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Low Whita 17th Century Swaledale Farmstead Listed at Grade II*

Remarkable 17th century Swaledale farmstead gets Grade II* listing

Tuesday 20 August, 2019, by Peter Reynolds

In the years I have worked as a Building Conservation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, I have had the privilege to be involved with some fascinating and remarkable sites. One such site, which encapsulates centuries of history and tradition in Swaledale like no other, is a farmstead known as Low Whita, near to the village of Low Row in Upper Swaledale.

Low Whita is a fascinating collection of buildings. Here we have two adjoining former thatched houses with stair turrets. A line of projecting slates on the rear wall marks the original eaves level, which ran across the whole range.

My awareness of Low Whita began towards the end of 2018 when a colleague approached me for an opinion regarding a planning application for the site to convert and reoccupy a number of buildings into use as dwellings.

At the time, none of the buildings had been listed or recognised as being particularly significant. However, from looking at photographs of the buildings and subsequently visiting and inspecting the site, it became clear that Low Whita is a very rare and special group.

Given the vulnerability of the buildings to harmful alterations, a Building Preservation Notice was served by the Authority to protect them. Following this, they have recently been listed at Grade II* and are now nationally recognised as being of more than special interest. For context, in the space of a few months Low Whita has gone from being an unlisted site of unrecognised significance to being in the top 8.3% of all listed buildings in England, in terms of its importance.

Stair turret (with blocked window) to the rear of a former thatched house with a cottage added to the right. The line of projecting slates on the rear wall marks the original eaves level, and the steep thatched roof outline can be still be identified on the gable wall.

The site has been known for over 350 years as Low Whita, and it is likely to have originated as just one cruck-framed, single-storey farmhouse (or longhouse) – possibly 16th century – of which sections of thick, low stone walling still survive.

The longhouse was a type of farmhouse thought to have been much more widespread in the Medieval and early post-Medieval periods in the north of England, where the family and livestock would have lived under the same roof and shared the same entrance. The livestock would have been stalled at one end of the building and the house contained within the other end.

Detached barn, with the profile of a former, steeper, roof line clearly visible on the gable wall.

Documentary evidence shows that, in 1649, the farm (at that time spelled phonetically as ‘Lawe Whytay’) belonged to the Close family, yeoman farmers who would have practiced an ancient form of partible inheritance known as ‘gavelkind’, where land would be inherited equally between sons and other heirs. Gavelkind is thought to have originated as an old Germanic tradition, established by settlers such as the Jutes, following the end of the Roman occupation. In England, gavelkind was largely replaced by the introduction of feudal law following the Norman Conquest, although it survived in Kent and other, smaller areas (including Swaledale) and was only finally abolished in 1925.

The Close family and their descendants continued to live and farm on this land until the end of the 19th century and, as a result, the farmstead has been extended and subdivided between heirs numerous times. The site now contains the remains of three modest houses and a smaller cottage, all of pre-1700 origin, as well as a number of smaller outbuildings associated with historic agricultural, domestic and dairying activities. These houses and at least one of the detached barns were all originally thatched with heather, and were raised to carry stone slate roofs from the early 18th century onwards.

Adjoining one of the historic houses at Low Whita is a later extension, which was converted in the middle of the 19th century to use as a butter factory. This is evidenced by numerous large stone shelves which have survived internally. Census records from 1851 show that William Batty and his sister Elizabeth, both butter factors from Whitby, were living and working at Low Whita at that time. Entries from the Muker Show from as recently as 1925 include a competition of cheeses made at Low Whita.

Dramatic changes to agricultural practice in the early 20th century led to the decline and closure of many small-scale dairies, including Low Whita, and, sadly, at some point in the last century, the site became unoccupied.

Detached outbuilding known as the ‘gig house’; in fact, a multi-functional building, appearing to have been a key component of the butter factory, with a hoisting door to take goods in from the main dairy to load into a cart for export.
Washhouse inside ground-floor of ‘gig house’, possibly used for washing cheese cloths.

Although lower-status farmsteads such as these would have once been common in the Dales, Low Whita is one of very few surviving examples of comparable age and significance which can be interpreted so readily. As a result, it provides a fascinating insight into past living and working conditions for ordinary people in Swaledale.

The buildings at Low Whita have considerable potential, both architecturally and archaeologically, to yield further information about changing vernacular architecture and traditions in post-Medieval Swaledale. Their designation as listed buildings will allow their character and significance to be fully recognised and conserved as part of the planning process.

I very much hope that the buildings at Low Whita can be put back into use in a sensitive manner which conserves and enhances their significance, and that the story of their use can be continued long into the future.

For further information about Low Whita, take a look at the list entries on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE), accessible on Historic England’s website: Low Whita (Bells) Farm (west) and Low Whita (Bells) Farm (east).

If you want to find out more about the fascinating historic environment of the Dales, visit our Out of Oblivion website, which brings archaeological records and the unique cultural landscape of the area to life.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also be interested in our Dales Archaeology blog.

Picture of Peter Reynolds

Peter Reynolds

Peter is a Building Conservation Officer with the YDNPA.


8 Replies to “Remarkable 17th century Swaledale farmstead gets Grade II* listing”

  1. Crane Tary says:

    Absolutely brilliant find ,
    Such important heritage must be saved ,as so much as been lost . Well done to get it listed & documented

  2. Jane Milne says:

    I have ancestors from the Close dynasty loving in Low Row. Going back to George Close married b 1724 Lawraw married Jane Turner in 1847 Grinton. His parents were Thomas b1694 and Isabella Simpson. I understood they were miners of either tin or lead.?

  3. Sandy says:

    I am astonished that this hamlet has only so recently recognised for what it is! And dismayed that these might be developed. I have walked the site and identified interesting enclosure walls on the site, too, which would indicate a drovers’ toll route, and by extension that the site would have had footfall from elsewhere on the dale. I sincerely hope that the required programme of archaeological investigation is extensive as there is doubtless a great finds reserve on site.

  4. Michael Bell says:

    What a fascinating report!
    I am a Bell descended from this family who first settled there in the 1800’s.
    I have researched this family since 1991 and stayed in this premises overnight at this time, much of the family tree research available will originate from me.
    As you may know the Bells first settled in Feetham before moving to Low Whita, from a post card viewed at Low Whita I made an earlier connection to Skelgill near Askrigg and more recently to Dent back to 1539.

  5. Jeanette Hannah Forbes-Hood says:

    I am descended from Robert Hird and Elizabeth Close who were married in 1646. Robert died at Harkerside so I did not know that the Hirds and Closes where from the Low Row area. Maybe mine were not as there were many Hirds about Swaledale. I am also descended from the Raws of Low Row. Nicholas Raw my 8xgt grandfather was an early Quaker who died for his faith in York Prison in 1678. I have many ancestors from Swaledale. It is a beautiful and fascinating place and I must visit it again soon.

  6. Jane Wilkinson says:

    I have piles of Dales ancestors,including some from Low Whita, so this was a fascinating read. Astonishing how much evidence you can find in an old barn.

  7. Anthony Waller says:

    My 3 x gt grandmother was baptised in 1818. The record shows that her parents were living at Low Whita at the time. I expect that father was a lead miner. I would be interested to know who else was living at Low Whita at that time.

  8. Jane Milne says:

    Thomas Close b 1683 at Whitaside d1737 and his wife Isabella Simpson were my 5th great grandparents . Confirmed by DNA tracing and following the Close tree on GOONS .

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