Cowling’s Enclosure, Askwith Moor, North Yorkshire

Enclosure:  OS Grid Reference – SE 1793 5127

Getting Here

Danny, James & Paul on the NE corner, for scale

Coming up from Otley, make your way up to the Askwith Moor road (the only one that goes across the moors) and park up on the rough parking spot on the right-side (east) of the road.  You can’t really miss it.  From here walk up the road for less than 500 yards until your reach the rickety gate and the path onto the moors.  From here I walked 600 yards east, thru the heather until I reached the wall (close to the Tree of Life Stone) and then followed the wall up for 150 yards, then back up (west) onto the moor again and, about 50 yards along at the foot of the slope, keep your eyes peeled for the earthworky undulations beneath your tiny feet!

Archaeology & History

Just below the scattered Snowden Moor settlement we find this curious large structure, first described 75 years ago by the northern antiquarian Eric T. Cowling (1946). Since then, apart from a cursory overview, archaeologists haven’t really paid it much attention.

Eastern ditch, looking N
Eastern ditch, looking S

It’s a large site – and one which Cowling thought was constructed in the Iron Age.  He may have been right, but there’s such a profusion of ancient sites on this small moorland area—dating from Neolithic times onwards—that it could be earlier than he thought.  It’s an odd site too!  Unlike the prehistoric D-shaped enclosure and settlement on the top of the slope less than 100 yards away, and an equivalent D-shaped enclosure to the south, the area inside Cowling’s enclosure ostensibly is on quite sloping ground, with barely a flat level area anywhere inside it.  As a result of this, we can safely conclude that it wasn’t where people lived; and the complete lack of any inner hut circles (which you’d expect in a standard enclosure of this size) encourages this view.  It’s a bit of a puzzle!  Cowling opted for the idea that it was built to enclose cattle – which may be right; but again, even this must be questioned, as there is ample space on more level ground where this could have been done.  His description of the site is as follows:

“The most prominent feature (on these moors) is a D-shaped enclosure which covers the nose of the spur; the area is eighty feet from north to south and seventy feet from east to west. The enclosing bank is of piled boulders, three feet high and eight feet wide.   Cuttings across the north side revealed no evidence of dry walling, but rather a bank to carry a heavy stockade.  A shallow trench runs inside the bank, which is doubled where it is overlooked by higher ground at the northeast corner.  A second outer bank at the eastern side has an outer trench. Along the ridge to the east are circles of varying size, probably a hut group.  A larger circle (?) of heavy material, some thirty feet in diameter, is isolated on the shelf above Snowden Crags to the west.  Strips of wall and remains of enclosures of circular shape abound.”

Cowling’s plan of the site
Northern bank, looking E

Cowling’s initial measurements of the site underestimated its real size, as the bank and ditch that runs roughly north-south is close to 52 yards—nearly twice as long!  The same was found along its east-west size: being 56 yards, which is more than twice what Cowling measured.  Altogether, the enclosure measures approximately 225 yards around its outer edges.  In fairness, Cowling’s error was probably due to it being covered in vegetation when he came to do his measurements here.  …So, if you’re gonna check this place out, make sure you do it in the winter or early spring months, before the bracken encroaches.

There’s a real abundance of prehistoric sites all over this part of the moor, from more settlement remains, cairns, ring cairns and petroglyphs.  Make a day out of it.

References:

  1. Cowling, Eric T., Rombald’s Way, William Walker: Otley 1946.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

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