Flagstone in North Ribblesdale

Bill Mitchell
 JOURNAL 
 2007 
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

The churchyard at Horton-in-Ribblesdale has many examples of the use of Horton Flag, which has an appealing range of hues - grey-blue when dry, dark blue when damp, and holding a sheen like marble if it has been sawn and polished. Pieces of flag are everywhere. Huge flags, bolted together, form the canopies of the lych-gates. The nearby stiles are made of flag. So is the churchyard path that terminates at a porch, beside which are foot-scrapers, the base being a thick piece that was sawn into circular form. There is “blue flag” on the stone benches within the porch. Tombstones are not only inscribed with details of the dear departed but have been decorated along their edges. Some stones are adorned by carvings based on the shape of a flower-head.

Some people call this local stone “slate”. It is, in fact, a Silurian mudstone, quarried at half a dozen places between Horton and Stainforth. Further evidence of the use of “blue flag” is to be seen at local farms, where enormous pieces were lain on beds of sand to form the floor. In the dairy, flag was used for binks (shelves). The barn might have boskins (divisions between stalls) of flag. A sor-pit (sewer pit?) sunk in the farmyard was lined with impervious flag. Such a pit, connected with gutters, received nitrogen-rich urine from cows standing in the shippons. A chain-pump was used to empty the sor-pit. The liquid was spread across the meadows as a fertiliser.

In North Ribblesdale and adjacent dales “blue flag” is everywhere. Notice the gate stoops, lintels on houses, “clapper” bridges across becks, drystone walls and the tops of garden walls. In Upper Settle, some years ago, were spaces in a wall known as bee-boles, where the old straw bee hives were placed on ledges of “blue flag”. At a North Ribblesdale outbarn I inspected, the roof was composed of pieces of flag and it was set in the otherwise limestone walls as “throughs”. Flags formed lintels for door and window; they edged the cobbled yard outside. And flag, neatly framed with wood, formed the boskins (as they did in a large outbarn at Lawkland visited during a walk by the North Craven Heritage Trust in November, 2005).

Horton Flag was used to denote a parish boundary. There were two pieces, set side by side, each inscribed by the name of the parish it represented. Most of these remain in situ. Visiting Swarthmoor, I recorded upreared flags, with carved initials to indicate who had rights of turbary in specific areas. Drinking troughs and “soft” water cisterns, collecting rainwater from the roof of a building, were made of flag and were, in part, a blacksmith job. It was he who provided the bars and bolts of iron that held the ends together. The pieces of a “soft water” system were invariably sealed using white or red lead. Fortunately for the health of the owners, the water was used mainly on wash-day.

The so-called Horton Flags underlie Moughton Fell and appear as dark masses on either side. At Coombs Quarry, above Foredale, the uptilting flags support beds of carboniferous limestone, which formed about 360 million years ago. Flag is hard. Quality varies, some being finely laminated. The commercial exploitation of Horton Flags lasted for a period of rather more than 200 years, ending in the 1920s, when the last of the quarries working on traditional lines acquired a crusher. Henceforth, our Silurian heritage was reduced to fine chippings for spreading on roads.

The five most important local quarries were Studfold, Coombs, Arcow, Dry Rigg and Helwith Bridge. A sixth, Coombs Thorn, was quarried away during the expansion of Dry Rigg. Flag production was mentioned in 1774 when a statement was made outlining the case for supporting a canal for Settle. The writer mentions “many inexhaustible quarries of blue-flags, grit flags, excellent blue slate and grit-slate in the neighbourhood of Settle, which will undoubtedly pass along this canalů” The watercourse was never excavated. John Hutton, the clergyman-author of Tour to the Caves (1780), visited Coombs Quarry, noticing that “the stones are of a blue kind, like slate, from one to three inches thick; some are two or three yards broad and five or six yards long.”

Not far from the curious row of cottages at Foredale stood a structure formed of flag within which, using a donkey-engine, men sawed flag with wire, using sand as an abrasive. The enterprise ended in the 1880s. Dry Rigg had its own little saw mill, standing in a large pit, an old working. Flag from this source was also sawn and polished at a mill beside the beck near the hamlet of Wharfe. The machinery was powered by a waterwheel. The sides of the old dam were lined with “blue flag”.

Studfold quarry, long disused for the extraction of flag, is the possible source of tombstones intended for local churchyards. This was deduced from the number of half-completed inscriptions seen on flag removed over 50 years ago and taken to the Halifax district for crushing as aggregate. One flag is dated 1810. A flag on which a carver practised his skills now lies on the top of a garden wall. Flag from the ancestral bed at Arcow Wood, which was once noted for its profusion of hazel trees, was highly valued.

Hutton tells us that flag from Coombs was used as gate-posts, foot-bridges and partitions between the stalls in stables and cow-houses. Other writers listed the use of Horton Flag for paving slabs, cisterns, troughs and brewers’ vats. Flag shelves in a dairy, which was situated on the north side of a farmhouse, was in winter “cold enough to freeze eggs in the water-glasses.” Butter made on Friday, and placed on “blue flag”, kept fresh and cool until Tuesday, when it was packed in baskets and taken by horse and trap to the weekly market at Settle.

Frederick S Williams, historian of the Midland Railway, mentioned that “the stones came out in bedded slabs, perhaps 15 feet wide and 18 feet long, varying from six inches to two feet in thickness, according to the natural beds.” George Brown, a Settle parson in Victorian times, noted that flag at Swarthmoor was quarried “of all areas up to 15 feet square, and of one inch and up to as much as 18 inches in thickness.” On account of the “bate” of the rock, the flag could not be trimmed by hammer and chisel to a clean straight edge. “The edges are sawn square and smooth by water power.”

Harwood Brierley wrote that “in the mill they are sawn square by means of an iron straight-edge, driven backwards and forwards in sand and waterů” Two undershot wheels were installed at Helwith Bridge. One stood beside the mill, receiving river water from a culvert. The river drove the other wheel, which was taken out in 1935, being converted into an overshot wheel to perform further useful service - the generation of electricity - at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Kit Ralph, quarry-owner at Helwith Bridge, sold the family business not long after the 1914-18 war. Kit had only two helpers, his brother Jack and a carter named Samuel Marklew. The quarry face was modest in size: some 30 feet high and 200 yards long.

Flags were, conveniently, in an almost vertical position. A flag was split from the parent bed using iron wedges driven in by hammers. It was lowered on to a four-wheeled flat bogey, set on rails, and was pushed to the mill. Marklew once transported sections for a brewer’s vat from Helwith Bridge to Tadcaster, where such a vat was known as a Yorkshire Square. Other vats were taken to breweries in Blackburn and, using the railway, to Northern Ireland. The old home of the Ralphs, in Victoria Street, Settle, had flag floors at ground level that were supported by joists and floorboards - as a visitor might see who walked down a number of steps (flag steps, of course) into the cellar.

The coming of the railways, first to Giggleswick, on the Bradford-Carnforth line, then to Settle (with the opening of the line to Carlisle) enabled some flag to be exported to distant places but also resulted in the importation of Lakeland and Welsh slate, a prime material for roofing dwellings. By the 1920s, the chief demand for flag at Helwith Bridge was by farmers, who acquired loads of cheap “throughs” for their walls, and by a few sentimental folk seeking a piece of “blue flag” as a tombstone to mark the last resting place of a relative.

       The author carried out his research into Horton Flag in the early 1980s.

quarry2.jpg
quarry1.jpg
Trough.jpg
Flag cictern connected by a tap to flag drinking trough
Baulks.jpg
Vertical flag boskins
Dairy.jpg
Slate benches in a dairy



quarry2.jpg


quarry1.jpg


Trough.jpg
Flag cictern connected by a tap to flag drinking trough


Baulks.jpg
Vertical flag boskins


Dairy.jpg
Slate benches in a dairy