The Birdsall area lies on the northern edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, where the rolling hills of the north-western Wolds meet the low-lying Vale of York. The area covered in this section encompasses the Birdsall Estate, a designed park landscape created during the 18th century by the Willoughby family. This area is sparsely settled with small villages and isolated farms, and the visibility of the archaeology and historic environment is in part a result of the lack of large modern settlements. As with the rest of the Yorkshire Wolds, there is no definite evidence for human activity during the Palaeolithic, although a buried ancient land surface, found at Wharram-le-Street, may date to the Lower Palaeolithic.
Human activity in this part of the Yorkshire Wolds is more evident during the Mesolithic, a period in which people were living mobile lives, moving across the landscape to take advantage of the seasonal availability of natural resources. Worked flints have been found across the Birdsall area, with large quantities found at the source of the Gypsey Race at Wharram-le-Street, and at Vessey Ponds, between Thixendale and Birdsall. As far as we know the Gypsey Race contained the only flowing water across the Yorkshire Wolds during the Mesolithic and would have been an important source of water for hunter-gatherers moving across this landscape. Although the Gypsey Race was the only flowing stream, dolines and meres were present on the higher ground. These were sources of water which had collected in pockets within the chalk bedrock, and were naturally lined with clay (Hayfield, Pouncett and Wagner 1995). The large quantities of Mesolithic flint that have been found by these water-sources highlights the importance of the limited supplies of water on the Yorkshire Wolds. It may also suggest that they were good locations to hunt wildlife which came to drink. The flint tools would have been used for hunting related activities. Blades were used as knives, scrapers were used to clean animal skins, and awls would have been used to make holes for clothing.
During the Neolithic a more settled lifestyle was gradually adopted, with farming techniques and processes reaching Britain and Ireland from approximately 4000 BC. Across the Birdsall area the evidence for human activity during this period mainly relates to funerary and ceremonial monuments, with little archaeological evidence for the settlements in which they lived. Despite the lack of archaeological evidence for settlements, worked flints found across the Birdsall area can provide us with an indication of the lives of the Neolithic people living in this landscape. Worked flint tools are possibly related to hunting animals and clearing wooded areas to create open spaces for living and farming. Leaf-shaped arrowheads would have been used to hunt animals and birds, scrapers for cleaning the animal hides to make clothing, and blades would have been used as knives for cutting. Stone axeheads would have been secured to wooden handles and used to chop down trees for wood and to clear areas for cultivation.
Although there is not much archaeological evidence for the settlements of the Neolithic communities in this area, we do know how and where they were burying their dead. Approximately 2.5km and 3km to the south-west of Wharram Percy are the buried remnants of two Neolithic long barrows, the raised mounds of which have been ploughed away in the last century. Long barrows were constructed during the Early – Middle Neolithic (3400-2400 BC) and were earthen or stone mounds, with ditches along the sides. They were constructed as communal funerary monuments for the burial of Britain’s early farming communities, and represent Britain’s oldest surviving architectural tradition. They would have been visible monuments in the landscape, acting as commemorative and territorial landmarks. One of the long barrows in this area was excavated by the antiquarian J.R. Mortimer in the late 19th century. Initially thought to be a later round barrow, re-excavation in the 1960s by T.C.M Brewster revealed it was a Neolithic long barrow, 24m long and 15m wide. Deep ditches had been dug on the north and south sides which contained sherds of Neolithic pottery. At the east end was an outwardly curving façade bedding trench with round terminals. A cremation pit and a partly paved cremation area were found, as well as an inhumation burial with an amber bead.
An evocative impression of how visible and imposing these barrows could be can be seen at Duggleby Howe where the Great Barrow, one of the largest Neolithic monuments in Britain, stands tall and proud in the landscape. Round barrows were another type of Early Neolithic funerary monument, in which an individual was buried with prestigious grave goods. Duggleby Howe is situated at the western end of the Great Wold Valley, close to the source of the Gypsey Race, in a central position overlooked by flanking hill slopes. The mound was excavated by J.R. Mortimer is 1890 AD at which time it measured 38m in diameter and 6.5m in height. An aerial photograph taken in 1971 revealed that the round barrow is in the centre of a large irregular and incomplete ditch circuit, with a diameter of 368m. Duggleby Howe was used as a place of burial for a long period of time, with the first burial between 3600-3500 BC, the barrow mound constructed around 3000-2900 BC, and the encircling ditch dug around 2400 BC, approximately 1200 years after the first burial. J.R. Mortimer’s excavations, combined with the later research of Bradford University, University of Vienna and English Heritage, discovered the first phase of burials on this site, a 2.7m deep pit which contained a crouched male inhumation with a Towthorpe Ware bowl, flint cores and flakes (Gibson et al 2009). Over 200-300 years three further burials were placed in this pit. The second burial may have been associated with a skull which had blunt force trauma to both sides – a trophy skull from an execution or ritual killing? Between them, the male inhumations in the pit were associated with an edge-polished adze, an antler macehead, a lozenge arrowhead, and a polished flint knife. After a period of no visible activity on the site, burial restarted around 3000-2900 BC and the barrow mound was constructed. Within the barrow mound and chalk capping were over 30 deposits of cremated human bone, as well as the burials of six children. Grave goods associated with a male inhumation in the mound included five transverse arrowheads, a bone pin, twelve boar-tusk blades and two beaver incisors. The grave goods at Duggleby Howe inform us that the hunting of deer, boar and beaver may have occurred in or around the Birdsall area, or perhaps the goods were brought here by traders.
In the Late Neolithic bowl barrows, a smaller type of round barrow, appear in the archaeological record. Bowl barrows are the most numerous form of round barrow, constructed as earthen or rubble mounds which covered single or multiple burials. Sometimes a ditch was dug around the mound. These barrows occur in isolation or were grouped into cemeteries, often located in prominent positions in the landscape. Within the Birdsall area, round barrow cemeteries are present on Birdsall Brow and the crest of Toisland Wold. Another seven bowl barrows are situated on the crest of Birdsall Wold, excavated by J.R. Mortimer in the late 19th century. Mortimer’s excavations revealed deep burial pits under the centre of two of the barrow mounds, one of which contained the remains of two inhumations. Forty-six flint blades and two flint knives were found with one inhumation, the other had a polished flint knife. Barrow 88 near Aldro was also excavated by Mortimer. It contained a rectangular chamber lined with wooden stakes, within which were the remains of four crouched inhumations with a Neolithic bowl, arrowhead, flint flakes and a boars’ tusk blade.
Another monumental earthwork characteristic of the Neolithic is the henge. These monuments were circular or oval-shaped enclosures which comprised a flat area enclosed by a ditch and external bank (rather than on the outside as seen on sites with a defensive purpose). They are thought to have had a ceremonial or religious purpose. The earliest henges in Britain and Ireland were built around 3000 BC, with most probably constructed during the Late Neolithic, between 2800-2200 BC; although some were still being built during the Early Bronze Age. Henges were often located on low ground, close to springs and water courses. A possible henge within the Birdsall area has been identified by geophysical survey near Wharram-le-Street. It is located next to the source of the Gypsey Race, and may have been a site of ceremonial or religious importance to the Neolithic people living in this area, recognising the importance of the only flowing water source across the Yorkshire Wolds.
When passing through the Yorkshire Wolds seeing these monuments it is easy to think of them as monuments to the dead, the memory of the dead or special ritual spaces. However, they tell us as much about the Neolithic people living in the Wolds as they do about their dead. The organisation of labour and time to construct these long barrows, round barrows and henges requires careful planning and complex social ties. Even at the most universal level, the provision of food and sustenance the barrow builders would have needed to be fed (think of the all the calories required to build the Great Barrow at Duggleby Howe by hand). If these barrow builders were not farming they would have needed someone else to feed them, something that may suggest a communal food surplus to allow for such an activity to take place. The Neolithic fields may be lost to time but these monuments to the dead, constructed by the living, suggest a flourishing Neolithic farming tradition in the Wolds at this time.
Towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC archaeological evidence suggests that new groups of people and new ideas came to Britain from continental Europe. The people brought with them the first metal objects in Britain (initially in copper and then later in bronze), which included metal weapons and jewellery, as well as a style of pottery that archaeologists have called Beaker pottery. As with the rest of the Yorkshire Wolds, there is little archaeological evidence in the Birdsall area for the settlements that these Bronze Age communities lived in nor how they interacted with the existing populations of the Wolds. Isolated finds of worked flints, copper-alloy and bronze axeheads, chisels and ingots across the area indicate that people were moving across and using this landscape throughout the Bronze Age. At Wharram-le-Street a deep ditch was excavated that may be Bronze Age in date, but no further evidence of settlement was found. The lack of settlement evidence for this area during the Bronze Age raises intriguing questions about settlements and cemeteries. Did the people burying their dead live in a separate area away from the round barrows, or is further work needed to identify possible areas of settlement?
In the later Bronze Age, a large-scale reorganisation of the land seems to have taken place. A series of large linear earthworks of banks and ditches were constructed across the Yorkshire Wolds. Numerous Wold Entrenchments cross the Birdsall area, some of which can be seen running between Toisland Wold and Vessey Pasture Dale, along Birdsall Wold near Aldro, and Birdsall Brow to Vessey Pasture Dale. There are also further sections around Duggleby, Wharram Percy, Aldro, Thixendale, and Leavening Wold. Following the adoption of farming in the Neolithic, people were living more settled lifestyles and were reliant on livestock and crops as the main source of their food. Controlling the limited water supply on the top of the Yorkshire Wolds may have been necessary, and it may be that the Wold Entrenchments were built for this reason, along with negotiating access to pasture (Giles 2007b). Many of these linear earthworks respected earlier round barrows, either deviating in their route, or encircling barrows. Yet at Wharram Percy, Barrow 127 was cut through, disturbing the inhumation burial in the western half but leaving an old cremation burial intact in the eastern part. The barrow was then remodelled as the banks of the linear earthwork.
As with the Neolithic, the largest quantity of evidence for human activity during the early Bronze Age is funerary and the round barrows of the Yorkshire Wolds are one of the most important archaeological signatures not just of this study zone but the Wolds themselves. During this period, people were buried in individual graves with grave goods of flint and metal weapons, jewellery and Beaker pottery. Round mounds of earth and chalk were then constructed over their graves. This early Bronze Age landscape contained vast numbers of these monuments to the deceased: there are over 150 records of possible Bronze Age round barrows in the Historic Environment Record for this study zone (although some of these may be duplicates). A distinct cluster can be seen running east-west along a ridge of high ground between the villages of Acklam/Leavening and Burdale. This may represent a deliberate choice to site the barrows on areas of high ground, ensuring that these were visible monuments on the skyline. However, it may also reflect the fact that these monuments are better preserved by elevation and better recorded than other areas, as they can easily be seen from a road crossing the Birdsall area.
J.R. Mortimer excavated many of the early Bronze Age round barrows across the Birdsall area (Mortimer 1905). Four barrows on Wharram Percy Wold were excavated in 1866 AD. Both human cremation and inhumation burials had been placed under the mound or buried within it later. The grave goods they had been buried with included a bone pin, flint knife, spearheads, arrowheads, animal bones, pottery vessels (potentially for food), and a drinking cup. At Aldro, a cremation burial with a plain pottery vessel and animal bones was placed within a pit and a mound constructed over it. At a later date, two further cremations were buried into the mound. A barbed and tanged arrowhead, two scrapers and fourteen additional worked flints were also found within the mound. A crouched female inhumation was also buried within a pit close to Aldro, and a mound constructed over her grave. She had been buried with six bone pins, a flint scraper, flint knife and a flint serrated blade, and a length of rounded wood. Under the same mound was another pit which contained an adult male inhumation and two cremations, these had been buried with a bone pin, bronze awl and a pottery cup.
The excavations of these Bronze Age round barrows across Birdsall illustrate the changing burial traditions of this period. In the early Bronze Age individuals were buried and a round barrow mound was constructed over their grave as a visible monument on the landscape. In the middle Bronze Age, there was a shift away from this tradition, although some barrows had a small number of cremations placed in them. This marked the final use of round barrows at around 1500 BC. After this, people in the middle Bronze Age began to cremate their dead and bury them in cemeteries with no mounds, although no evidence of this has been found so far in the Birdsall area.
In contrast to the Bronze Age, there is an apparent explosion in the visibility of the communities living and farming in the Birdsall area during the Iron Age. Aerial photographs reveal numerous possible Iron Age farming settlements, seen as the cropmarks of ditches, trackways, roundhouses and enclosures. The majority of these cropmarks have yet to be investigated archaeologically so they cannot be firmly dated to the middle Iron Age period, but the form of them is suggestive of at least a late Iron Age-early Roman date. Aerial survey has also revealed extensive settlement complexes, consisting of strings of enclosure for stock and habitation alongside a trackway. These settlements have been named by archaeologists as ladder settlements. Their form appears to reflect a change in the landscape in the later Iron Age, which may relate to wider social and economic change (Giles 2007a). The later Iron Age landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds would have been dominated by small villages surrounded by fields, which were farmed by individual families. The settlements were linked by trackways, creating a network of routes for communication and trade.
At Wharram Percy, archaeological investigations have revealed evidence for later Iron Age activity in two areas: by the stream and beneath the later medieval North Manor (Wrathmell 1987 and 2004). Close to the stream was evidence of chalk surfaces, post-holes and slots, as well as two ditches which contained Late Iron Age and Early Roman pottery. The presence of quern stones indicates that the community living here was processing grain to make flour. At the North Manor site, a 47m by 31m enclosure had been established on the north side of a trackway. The enclosure was subdivided internally by further ditches, and a rectangular structure had been constructed. Another enclosure was present on the south side of the trackway, suggesting that a ladder settlement had been established at Wharram Percy during the later Iron Age. Another ladder settlement had been established by the Iron Age communities at what is now Wharram Crossroads. It was set out along the north side of a trackway which crossed the trackway extending from Wharram Percy (Hayfield 1987). These settlements could indicate a growth in population, and the increasing land division might suggest that there was increasing competition or concern over ownership. Were the Iron Age communities in this area spreading from the Wold-edges up on to the high Wolds for more resources?
Climatic changes may also have been the cause of settlements spreading, as smaller natural ponds began to dry up in the early Iron Age, reducing the amount of water available to the Iron Age people living in this landscape. The construction of the large earthworks across the Yorkshire Wolds during the Later Bronze Age continued into the early Iron Age, with modifications carrying on throughout the first millennium BC. The springs along the scarp edge of the Yorkshire Wolds between Aldro and Birdsall formed the terminals of a number of earthworks. It is possible that the drying up of the natural ponds meant that the springs and natural meres of this area took on new importance.
Towards the middle Iron Age, c.400 BC, square barrow cemeteries started appearing across the Yorkshire Wolds. Square barrows were constructed as earth or chalk mounds, surrounded by a ditch. The main burial was placed in a pit and the mound constructed over it. Some elaborate burials from the Yorkshire Wolds are known, such as the ‘chariot’ burials found at Pocklington, Wetwang and Garton Slack. From this date until the mid-1st century BC, inhumation burials became the standard burial rite. This marked a departure from the later Bronze Age practice of cremating the dead and either burying them in earlier Bronze Age round barrows or un-mounded cemeteries. Square barrows were either isolated or constructed as part of a larger cemetery. The largest cemeteries have generally been found in the base of the valleys at the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds or clustered along the Great Wold Valley, which remained a significant focus of activity during the Iron Age. Across the Birdsall area, aerial photographs reveal the cropmarks of possible Iron Age square barrows. These are clustered around North Grimston, Duggleby Wold, Aldro, Wharram Percy and Thixendale, but no archaeological investigations have been undertaken to determine whether they are the cropmarks of the final resting place of the Iron Age communities that lived and farmed in this area. The square barrows would have been a prominent feature on the landscape, but it was not the only way in which people were burying their dead during the later Iron Age. At Wharram Percy an already arthritic female aged 25-35 years old had been placed in a crouched position and buried close to the stream. Close to North Grimston, an extended burial was excavated by J.R. Mortimer in 1902 AD. The person had been buried with an iron sword, a short sword and the complete skeleton of a pig. Both burials appear to have been laid in simple graves, with no barrow constructed over them.
There is plenty of evidence of human activity across the Yorkshire Wolds during the Roman period, and this is matched in the evidence that we have from the Birdsall area. The cropmarks of enclosures, ditches, trackways and roundhouses that were discussed in the Iron Age section, may also relate to settlements dating to the 1st-4th centuries AD, as ladder settlements continued in use after this landscape was subsumed into Roman control c.70 AD. The Roman conquest appeared to have no immediate impact on the character and pattern of settlement on the Yorkshire Wolds, although most of the established settlement sites were abandoned by the end of the 2nd century AD, at a time when fields became larger and corn-driers began to appear, marking evidence of large-scale grain production in this area. Roads were constructed across the Yorkshire Wolds, three of which crossed the Birdsall area, linking the Roman fort at Malton to Bainton, Lutton and South Newbald. Villa sites began to be established, the majority of which are close to, or on, the western Wolds escarpment, taking advantage of the fertile soils, water supplies and proximity to the Roman roads leading towards Malton and then York. At Wharram Percy, fieldwalking, geophysical survey and excavation have revealed a complex landscape of ladder enclosures and farmsteads. These investigations have revealed a continuity of land division from the Iron Age to the Roman period, with evidence for re-organisation in the 3rd century AD. Wharram Percy provides evidence for the way in which the rural economy changed between the Late Iron Age/Early Roman and Late Roman periods. During the Late Iron Age/Early Roman period, the faunal remains indicate that 60% of the animals farmed here were sheep, 15% cow, 25% pig. They would have been used for traction, meat, milk and wool. By the late Roman period, there was still a high proportion of sheep, but some more specialised production of beef and mutton. Crops were also being processed on a larger scale, evidenced by a late Roman corn-drying kiln.
Located at the source of the Gypsey Race, at Wharram-le-Street, was a Roman villa which was constructed during the 3rd-4th centuries AD. The walls of the complex were built from limestone and sandstone, which was also used for tesserae for floors and metalling for roads (Rahtz, Hayfield and Bateman 1986). Ceramic building material was used for roofing tiles, and the walls were rendered and painted in white and five colours. Based on the high-status features revealed at Wharram-le-Street the site has been classed as a ‘villa’, but there is the possibility that it was built as a religious site, focussed on the source of the Gypsey Race, which had been a magnet for human activity since the Mesolithic. Faunal remains provide an indication of what people were eating or offering at this site. Horse, dog and cow bones were found, as well as oyster shells which would have been imported from the coast. Most of the material found at Wharram-le-Street dates to the late Roman period; the building complex certainly seemed to be flourishing in the 4th century AD, but there is no evidence of any activity at the site after the Roman period. There appears to have been a deliberate levelling off of the Roman buildings and ditches when it was demolished.
Another villa site has been investigated at Wharram Grange, located on the highest point of a promontory, in contrast to other sites in the area which tend to have been located in the shelter of the broader valley bottoms. The nearest natural sources of water were a series of springs to the north and south-west, essential for the survival of the villa. The villa was a large and complex site, with the principal buildings in the central area of the enclosures, with additional building ranges running parallel to a trackway. Wharram Grange had a regular system of internal pens and may be indicative of stock-rearing. Animal bones found at the site included cow, sheep/goat, horse and pig, which would have been used for eating, producing leather from their hides, as well as being put to use to plough the fields. The bones of wild hare were also found in later Roman deposits, possibly indicating the hunting of wild animals as an additional food supply. The inhabitants of the villa enjoyed items that would have been considered a luxury for the communities living and working in the smaller farmsteads. Samian pottery, colour-coated ware imported from Gaul and amphorae fragments demonstrate the network of trade connections that would have brought goods from mainland Europe to the Yorkshire Wolds.
In contrast to the vast amount of evidence we have for the settlements in which people were living during the Roman period, there is little evidence for the way in which they were burying their dead. Small numbers of burial have been excavated across the Yorkshire Wolds, but they remain under-represented in the archaeological record. At Wharram Percy an infant was buried during the later Roman period. The infant had been buried within an enclosure that had replaced the late Iron Age/early Roman ladder settlement, in an area of occupation represented by several pebble-floored, rectangular structures and associated chalk surfaces. The infant may have been buried with a much earlier brooch dated to the 3rd-1st centuries BC, which could represent a deliberately placed heirloom.
The evidence for Anglian and Scandinavian settlements on the Yorkshire Wolds is sparse and appear to have been located mainly along the wold-edge and around the Great Wold Valley. Settlement sites, farm and field layouts appear to have been completely abandoned at some point between the 4th -12th centuries AD. At Wharram Percy one of the Late Roman enclosures appears to have been abandoned in the late 4th – early 5th century AD, but another enclosure may have been used into the 5th century AD. Archaeological evidence suggests that the settlement was abandoned until the mid-7th century AD, when small buildings with sunken floors were constructed on the site. It is unclear whether these structures represent houses or more temporary structures, and it is not until the 9th or 10th century AD that there is clear evidence for a permanent village at Wharram Percy, located near the church of St Martin’s (Wrathmell 1987). A high quality belt-set decorated in Scandinavian Borre style may have arrived in the village through trade or it may point to the presence of a Scandinavian person living in the village during this time. The ‘Wharram’ element of the villages name may also have been influenced by Scandinavian connections. It may derive from the Old Scandinavian hvarfum meaning ‘bend, nook, corner’, which is referencing the valley in which Wharram Percy is located.
In the 8th century AD, the landscape around Burdale was re-organised when two settlement enclosures were laid out on the sheltered valley floor, approximately 200m apart (Roskams and Richards 2006, 2007). Within the enclosures was evidence of agricultural and light industrial activity, five sunken-floored buildings, and traces of a bow-sided hall. Within the eastern enclosures were two sunken-floored buildings, and a series of pits with clay hearths, which appear to have had an industrial purpose. Charcoal in other pits nearby also suggests this was an area of production activity. In the western enclosures three sunken-floored structures were constructed from timber, one with a pebble metalled floor inside. Also within the western area were fourteen postholes, which formed a bow-sided building measuring c.8m by 4m. Four other postholes nearby implied another smaller structure. The enclosure areas were in use until the end of the settlement in the later 9th century AD. The earliest datable find from the site is an early Anglo-Saxon silver sceatta coin from 700-715 AD. Other artefacts found at the site provide us with an insight into the lives of the people living in this settlement. Combs, tweezers, brooches, dress pins, an iron bell, and knives, including a leather worker’s knife, were found at the settlement. Two artefacts hint at a connection with the Viking world. A fragment of an Arabic dirham coin could be indicative of Anglo-Scandinavian activity or connections in the area, as these were used as currency in areas such as Jorvik (modern day York). A copper-alloy pin head found at the site was also very similar to dress pins found in Anglo-Scandinavian contexts in York.
In addition to the archaeological evidence, place-name evidence can provide us with an indication of the people living in this part of the Yorkshire Wolds (Mawer and Stenton 1937). Burdale is derived from the Old English words bred and heall, which meant ‘house made of planks’. The five sunken-floored buildings constructed from timber in the 8th century AD are possibly what the village was named after. Birdsall is probably derived from the Old English healh meaning ‘secluded hollow in a hillside’, whereas Mill Screed to the east of Birdsall village refers to a landslide (Old Scandinavian skrið). The village of Raisthorpe is the combination of an Old Scandinavian personal name Hreiðar and Old Danish torp; this settlement was ‘Hreiðar’s village’.
Prior to their conversion to Christianity in the 8th century AD, some of the communities living in this area started burying their dead in the earlier prehistoric barrows, which would have provided prominent man-made focal points in the landscape even after thousands of years. At Duggleby Howe at least two Anglo-Saxon burials were placed in the mound (Mortimer 1905), and possible Anglo-Saxon burials were also placed into a round barrow south-west of Wharram Percy. Close to Aldro there are further examples of Anglo-Saxon inhumations buried within the prehistoric round barrows. These burials into the earlier prehistoric monuments may represent a deliberate association with the past inhabitants of the region and an assertion of ownership on the area. After conversion to Christianity burials within graveyards associated with churches appear. Analysis of the human remains from the churchyard at Wharram Percy suggests that burials here began in the mid-10th century, at the same time as the wooden church was built (Wrathmell 1987).
The Yorkshire Wolds are rich in evidence for the centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD. Small village settlements with stone churches were established at new sites across the Birdsall area, or in areas which had already been settled. The medieval settlement pattern in this area was nucleated, with extensive open fields laid out around each village. Conditions in the Yorkshire Wolds were not favourable for intensive farming at this time: the area was almost treeless and there was little shelter for animals or crops, except in the valleys. Villages were established along the line of the Gypsey Race, with similar strings of settlements such as Thixendale, Raisthorpe and Burdale in the smaller valleys. Single settlements were present in the valleys, such as at Wharram Percy, where the seven springs along the dale made this an area of preferred settlement through history. Surviving earthworks of these villages can be seen at Wharram Percy and Mowthorpe, providing an indication of how medieval villages were organised. At Wharram Percy, the earthworks of two manor houses and approximately 40 peasant houses are visible, as well as barns and other outbuildings. The tofts (house plots) and crofts (adjacent strip of land) were organised in three planned rows. The remains of the medieval village at Mowthorpe are visible as turf-covered building foundations, field walls and banks, lynchets, hollows and trackways spread along both sides of the Gypsey Race.
Despite the inhospitable nature of the Yorkshire Wolds, arable cultivation was undertaken on a considerable scale by lay and monastic farmers, and was not just for subsistence. Land at Mowthorpe and Duggleby was held by Malton Priory, which had established a grange there in the later 12th century. The grange relied on hired workers as well as lay brothers. The number of hired workers recorded in 1244 AD was high, at nineteen. There were also seven ploughs. Malton Priory acquired tofts to house their workers, but no land (crofts) was provided. By the mid-13th century AD the amount of arable land being worked by Malton Priory on the Yorkshire Wolds was considerable. A Cisterican grange was founded by Meaux monastery at Wharram-le-Street in 1172 AD, with a grant of two carucates of land, a spring and a water course to bring water for a mill, which was to be solely for the use of the brothers. The remains of ridge and furrow earthworks, cultivation terraces and field systems can be seen across the Birdsall area, evidence of the vast amount of land that was being cultivated during the medieval period.
Large amounts of corn were sold by both lay and monastic farmers during the 13th-14th centuries AD, and compared to the low-lying clay areas beyond, the Yorkshire Wolds was the foremost producer of wheat and barley. In addition to these crops, documentary evidence reveals that the farmers were growing a variety of other crops such as rye, oats, peas, flax and hemp. Produce grown on the Yorkshire Wolds was sent overland through the Vale of Pickering to Scarborough, or by land and river to Hull. Malton Priory sold its corn and wool at Malton market. As well as being an important producer of grains, the Yorkshire Wolds was also an important area of sheep farming. In the late 13th century AD, Malton Priory supplied forty-five sacks of wool, which would have corresponded to approximately 9000 sheep. There is also evidence for rabbit warrens at Birdsall, introduced to Britain by the Normans.
The 14th century AD saw a shift in the agrarian economy as a result of falling demand for grain following the Black Death and a series of epidemics, which decimated the population. Areas devoted to grain production, such as the Birdsall area, would have ceased to be economically viable as labour costs rose and prices fell. The result of this can be seen in the remains of villages across the Birdsall area which were either reduced in size or deserted.
There is an almost complete lack of castles on the Yorkshire Wolds, but a motte and bailey castle was built at Mount Ferrant. The construction of the castle is believed to have been undertaken by Nigel Fossard, lord of a number of estates in the Birdsall area at the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 AD. It was located on a narrow promontory projecting westwards from the foot of Birdsall Brow and offered a naturally defensive position over the surrounding countryside. The castle overlooked the Roman road to Malton, which was still a strategically important routeway in the medieval period. Documentary evidence suggests that the castle was constructed largely of wood; it appears to have fallen out of use by 1150 AD when it was dismantled and the timbers were given to the monks at Meaux Abbey.
The Birdsall area as we see it today was largely shaped by the Birdsall Estate over the post-medieval period. Birdsall House has its origins in a late 16th century country house built by the Sotheby family. Birdsall House became the home of the Willoughby family in 1729 AD when Thomas Willoughby inherited the estate from his parents-in-law. Willoughby had already been running the estate for his father-in-law Thomas Sotheby, and after his death Willoughby sought advice from Thomas Knowlton, the head gardener from Londesborough. Knowlton may have designed the gardens at Birdsall, which a 1730 AD plan shows consisted of Rococo style gardens. Birdsall House was in the south-east corner of the plan, with a series of ponds running through Kell Beck Orchard to the west. Two straight paths ran from the orchard through the plantation in Gisderdale, one opening up into a circular clearing before ending at a triangular point. To the north of Gisderdale plantation are four enclosed fields called Langhill, two of which contain circular clumps of trees. To the north of Birdsall House is another orchard, and further to the north are houses in long thin strips of land.
Birdsall House was also remodelled in the mid-18th century and further changes were made to the park, shown in an undated plan which possibly dates from 1760 AD. The changes gave the park a more natural appearance, with a simple track replacing the long walk, and the plantations larger in size and less regular. The fields to the west had their hedges removed, and the ground to the east of Birdsall House was laid out as parkland. The extension of the park was created by diverting the old village road away from the house and church. To the north of the house a kitchen garden was built, to supply the residents at Birdsall House. Within the grounds a third much larger pond or lake was added, with cascades between the ponds. The park was further enlarged in the late 1770s. Further alterations were made to the house in 1872 AD when a right wing was added. Additional estate buildings were constructed throughout the 18th-19th centuries, including stables and coach house, kennels, a brewery, granary and laundry.
Approximately 70% of the Yorkshire Wolds was enclosed by parliamentary act between 1760-1819 AD. Prior to enclosure, a lot of land was still open pasture used for sheep, or if it was being cultivated for crops it would be rested after a few seasons to slowly revert back to pasture. Enclosure was encouraged by the owners of larger estates, especially during the French and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815 AD) when corn prices were high. It was thought that with proper management through careful rotation and more extensive use of manuring that the shallow soils would be capable of more prolonged arable cultivation. The large rectangular fields and Georgian farmhouses surrounded by shelter belts of woodland are a visible legacy of the work of the enclosure commissioners and surveyors. Enclosure of the open fields contributed to the halving of the population in Birdsall village. Across the Birdsall Estate farmsteads were built for tenant farmers to live in and work the land. Vessey Pasture Farm is typical of the majority of farmsteads constructed across the Yorkshire Wolds in the late 18th-19th centuries following enclosure. It was a small enclosure farm of 200 acres consisting of open Wold land, with the steep-sided dry valley of Vessey Pasture Dale marking the farm’s southern boundary. The earliest map of the farm is from 1809 AD, which shows a building, a small enclosure and a dewpond, an essential source of water for a farm on the Yorkshire Wolds. By 1816 AD an eastern range had been added to the farm and an enclosed yard for the overwintering of cattle. Agricultural innovations in the early 19th century saw the value of intensive cattle fattening within enclosed foldyards in winter so that the accumulated manure could be spread on the fields in the spring. Large horse sheds were needed for the increased number of animals required to plough the greater amount of cultivated land. From the 1836 AD tenancy agreement for Vessey Pasture Farm we know the crops being sown and the method. The agreement describes a new four course rotation: firstly fallowed with twelve bushels of turnips/rape per acre to be eaten with sheep; secondly corn with two stone of grass seeds; thirdly the seeds to be eaten off with sheep; fourthly the seeds to be broken up and sown with corn. The use of these new crop rotations, combined with fertilisers and manures ensured that the thin soils of the High Wolds were able to produce high yields of crops. By 1850 AD the eastern range of farm buildings had been taken down and replaced by a complex of buildings around the foldyard. The eastern half of the barn had a new first floor granary, the western side may have housed the farm workers. To the side of the main doorway to the barn is a small opening, possibly designed to provide access for a drive belt from a steam engine outside the barn to milling gear inside. This would have been used to grind corn from the granary. The later 19th century was a difficult time for Wold farmers, with falling corn prices and stable farm rents meaning that an increasing numbers of farmers fell behind on their rent. Vessey Pasture Farm was purchased by Lord Middleton of Birdsall in 1899 AD and was subsequently let with the 176 acres of a neighbouring farm at Toisland. Other smaller farms on Birdsall Estate had also been added to one of the larger farms as joint tenancies.
The arrival of the railway through Birdsall Estate had a large impact on the area. The Driffield to Malton line opened in 1853 AD crossing the sparsely inhabited Yorkshire Wolds. From Driffield the railway line crossed the watershed up onto the Yorkshire Wolds north of Burdale in a tunnel almost 1-mile long. Stations were located within the Birdsall area at North Grimston, Wharram and Burdale. The railway opened up easier travel for people between Malton and Driffield, and on to Bridlington, Filey and Scarborough, as it became the most common form of transport for most journeys in the late 19th century. This also saw the transport of goods across the Yorkshire Wolds, with produce being sent to Malton and Driffield to be sent on to the ports at Scarborough and Hull, and goods from outside the Yorkshire Wolds imported by the railway. Burdale chalk quarry opened in 1925, capitalising on the railway for the large-scale transportation of material. Passenger services stopped in 1950 AD, although goods trains continued until the mid-1950s.
Relatively little change has occurred to the Birdsall landscape over the 20th century. Land enclosed in the 18th-19th centuries still accounts for 86% of the area, although some 20th century changes to the fields have been made which reflect changes in the management of the landscape and in agricultural practice. By the 1930s an increasing number of farms on the Birdsall Estate were being ‘farmed in hand’ by someone employed by the estate. Vessey Pasture Farm was still largely self-contained in this period, with its own livestock and buildings. From the 1940s Vessey Pasture Farm was used as a labourers’ cottage to house an estate tractor driver. The horses had gone and most of the foldyard sheds were empty, but the foldyard remained in use until 1995 as a way of overwintering cattle to produce manure for spring. The farmhouse was last used as an estate cottage in the 1950s and now stands empty, as do a lot of the 19th century farmhouses. By the end of the 20th century the dominant farm type of the northern Yorkshire Wolds was cereals and general cropping, with only 10-31% of the area employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing, a marked contrast to the high percentage that would have been employed in the industry in the 19th-20th centuries.