Way back in June 2008 the Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group (UWHG) invited Miles Johnson from the Yorkshire Dales National Park to lead one of our summer evening walks – he chose to take us on a tour around the site of the former cotton mill beside the Reservoir above Embsay, near Skipton. Lying just within the boundaries of the National Park, the village of Embsay is a large commuter village, but was once a thriving industrial centre with spinning mills and a tobacco mill (which was later a tannery).
As Miles guided us around the reservoir and over to where Whitfield Sike Mill used to stand, he dropped several heavy hints to the effect that it would be really great if someone would research the history of the Mill, and carry out an archaeological survey of the area. We all agreed that the surviving features around the site, including the old mill ponds on the moor land behind the reservoir, were all very interesting.
Encouraged by our interest, Miles continued dropping those hints throughout the rest of the tour, and by the time we returned to the car park at the end of the walk, we knew we should seriously consider the possibility of adopting Whitfield Sike Mill as a UWHG project!
Several months of negotiations and discussion followed, with some Committee forays to investigate the potential of the site. The industrial archaeology enthusiasts among us became increasingly excited by the idea of the project and so UWHG finally offered to launch a Phase 1 study, which would consist of two strands – documentary research and a field survey.
Phase 1 is to focus upon the area immediately around the Mill site, up to the former sheepwash to the east, and onto the moorside, to include the old mill dam ponds. The site is divided into two parts – to the south is the grassland around the Embsay Reservoir which was opened in 1910 and now belongs to Yorkshire Water Authority. It’s a popular place for locals to walk their dogs, and is dominated by the last remaining standing building from the former Mill.
This barn-like structure once acted as a storehouse for the cotton, but during the construction of the Reservoir was a base for the Navvy Mission Society, which aimed to provide a Christian ministry to the navvy workers. The more observant walkers will also notice that the boundary wall between the Reservoir area and the moor above, contains clear traces of the terrace of cottages that once stood here, built to house the mill workers. The houses themselves were demolished when the reservoir was built, but the blocked up windows can still be seen in the wall.
On the other side of the wall is the grouse moor belonging to the Bolton Abbey Estate. A popular bridleway lies nearby, heading up to Embsay Crag. It runs straight between three of the former mill ponds, which can be identified by their large embankments. A footpath branches off taking walkers down to the east end of the boundary wall and the site of a former sheepwash which now lies underneath a wooden footbridge.
Jane Lunnon, UWHG Archivist