Short History of Bilsdale

Bilsdale is the most westerly of the steep sided dales of the North York Moors.  It stretches from the Cleveland escarpment some ten miles south to Newgate Bank.  The valley was sculpted out of the landscape by melt water from the last Ice Age some 13,000 years ago.

On the eastern side of the dale lies the ancient hamlet of Urra and two miles south is the village of Chop Gate.  Further south is the hamlet of Fangdale Beck.  The dale has two churches and a chapel.  St Hilda's Church and the Wesleyan Chapel serve the northern half of the dale and St John's Church serves the southern half.  Evidence of early man can be found on the moors which border the dale.  In addition to numerous tumili a line of Bonze Age earthworks skirts the rim of Urra Moor and an impressive stone circle known as the Bride Stones stands on a prominent ridge.  The remains of a Celtic field system are found on the moors to the west but it was the later waves of invading Anglo-Saxons and Vikings which left the dale its legacy of place names.

The name Bilsdale is derived from the old Norse personal name "Bildr" and means "Bildr's valley".  In the 11th century William the Conquerer is reputed to have been lost in Bilsdale when returning from harrying rebels in the Coatham marshes.  It was Norman Lord, Walter L'Espec who owned Bilsdale in the 12th century who generously gave land to the Augustinians of Kirkham in the north of the dale and to the Cistercians of Rievaulx in the south.  These two monastaries influenced the life of the dale until the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1538.  After the Dissolution the lands passed to the Earls of Rutland and subsequently to the Duke of Buckingham. The Duke's heir sold the estate in 1687 to the Duncombe family whose heirs later became the Earls of Feversham.

It was the second Duke of Buckingham who established the Bilsdale Hunt in 1657 and which claims to be the oldest in England.  The hunt has close associations with the Sun Inn, one of the two inns in the dale. The old Sun Inn, a thatched cruck framed house (circa 1550) stands opposite the present day inn.  The other inn, now the Buck Hotel, was the traditional venue for Bilsdale Agricultural Society's annual show.  Both of the Inns host cricket teams.  There is evidence of iron working in the dale in medieval times.  Itinerant smiths would practice the "mysteries" of smelting and iron working.  Generally the ironstone deposits are of poor quality but a famous plough maker, John Wood, after studying the craft in other places. set up a foundry in Fangdale Beck in the late 19th century.

Jet was also mined extensively in the latter half of the 19th century and the jet shale tips still scar the hillsides today.  Jet, a fossilised wood, was fashioned into jewellery and became popular after Queen Victoria wore it as a sign of mourning on the death of Prince Albert in 1861.  However, farming was always the main occupation in the past with the emphasis being on the traditional occupation of sheep rearing with the hardy Swaledale sheep grazing on the moorland sheep strays.

Bilsdale's first school was recorded in 1781 in Chop Gate and Fangdale Beck school dates from 1814.  The two schools flourished well into the 20th century but only the Chop Gate school remains today.  Bilsdale Silver Band was founded in the mid 19th century and is still active.  It is highly regarded and in great demand to perform at local functions.  Bilsdale has a fascinating history but it has moved with the times and has a vibrant and active community participating in many local activities.

Author: Dennis Tyerman

Source: Bygone Bilsdale, Bilsdale Study Group

Date: 27 September 2010

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