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Dentdale in the Yorkshire Dales - the Hidden Dale

Updated on April 29, 2013
Over the stone tiled rooftops of Dent to the hills beyond ...
Over the stone tiled rooftops of Dent to the hills beyond ... | Source

Where Yorkshire meets Cumbria

If you really want to split hairs then Dent, the tiny, principle village of Dentdale, is really not in Yorkshire at all. It's in Cumbria. This however doesn't seem to have stopped the Yorkshire Dales National Park claiming this pretty village and its protective dale as part of its scenic remit, and at 680 miles square no-one is going to argue with the might of this park.

Inaugurated in 1954, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is one of England's biggest National Parks and was formed to protect this unique landscape of expansive pastureland in valleys that nestle between often bleak and treeless heights.The term 'dale' is thought to be derived from Old Norse and simply means 'valley'. Today the park receives 9.5 million visitors a year and they don't all go just for the cream teas.

Dentdale is narrower and more intimate than the other, more well-known dales such as Swaledale and Wensleydale and, unusually, it is not named after the river winding along its valley floor as is the case with the other dales. In Dentdale it is the River Dee that wanders its shallow, tree-lined way along the dale and this combination of meandering river and dandelion-strewn meadows dotted with stone barns and isolated farmsteads makes for scenery of great beauty.

But it can also mean high drama in the winter snows and it takes a special sort of person to live here all year round; a hardy people descended from Viking ancestry.

The local shop has to sell everything!
The local shop has to sell everything! | Source
This granite memorial to Adam Sedgwick, famous son of the village and Britain's leading expert on geology in 1818, took a team of eight horses to drag into place.
This granite memorial to Adam Sedgwick, famous son of the village and Britain's leading expert on geology in 1818, took a team of eight horses to drag into place. | Source

The early history of Dent.

As is usual in these remote areas on the axis of Yorkshire and Cumbria, Dentdale was settled by Norse/Irish pioneers looking for grazing land for their farm stock. It is known that originally a Celtic chieftain called Donatus ruled this area in the 6th century before the Celts were superseded by the Germanic tribes that became the Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century.

They in turn were either turfed out or incorporated when the Norse came and built their settlements on the sloping sides of the dale. Preferring to live in outlying farmsteads rather than communally in villages, these settlers started most of the farms that still exist and both the Anglo-Saxon and the Norse settlers have left evocative place names which are used to this very day.

The 'terrible' knitters of Dent.

As you might expect very little is known of those early years except for the fact that the Normans, after the invasion of 1066, founded the early church here. It wasn't until the Dales became famous for its wool producing in the 1700's that Dent rose to unlikely fame by specialising in the production of knitwear, particularly socks and high quality gloves.

During the 18th and 19th century everyone in the village, men, women and even children, was involved in hand knitting the local wool into these garments. They became known as the 'terrible' knitters from Dent, not because they were terribly bad knitters but because they knitted so fast and so furiously that they were looked upon as formidable.

They were in fact what we would call 'awesome' in the slang of today. They were so obsessed with knitting that the local vicar once had to ask his congregation to put down their knitting needles during the service but to a society who had to eke out a living from farm work the money made from knitting could mean all the difference between survival and starvation.

Knitting as a way of supplementing income reached its peak during the Napoleonic Wars when the knitters supplied jerkins, pullovers, caps, socks and gloves to the soldiers engaged in the war. Since then knitting in Dent has all but dwindled away until now there is only one lady knitting in her shop overlooking the village green ... and even she uses a machine.

Adam Sedgwick: the father of geology (1785 -1873)

It might seem incongruous that a small, out of the way village like Dent should have produced such a man of stature as Adam Sedgwick. Despite his humble beginnings as the son of the local vicar he went on from being educated in the little Grammar School in Dent churchyard to Cambridge University, and eventually, in 1818, became an eminent professor and the country's foremost expert in geology.

It seems entirely likely that his enquiring nature was amply fostered here by the outstanding beauty of the countryside around Dent and he was to remark later in a letter to William Wordworth that ‘The powers of nature are never in repose; her work never stands still.'

His was an outstanding achievement for the time and it seems entirely possible that one of the factors that started Adam on his path as a geologist may have been the unusual crinoidial limestone which is a feature of this locality. This fascinating and beautiful black rock is closely studded with the white fossilised remains of tiny prehistoric sea creatures and is known as Dent Marble. Though it is not in fact a true marble, it was still sufficiently beautiful and desirable to attract the attention of Tzar Nicholas Ⅰ of Russia who in 1843 commissioned a fireplace to be made of it for his Winter Palace.

His legacy to geology is now at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge:

Dent village today.

Today Dent, with its beautiful setting and surprising wealth of history, is a mecca for tourists. Its narrow, cobbled streets without pavements and the character of its old, stone buildings sheltering amidst lush, green pastures make it an easy place to effortlessly lose an hour or two.

You'd be forgiven for thinking it's a sleepy place with its tranquil, out-of-step-with-time air but you'd be wrong. Dent has all the liveliness of the olden days but without the poverty or horse manure in the streets. It is still a vibrant place with two old inns, several tearooms, an art studio and a now-famous Music and Beer Festival which is held annually in June.

A resourceful community.

This free music festival was first held in 2002 as an indirect result of the devastating outbreak of foot and mouth in 2000. In the aftermath of this crisis the local community once more decided to take matters into their own hands and find a way of regenerating the area and finding money to support local projects, proving that the resourcefulness of the Dent knitters still lives on in many of them.

With lively music, real ale from local micro-breweries, an idyllic setting and their own grit and determination the inhabitants of this remarkable village have not only reinvented their local economy but have also, it must be said, provided a salutary lesson to the rest of us.

For more information about Dent, Dentdale and that festival see:


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