Last week we visited Ivelet Bridge, in Swaledale. We’re hoping to slowly document as many packhorse bridges as we can and Ivelet seemed the best place to start.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been up to the Dales to start gathering images for the blog and future writing. It seemed as good a time as any – if we picked out of the way places, not the obvious tourist trap beauty spots, and only got out of the car if there was nobody about.
A couple of weeks back, I had the absolutely surreal experience of being able to stop the car in the middle of the road, in June, in Aysgarth, to photograph Yore Mills and the river. There’d be almost bumper to bumper traffic there, usually, this time of year. And we managed to park in empty lay-bys and explore some river banks etc we normally wouldn’t think of. Although there are people about, if you pick your place and time you can have somewhere to yourself. This might be the last June ever we could do this, so we went for it. We kept off the trails and car parks – there were plenty of walkers about so we chose to avoid anywhere we saw people. Unless they were at a safe distance as the two wild swimmers we had a conversation with, well a shouted conversation, when they were leaving the Swale and we were about to photo the bridge. Nice to speak to/shout at different people after three months in lockdown.
Ivelet’s bridge is particularly interesting as it is an early one (16thc). It has a coffin stone, where pall-bearers could rest a coffin on its final journey to a local church. The bridge has a single arch, spanning the River Swale. It is larger than many packhorses bridges.
Different breeds of pony were used as packhorses. In 1814, Walker mentioned Galloways, but in Westmorland, Cumbria and Yorkshire, other horses were also used like the Fell Ponies. I first read about these ponies doing genealogy research, when I found out my Westmorland ancestors, the Bellas family, had raised Fell Ponies as well as been farmers and lead miners at Knock, on the edge of the Pennines.
A wool pack was made of jute, and in the Dales transported wool across difficult terrain and indifferent, or positively awful, roads. The ponies had panniers on each side. They were also used in other industries in the Dales, like lead-mining. Most Dales’ rivers were not navigable; shallow, rocky and often treacherous. Fine for turning a mill-wheel, though. This meant that whilst the lower reaches of the rivers joined with a network of canals by the 18th century; the only way for goods to get to the markets at Reeth, Kendal, Kirky Stephen, Richmond and further afield, was by pony.
George Walker, with characteristic hauteur, wrote:
The manufacture of cloth affords employment to the major part of the lower class people in the north-west districts of the West Riding of Yorkshire. These cloth-makers reside almost entirely in the villages, and bring their cloth on market-days for sale in the great halls erected for that purpose at Leeds and Huddersfield. These men have a decided provincial character; and their galloways also, which are always overloaded, have a manner of going peculiarly their own…The Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814
The patrician Walker mentioned Galloways which were a common breed used for hauling stuff. But he may well have been more conversant with the breeds of horse more usually found on the race course or the farm and may not have realised Dalesfolk had their own breeds, too. It could also be the “Galloways” was a generic term for packhorses. Dales ponies and Fell ponies share characteristics and no doubt these were used in Westmorland, Cumberland, Yorkshire and Teesdale.
An individual clothier might have a single pony. Until mechanisation and the factory system, small weavers aimed at producing one piece (18 – 30 odd yards in length, depending on the type of cloth, and 20lbs to around 100lbs per piece in weight, also depending on cloth type) per week. If you had one horse with two panniers, feasibly that was going to market every fortnight. Some will have gone more often; some, less. The distances and poor roads involved meant this might be at least a day or two out. It’s possible weavers’ families made the next warp if the clothier was away transacting business. Weavers preferred to be paid cash. Sometimes, raw wool and finished cloth was transported by a train of ponies; the leader, having a bell round its neck. The bell was to warn unsuspecting folk on the road of the train’s approach. Pack horse trains were notoriously dangerous and difficult to encounter as a fellow road-user. And of course, the pack horses would be moving all year round so in low visibility conditions like heavy rain or fog, at dawn or dusk – the approaching train could be heard.
Hosiers also needed finished goods carrying to market so those panniers would sometimes be filled with knitted goods. The packhorse bridges connected Dales knitters to the world beyond as well as one Dale to the next, if the roads went through passes at their highest points.
Packhorses shifted both raw wool and finished product; woven cloth as well as knitted goods. A medieval sack of raw wool weighed 364lbs (26 stone). That was still the standard weight in the 16th century when Ivelet was built. It may have been that each pack of raw wool had to be divided into two or more panniers for the horses to be able to carry it. The weight of finished cloth pieces were prescribed by law. For example, at the time Ivelet Bridge was built, a Yorkshire narrow cloth had to weigh 21.25 – 21.6 lbs – a piece of Narrow Cloth was 18 yards long [ [Textiles and Materials of the Common Man and Woman 1580-1660, ed. Stuart Peachey, Stuart Press, 2001]. So whilst a wool pack of raw wool might need to be split into panniers and take up a couple of horses as cargo, a single pony would be able to carry maybe 8 – 10 finished pieces of woven cloth – or as few as 2 pieces, one each side, if the pieces were longer than that (most were), or a broadcloth (many were).
Small cloth mills were established across the Dales, when machinery was water powered in the latter end of the eighteenth century, although as Hartley and Ingilby outline, few of these mills had any longevity. Even so, their establishment depended on there being these bridges and ponies.
Without the packhorses and the network of packhorse bridges, there would be no Dales industries and the landscape of which we are but temporary custodians, would be a very different place.
Thanks are due to Jay Derry-Greene for her help with this post, and her lovely picture of her Dales pony foal.