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Nesfield Village - Threatened by the bypass

An edited version of this article was published in the Ilkley Gazette on 30 June 1994


More and more people in Britain are waking up to the fact that the government's transport policies are simply not working. Despite the massive investment being made in new roads, bypasses and motorway widening, journey times by car are increasing, parking is getting ever harder to find, children's' health is suffering, and motorists are frustrated by ever longer tailbacks and traffic jams. Symptomatic of this growing public interest is the fact that at least three programmes on prime time television already this year have focused on issues associated with road traffic. 'Panorama' has looked at the Department of Transport's recently admitted policy of building big new through routes 'by stealth' - building a string of so called bypasses to form a new major road. (The 'European Hyperway' - a transcontinental route through the outskirts of Oxford was taken as an example - they could have used Wharfedale just as well.) 'Panorama' has presented another item on the astonishingly high level of asthma which is being found in children in our traffic-ridden inner cities and Michael Palin, on behalf of Transport 2000, looked at alternative and imaginative ways of spending the transport budget, which is currently spent on roads, roads, and more roads, in an effort to find more effective, more environmentally acceptable, and more enjoyable alternatives for the traveller. The government is finding it increasingly difficult to carry out its massive road building programme because of well informed and organised local opposition which objects to more traffic, more noise, more pollution, more health problems resulting in poorer quality of life and environment for all of us.

It seems certain that change to the policy will come - but will this change come before Ilkley's planned dual carriageway is cut through the countryside in the DoT's effort to relieve the massive pressure on the M62 and other trans-Pennine routes? The recent decision to put the Ilkley road on ice has been welcomed by many, but several schemes are already in progress which will substantially increase traffic flows through Ilkley and these are bound to lead to the plan being revived at some point in the future.

Despite the uncertainty, those interested in local history are becoming concerned to record all ancient sites which will be destroyed by the new road. No detailed and accurate map has yet been published of the preferred route, known as 'Red Route A', and indeed it is by no means certain that this is the route that will eventually be chosen. So the actual areas which are likely to be lost are not accurately known. Even when the line of the road is known for sure, this will not show the limits of the archaeological loss. If as is suggested the road will be in a deep cutting for part of its length, we may expect a band of perhaps a hundred yards across to be swept away. Many thousands of tons of material will need to be removed from these cuttings and dumped, and the massive vehicles used for this operation will cause further damage. Access routes for contractors, and the levelling of sites for their buildings, as well as bridgeworks, diversion of existing roads and watercourses will all extend the area where all trace of archaeological remains will be completely eradicated.

The road proposed in 'Red Route A' will cross the Wharfe and the back lane to Low Mill village on a substantial flyover just south of Nesfield. The dual carriageway will then swing northwards up the steep valley side before passing close behind High Austby and continuing towards Middleton village.

As members of an WEA evening class led by Steve Moorhouse have been finding out, 'Red Route A' is certainly not devoid of archaeological interest. Sites at risk from the new road include two abandoned medieval settlement sites, an iron age fort, a Roman road, and a sixteenth century hunting park. But in particular, two beautiful and tranquil hamlets will lose their unique rural atmosphere as they become dwarfed by the sheer scale of the new dual carriageway and the massive earthworks and bridges. It has always surprised me how few people in Ilkley have visited and admired the ancient village settlements of Middleton and Nesfield, or are even aware of their existence. If you want to see these places please visit them soon - if the road is built the trip will hold no pleasure.

Nesfield has a history dating back to the iron age or even earlier. Castleberg fort is Nesfield's oldest monument: perched on the top of a small hill close to Nesfield, with crumbling cliffs plunging towards the Wharfe protecting its western approaches, it is a triangular enclosure of earthen ramparts which has been known for many years but has never been properly mapped or investigated. A writer of 1812 identifies Castleberg as a Roman work from 'the discovery of a massive key of copper, nearly two feet in length' and also mentioned that an urn full of ashes had been found close by. What became of the 'key of copper' is not known, but Cowling, writing in the 1940s, suggests that it might have been a bronze sword. The site is clearly not Roman in origin but accurate dating must await a detailed examination. The role of this and similar fortifications in this area in the pre-Roman and early Roman period is not well understood and it is not clear whether the fort was built by the Brigantes in response to the Roman invasion or if it dates from an earlier period.

The later history of the fort is also obscure. In the Domesday book of 1086, the lands of the Archbishop of York on the north side of the Wharfe are described under the heading of 'Gereberg Wapontake', a Wapontake being a subdivision of the shire. The meaning of Gereberg is 'fort on the triangular piece of land'. Could Gereberg have taken its name from the fort at Castleberg? If so, this would imply that Castleberg was the meeting place of the Saxon thegns of the area.

Subsequent settlement in the area is indicated both by ancient deeds and evidence on the ground. A deed from the middle of the thirteenth century records the sale of a house with a toft and croft 'under Castleberg' to Jordan de Hamptona, parson of Benetham. Examination of the site shows a complex pattern of field boundaries, cottage platforms, and ridge and furrow, the pattern of ditches which is evidence of arable farming in the open field system, stretching downwards towards the route of the bypass. The site will not be understood until it is properly surveyed, and it is important that this is done before construction work commences.

Nesfield village itself is a remarkable place. Tiny cottages, many of which bear signs of considerable antiquity, line both sides of a narrow street. A couple carry stones with dates: 'WR 1790' is an example. At the bottom of the village street a pair of stocks with stone posts is situated in front of the manor house. Above the village a footpath leads off past an old barn which makes use of a splendid older doorway - this carries a stone with the date 1699, except that the mason, who was obviously not too familiar with his numbers, has reversed the last two digits into mirror images.

If you want to know about the more recent past in Nesfield, Catherine Lister is the person to ask. She has lived in Nesfield all her life, and over the years has built up an archive of local photographs and memorabilia. Her father moved to the cottage where she now lives at about the turn of the century, and Catherine remembers him talking about a rent of 1s 6d a week for each cottage in Nesfield. They were in the main occupied by poor labourers. Many years of careful saving meant her father, who worked as a lengthsman, was able to put enough aside to buy the cottage when it came on the market in the 1920s, paying about 120.

She has seen many changes in the village, and remembers particularly the arrival of electricity in 1947 which caused great excitement as the villagers put away their paraffin lamps. Mains water had arrived in 1939. Previously drinking water had been taken from the well down at the bottom of the village, dipping a bucket into a spring taking care not to disturb the sandy sediment. Higher up stood a pump where water for washing was got. Catherine also remembers walking to school in Addingham in a group with half a dozen other children from the village 'It only really took twenty-five minutes but we started at eight - you know what children are like!'

As might be expected, Catherine has strong views about the planned road. 'It will devastate the whole valley. I don't think people realise what it will be like. Instead of looking out at the countryside we will be looking out at a gigantic flyover on stilts. The noise and gunge from the road will be horrific. If they really need a new road through Ilkley they should put it in a tunnel. I know they say it will be more expensive, but I think the lovely countryside around here is worth it - after all we are now both in a conservation area and an area of outstanding natural beauty.'

If you do wish to visit Nesfield, please tread carefully and respect private land. And parking is limited in Nesfield - please leave your car at home if you can!

In a future article it is hoped to explore a little of the history of the sites further along the route of the new road, including the lost medieval village of Bergh, Middleton Village, Beckfoot, and the Roman road.

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