The history of Skipwith Common

During the last glacial cycle, the glacial build-up reached its maximum 21,000 years ago. The ice sheet worked down the east coast blocking the Humber Estuary allowing the formation of an inland glacial lake which has been called Lake Humber. This lake covered the whole of the Vale of York as far as the glacial moraine between Escrick and Skipwith. The ice-cap began to recede 15,000 years ago and as the ice receded, rivers draining into the Vale of York brought down sediments which gradually filled the area creating wetland. The last Ice-Age finally ended 10,000 years ago although there were several false dawns of warming and then cooling again. The Vale of York gradually became afforested with birch, oak, elm and ash, in fact very similar tree cover to that seen today. The underlying rocks of mudstone and sandstone are overlain by glacial till, clay and sand. Ancient remnants of sand dunes are a feature of Skipwith Common and sand lies below a shallow layer of peat.

The first indications of mans impact on the landscape of Skipwith Common take the form of Bronze Age burial mounds 3000 to 4000 years old. The landscape was cleared of trees as man descended into the Vale from the Wolds. Lowland heath, is entirely man-made, relying, as it does, on land clearances followed by grazing, peat cutting etc. The Common has been a resource for local residents until relatively modern times as timber for building, turves and peat for fuel, bracken for bedding and soap production, reeds for thatching, rushes for bedding and floor covering as well as wicks for lighting, and the while grazed by cattle, sheep and geese amongst other things.

Only since grazing ceased in fairly modern times, have trees started to feature on the Common again. Indeed, shortly prior to the First World War, the Common was almost tree-less.

Presumably man has maintained his usage of Skipwith Common as the next phase of occupancy after the Bronze Age was Iron Age Man. He too left a whole series of burial mounds and a triple-bank system which runs roughly North South across the Common and links with an Iron Age settlement clearly visible as crop marks of hut circles and other features in fields directly adjacent to the Common on the Northern side.
We know that the Anglians were present in this part of Yorkshire and that the Romans also left their mark on the Common in the form of a Romano-British enclosure close to the Northern boundary overlooking present-day Skipwith village. There are significant Roman features to Skipwith Church including a complete and authentic Roman arch which must have come from some local villa. The Vikings were also present in the area as they landed their long-boats at Riccall on the Ouse in 1066 and marched off to fight the Battle of Fulford. Skipwith is mentioned in the Domesday Book.

And mans marks on the landscape continue with medieval peat-cutting and ridge-and-furrow ploughing in evidence both on and off the Common. Two ponds close to Skipwith village on Common Road, called the Line Ponds, are believed to have been used for flax-retting (the process of immersing the flax stems in water to soften the outer husk before preparing the inner fibres to create linen). During the Second World War a bomber training airfield was constructed on the Western end of the Common and much of the infrastructure, one of the runways, and other features survive both on and adjacent to the Common on both North and South sides.

In 1957 (?)  the area was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, English Nature (latterly Natural England) have left their mark in the form of tree and scrub clearance aimed at bringing back the lowland heath that had been lost to silver birch regeneration. In 2009 the site was designated a National Nature Reserve.

The site is in excess of 600 acres of roughly 50% lowland heath and 50% woodland. Two types of heather are present and re-inhabiting the freshly cleared areas. Areas of swamp and mire, home to rare flora and fauna in which sphagnum moss is in evidence, together with fen and reed-beds, ponds, rushy areas and grass-land. An ancient breed of longhorn cattle, wild and hardy Hebridean sheep and Exmoor ponies plus a herd of wild fallow and roe deer now graze the Common and help to prevent silver birch regeneration.

Skipwith Common National Nature Reserve is a delight at any time of the year. A beautiful and ancient landscape enjoyed by man for at least 4000 years. Tread where your ancestors trod, see many of the sights that they saw. Experience a walk on the wild-side or a gentle meander with time to take in the special features, rare and special flora and fauna and sit a while and enjoy the solitude.