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                                 Landscape and Land Use


Rylstone lies within an ancient landscape, which has been settled and modified by man since the earliest of pre-historic times (see website pages on Rylstone's pre-historic archaeology). The use put to Rylstone's lands has been determined by:


  • its latitude and altitude. Rylstone village lies at an altitude of 54 degrees north and two degrees west, and at an altitude of about 200 metres above sea-level. The summit of Rylstone Fell, at the Cross, is just over 400 metres above sea-level, whilst the top of Boss Moor in the north west is just above the 300 metre mark.

  • the nature of its soils and rocks from which they are derived. The soils are very variable, ranging from water-logged, acid peats and rough sandy soils on the millstone grit summits, peaty clays on the shale uplands and alkaline and calcareous soils above limestone formations. The central part of Rylstone Parish and the fell sides, however, are cloaked in glacial till. This is variable in character depending on the source and mix of material brought down the Dales by ice and melt-water. Much of the till has then been resorted and redistributed by streams and water flows and become alluvium. The top-soils here range through rich loams, to thin sandy soils and heavy clays, with a wide range of stones contained within them as any local gardener knows!

  • its changing climate. Overall, the climate has warmed up since the last ice-age, but there have been fluctuations within this general trend. Local temperatures and rainfall vary depending on altitude and position. According to National Park figures for the area, monthly rainfall varies from about 45 millimetres in July to over 80 millimetres in November and January. Average daily temperatures, meanwhile vary from highs of over 20 degrees Celsius in July and August to just about seven degrees in the Winter months of December to February.

Taming the land

Because of its climate, soils and rural location away from major population centres, the main land-use within Rylstone and similarly placed Dales' parishes, is one of upland farming. This has been the case since early Anglo-Saxon times (about 500 AD), when clearing, draining and tilling of the land began in earnest.

Before then, as Raistrick and Illingworth (1967) noted, early travellers and settlers would encounter different land and vegetation zones as they ascended from the wet valley floors in and around Rylstone to the millstone summits. They would find:

  1. Alluvial tracts in the valley bottoms, with swamps and dense thickets of alder and willow

  2. Slopes below 500 feet, with dense oak-wood, with thick undergrowth, impeded drainage and deep, wet humus overlying clay

  3. Upper valley slopes between 500-900 feet, with open woodland of oak and birch on dry soil

  4. Spurs and edges of the plateaux ,with heather moor and grassy heath with scattered birch

  5. High summit plateaux, with cotton-grass moss with deep wet peat.

Raistrick (1967) also commented that:

'The agriculturists of the preceding ages, from the Neolithic to Romano-British, had done little more than scratch the surface of a few acres here and there upon the upper slopes and perhaps thin out a patch or two of woodland by the grazing of their herds'.

In addition to primitive herding of cows and sheep, the main human activity around Rylstone in these ages would have been foraging and hunting in the forests.

As the centuries passed through Anglo-Saxon times to the Norman Conquest, the climate became warmer, the forests were cleared, the lowlands around Rylstone were drained and the land was improved by the Danish, Anglian and later Norse peoples settling in the area. They may have chosen Rylstone because it was sited in an open valley at the watershed between the Wharfe and Aire catchments where water was plentiful, the lower-lying land was fertile and the wooded slopes were full of game. Raistrick speculates that, because of its odd elongated shape, Rylstone may have emerged as an overspill community in unoccupied land between already settled communities around it. Rylstone was formally recognised as a separate township when it was split off from the ancient parish of Burnsall.

Feudal agriculture in medieval Rylstone

As agricultural tools and techniques, such as ploughing, became more sophisticated, farming of the land and stock-rearing gradually developed in Rylstone through Norman and early medieval times (1066 until 1215). By the start of the main medieval period (from about Magna Carta in 1216 to about 1550) the weather was warm enough to allow arable crops to be grown in the lower lying areas. Farming became more organised under the feudal manorial system of the de Rilstons and Nortons who owned the township lands.

Whilst the demesne land specifically retained by the Lords of Rylstone for their own use was worked by his 'villeins', the rest of the township was tenanted, with the tenants paying their dues to the Lord by way of agreed work, services or fees. At this time, the demesne, according to Whittaker (1878, republished in 1973):

'was something more than 400 acres. The rest was divided into 43 tenements; some two oxgangs, others of one or less. The oxgang averaged from 12 to 13 acres.'...'There was neither a freeholder nor cottager in the place; the occupiers were, properly speaking, tenants at will, though the lord granted them verbal leases for life.' ...'The tenement was usually granted, upon the demise of a tenant, to the eldest son, if there was one; if not, to the eldest daughter.'

The pattern of agriculture involved the rearing of cows and sheep, which were fed on the pastures, meadows and upland areas of the township, and much of this was common land. There was joint access by the tenants to common pasture (on North Moor, Langhill, Bark and Garforth Close) and upland grazing on Boss Moor and Rylstone Fell. Tenants also had an allocated share of the richer arable meadowlands, of which three main arable fields are recorded. These fields were ploughed using the 'rigg and furrow' technique which leaves stripes across the land. In 1965, Rylstone's lower-lying fields were surveyed (see figure below) and the rigg and furrow markings were found to be extensive.

Taken from Raistrick (1967). 'Discovering a Village' in Old Yorkshire Dales, Chapter 2. 

The project team was able to discern many of these during its walk-over surveys, particularly to the south and east of the village. We were also able to follow the main medieval 'outgang' across the arable fields for much of its course (see map above). This was a green routeway for taking stock to the common pastures and/or to market.

Some of the arable fields (south-east of the Old Hall) were given over to the production of 'corn' - barley and oats - although these were said to have occupied a relatively small area of the township. The corn was milled in the local mills in central Rylstone and the shared one on Hetton Beck, at a point on the border between Rylstone and Hetton (see article on The Corn Mill in the industrial Archaeology Section of our website). As the climate became colder in post-medieval times, and corn could be bought more readily from elsewhere, barley and oat production gradually ceased and the arable lands were given over to meadowland and hay production.

Another feature of Rylstone's medieval landscape was the Deer Park, the boundary of which is shown on the above map (see article on Deer Park). Part of this is still visible as a recent walk-over survey showed, although the land is very rough and some of the banks are difficult to discern. The park was enclosed in order to keep deer close at hand for the manorial table, but deer also roamed across Rylstone and its neighbouring fells. The hunting of these deer and their herding into the Norton Deer Park was a cause for much ill-will between the Nortons and Cliffords of Skipton Castle.

Another source of protein was rabbit farming, a characteristic feature of which were 'pillow mounds' in which the farmed rabbits had their warrens. Some of these are still visible in and around Norton Towers. The diet of the Rylstone lords was further enhanced by the building of fish-stocked ponds, and the remaining outline of those belonging to the manor are to be seen to the east of the Old Hall.

Out of necessity, the medieval residents of Rylstone used local materials to support their daily lives:

  • The local forests, which were quite extensive, provided oak, ash, elder and holly wood. These timbers were used in the building of the cruck-beamed cottages and hay barns of the era, which were dotted across the local landscape. Coppicing in some of the woodland took place to provide thinner timber, sticks and farm implements.

  • The limestone outcrops and millstone grit crags provided good-quality building stone for the church and manor house. It was used later to re-build stone cottages, walls and barns. Gritstone was also used for milling stones. Rylstone Fell edge still shows the scars of gritstone quarrying, and partly hewn millstones are said to be visible in at least one place.

  • Bracken was cut from Rylstone and Boss Fells for bedding and early roof thatching, and peat and coal were dug for fuel from these same locations.

As the medieval era came to a close and the feudal system declined in the late 16th century, distinct changes took place to land-use within Rylstone and other Dales parishes. As the Yorkshire Dales National Park (2015) states:

'Overall, there was a gradual shift from the feudal manorial system, to rent paying tenants. By the end of the (Tudor) period, a system called customary tenant right ensured that control of the land came to lie in the hands of the farming communities not the landlords. The foundations of the freeholder, yeoman farmer dynasties that survive into the present day were laid.'

From the 17th to the 19th centuries


The 17th and 18th centuries were periods of considerable activity within Rylstone with the building and rebuilding of houses and barns in local stone, the selling off of manorial and tenanted land to free-holders by the Cliffords and the enclosure and exchange of land. The common pastures in Rylstone were enclosed by the Enclosure Act of 1772. Raistrick (1967) notes that in the 18th century, 'the few conveyances and deeds which remain show the frequent sale or exchange of strips and small pieces of the town fields from which new fields were created.'

The main farming activity between the 17th and 19th centuries was largely focused on the rearing of sheep and cattle. Dairying developed further, with butter and cheese being produced for sale to towns outside of the Dales. Beef cattle were raised and herds of sheep were reared for wool and meat. Since farmers no longer grew their own corn, more land was given over to grazing, with upland pastures being improved by lime spreading. This led to the development of local lime kilns (such as the one found on Boss Moor within Rylstone township) which produced lime from local calcareous stone. Many of the characteristic field barns of Rylstone and the Dales date from the increase in hay production during the 18th century.

With the progressive opening up of new routeways, the movement of stock for sale became increasingly important. Local cattle and sheep were not only moved more readily to markets around the Dales, with Skipton being a particular centre for stock sales, but stock were also brought into the Dales from as far afield as Scotland along new drove roads. Raistrick and other authors state that in the 18th century there was a notable stock fair on Boss Moor at which, 'great numbers of Scots cattle were sold and at which local farmers bought stock to over-winter on their pasture'. These were then sent to market in the following year and old maps show that a local drove road ran directly from Boss Moor via Rylstone to Skipton.

At this time, the old water mill serving Rylstone, became a woollen mill, with worsted cloth being produced from local wool in some of the cottages. This activity did not last long, however, and the mill closed in the early part of the 19th Century.


In 1839, the Tithe Awards for Rylstone were commuted, thus removing the need for payments in kind by tenants and stipulating the rents to be paid. The tithe document shows that within the township boundaries there were, 'only five acres of arable, 2,095 acres of meadow and pasture, 101 acres of woodland and 849 acres of common' (Raistrick, 1967).

Modern land use

Rylstone today retains its focus on upland agriculture, with farming activity showing similar variations from valley floor to fell summit as that seen in earlier centuries, albeit with modern agricultural methods being applied. These farming zones are shown in the photograph below where the best lowland pastures and meadows for cows and sheep lie in the bottom right diagonal, the rougher pastures on the middle left hand side and the very rough moorland for sheep and game birds at the top left hand side.

Photograph of pastures south and east of Rylstone village.

The number of farms has gradually reduced to a handful as ownership of the land has been consolidated and fields have been merged. The imprint of earlier field boundaries, however, is evident by the remains of old tree lines, hedges and banks (see notes from the current project's walk-over surveys).

The low-lying meadows are still cultivated for grass and the hay derivatives of haylage and silage, and they are regularly harrowed and replenished by manure. Some poorer and more acid pastures are still limed. Dairying continues as a major activity, whilst the raising of beef cattle, some of which are now kept indoors all year-round, has increased in importance. Sizeable herds of sheep, which are moved around upland and lowland pastures during the year as before, remain integral to Rylstone farming. The shooting of game birds occurs on the moorland, but is less prevalent than in decades past when the larger estates, such as that at Scale House, were in their heydays.

There is very little economic activity beyond farming in the community, although one or two farm buildings have been given over to workshops for small businesses, one or two houses have become holiday homes and no doubt the number of home-based consultants has increased.

One notable increase in usage of the local landscape has been the number of walkers and walking groups who traverse the parish. They often use the old route-ways between Rylstone and Bolton Abbey and Boss Moor and Threshfield or climb up and down from Rylstone Fell and the Cross. A frequent reminder that Rylstone sits on the edge of rich limestone deposits is seen by the long rows of limestone-filled hoppers which are now taken by train through the village from Swindon Quarry to Skipton several times during the day and night.


Hartley, M. H. and Ingilby, J. (Reprinted edition from 1963 in 1977). The Yorkshire Dales. London: J. M. Dent and sons. Ltd.

Raistrick, A. (1967). 'Old Yorkshire Dales'. Chapter Two in Discovering A

Village. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.

Raistrick, A. and Illingworth, J. L. (1967). The Face of North-West Yorkshire. Clapham: The Dalesman Publishing Company.

Whitaker, T.D. (3rd Edition, 1878, republished in 1973). The Deanery of Craven. Volume 2, 517-528. Menston: The Scolar Press Ltd.

Yorkshire Dales National Park (2015). Out of Oblivion: A Landscape Through Time. On-line Resource:

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