contributed resources to the whole manorial organisation. Anglians, Danes and later, Norse immigrants settled in the area and eventually became the English.

It was during these centuries that the population turned from paganism to Christianity which may have been imposed by the ruling classes. What is certain is in the eighth century the Church had a presence in West Witton. Set in the vestry wall of St Bartholomew's is a carved stone panel, approximately 16" x 17". The relief sculpture shows a winged cross decorated with interlace and a border with a similar pattern. It was suggested that this was one panel from an altar frontal and may represent the westward extension of influence of the Archbishop of York.

It is not known when the first church was built or when West Witton was established as a Parish or even when the village assumed its present layout. It is believed these were in place by the time of the Norman Conquest.

West Witton, courtesy Google Earth

West Witton from Google Earth

The Earls of Richmond, Norman nobles who helped William I to victory at Hastings, replaced the English Lord, Glumer, as hereditary overlords of the Honour of Richmond. Wensleydale was part of this territory. The descent of the manor of West Witton is well documented. The Botterill and Tattershall families held it until it came under Jervaulx Abbey as part of the Lordship of Middleham. As such, it was Crown property and remained so until 1628. West Witton village is perched on a rocky ledge between the river Ure and Penhill, which makes the most use of this restricted site. The main axis lies east-west, along a narrow street. The medieval "tofts" (house plots) and "crofts" (gardens) are surrounded by hay meadows and former arable fields. The crofts of the houses on the south side are level and open to the sun, while those on the north slope steeply down to the back lane. Two minor roads rise up Penhill side, Grassgill eventually leading to Coverdale and Kagram to Chantry, a former grange of Jervaulx Abbey. At the bottom of Kagram is Green Hill, probable a vestige of a former village green. Nearby is Nanny Well, a spring which may have held sacred significance in pagan times, to be re-established as a holy well with the coming of Christianity. Nanny is a local diminutive of Anne and Saint Anne who was the mother of the Virgin Mary.

At 600 feet above sea level, and on the eastern edge of the geological rock sequence known as the Yoredale Series, West Witton is at the interface of the two cultural and agricultural regions into which Britain is divided - the Highland Zone and the Lowland Zone. The former is largely pastoral and sparsely settled, while the latter is mainly arable and more densely populated.

It is along this line where dale meets vale that a string of market towns grew up, as exchange points for commodities. Livestock reared in the hills, extracted stone and lead and the products of rural by-employments (notably dairy produce and wool and cloth) were traded for corn, salt and sea-fish.

Penhill, the spectacular backdrop to West Witton

Penhill, West Witton's spectacular backdrop

In the middle ages two centres of power held control of Wensleydale; Middleham Castle, which represented the State and Jervaulx Abbey, the established Church presence, within the Diocese of York. In 1301 a tax was levied by Edward I throughout the country. This gives us our first list of West Witton's inhabitants. Eighteen people were taxed for a total sum of 56 shillings and 8 pence, which represented one-fifteenth of their worldly goods. Surnames were not hereditary in the North at that time, so Robert son of William and Nigel the Smith do not help to provide a link with later recorded families.

Middleham Castle, from Google Earth

Middleham Castle, from Google Earth

Almost certainly, the houses were single-storey dwellings under thatched roofs. What is evident is that things changed soon after the Crown sold off its property in 1628. In common with the rest of the area, the 'great rebuild' took place. Many houses were totally rebuilt, radically altered or extended. Upper floors, chimneys and new roofs under flagstones considerably improved the accommodation. These 'modernised' houses of the seventeenth century are, externally, the oldest houses in the present village, although several probably contain vestiges of earlier structures.

Over the centuries, properties have been further improved, new houses built, property has changed hands, and land has been re-allocated from common (shared) fields to private farms. Extractive and manufacturing industries have had their periods of prosperity and decline, especially mining, quarrying, tanning and textile production. Craftsmen have served the needs of the community as stonemasons, shoemakers, joiners and blacksmiths. Services increased with dressmakers, carriers and postmasters, in the nineteenth century. Vicars and schoolmasters cared for the souls and intellect, while innkeepers catered for other needs. Always there were farmers, some in the village, and others at outlying farms. Village institutions have provided for community life and customs, celebrations and family events have enriched the lives of generations.

Penhill is one of the most familiar landmarks in the Dales, standing above West Witton at the entrance to Wensleydale.

Penhill Scar, Northern edge above West Witton

Penhill Scar - northern edge above West Witton

Acknowledgments: West Witton History Group, Step by Step Rural West Witton, A Village Walk In Wensleydale, Unicorn Projects, 2000 - ISBN 0951463977. Copies available from Liz Kirby

You can view/download a property map of the village here (courtesy of colinday.co.uk)

If you would like to add to this page, perhaps with some photos, please contact us