Once inhabited, now deserted places have a pull on us.

Where lives were once lived and features were managed: stone walls repaired, ovens cleaned, fireplaces swept, roofs mended, herbs gathered, plants tended.

Not neglect, but simply absence – humans rarely come by any more and nature takes hold.

Thorns, near Ribblehead is such a place.

It’s the emptiness of it which makes my mind fill it with stories. Who lived here? What was life like here in 1538 when a local official came by and noted the five homes and the people moving about between them?

I imagine how dark it was at night, with fires, candlelight and gas lamps only, out here in a moorland hamlet.

How many times a week did drovers pass by with their packs of horses laden with goods for market? Did the residents of Thorns host them and offer them food as they passed, or simply wake in the night to hear the drovers clanking by on their way towards Thorns Gill bridge?

The boulders which stand in some of the fields. Were there chiidren here, and did they chase each other around these big stones? Did they clamber over the through stone steps in the drystone walls to go off wandering down the beck? Stone steps which now appear to lead nowhere but a nettle patch.

Who tended this old boiler? Who lined this spring with stones? Who made these iron fastenings to secure their animals to this carved wooden byre?

Who passed their washing through the window of this old wash house, or food through this window to family members outside?

How must it have felt, in this isolated community, to be one of the last remaining homes, when in the near distance a community of hundreds of workers established itself in a shanty town at Ribblehead, and a gigantic railway viaduct was built year after year after year in the 1870s?

How many generations of house martins have flown from Africa and back to nest inside this barn?

I have one contemporary connection to make. A friend of mine used to help the current land owner gather and shear his sheep here in summers past. I still see evidence of the sheep work: tangles of wool crushed underfoot; rubber rings to dock lambs’ tails; lotions and sprays discarded to the side.

I find it a slightly desolate, haunting place, but compelling too. And beautiful. With its clusters of mature trees it draws you in to sit down and shelter in what is an otherwise very open upland landscape. I’m compelled by the mysteries of what’s gone before.

My gallery of images from Thorns is here >


Gallery – To Thorns


What have I learnt about Thorns?

  • it’s on an ancient trading packhorse route through the Yorkshire Dales.
  • drovers passed through this way taking animals and goods between Settle and Gearstones livestock market which used to be nearby.
  • you cross an ancient packhorse bridge over Thorns Gill and Gayle Beck in order to get there. It sits high above a limestone ravine and deeply eroded pools. The bridge is a rough feat of limestone engineering and is believed to be at least 300 years old.
  • wIld thyme and primroses grow on the ravine banks.
  • the land around is dotted with large standing boulders left behind after the Ice Age retreated from the dales over 12,000 years ago.
  • Gayle Beck is one of the sources of the River Ribble, which gives Ribblesdale its name. It’s joined on its way by Battywife Beck. The Ribble flows west through Lancashire to the Irish Sea – the only Yorkshire river to do so.
  • wills, parish records and censuses indicate that there were five tenements living in Thorns in 1538, three households in 1841, and one uninhabited dwelling in 1891.
  • nobody has lived there since the 1890s.
  • it was progressively abandoned during the C19th as local upland farms were amalgamated.
  • it’s still used for sheep grazing by one of the local farmers, on whose land it lies.
  • records of the Thorns settlement date back to 1190 when it belonged to Furness Abbey, a former monastery near Barrow in Furness, once the second most wealthy monastery and most powerful Cistercian monastery in the country behind Fountains Abbey.
  • only a few barns now still stand intact – including a substantial bank barn, as well as one crumbling house, which has C17th mullioned windows.
  • sitting 2 kilometres east of Ribblehead the hamlet has fine views over the fields towards Whernside and Simon Fell and Ingleborough. Take the rise of the land a little and you see Pen-y-Ghent to the south as well.
  • the land still provides rich grazing, and holds a lot of moisture as a small beck runs into the centre of the hamlet before disappearing underground.
  • the ruins should be treated with respect, particularly as they are on a local farmer’s land. Secure gates and leave them as you find them, as his sheep graze all around the site. Walkers do visit occasionally, as both the Ribble Way and the Dales Way walking routes pass by.
  • it is currently the subject of archaeological studies led by Dr. David Johnson as part of Yorkshire Dales Millenium Trust’s Ingleborough-based ‘Stories in Stone’ project. Buildings and land were surveyed extensively in 2016, and now the team are set to begin some exploratory digging in Spring 2017 to see what more they can find.