Great Skerrygill

Many years after buying a farmhouse on the Pennines, Hayloft Publishing Ltd's founder and director, Dawn Robertson is moving to a smaller house where Hayloft will continue to publish books celebrating the North of England, countryside, walking and mountaineering.

Great Skerrygill was described as 'semi-derelict' on the deeds and hadn't been lived in for many years when I moved here – semi-derelict to me meant original and definitely not ruined! Over the years since that time we have invested more than half a million in restoring and renovating the farmhouse and two barns, the courtyard and surrounding garden. All major restoration work has been completed by local craftsmen – stone masons, builders, carpenters, plumbers and electricians.

This farmhouse is one of the very oldest in this part of the Pennine Dales, and was first recorded in 1401 as a 'messuage' (house with garden) and 'vaccary' (cow farm). The house was again mentioned in 1422: "In the 10th year of Henry V after the death of John de Clifford the inquisition finds that at Burgh (Brough) he died possessed of eleven messuages called vaccaries, to wit... Skrythergill... [and 10 others] worth in the whole by the year £10-10s-10d. And that Elizabeth his mother held the castle and manor of which the said vaccaries are parcel..."

A messuage meant the house and all the buildings attached or belonging to it, as also its curtilage, garden and orchard, together with the close on which the house is built. A vaccary is a Latin term meaning a fortified dairy farm. The fortification was the building itself and its protection from nearby Brough Castle.

The name Skerrygill is even older, dating back from the time of Norse settlers, while older still, there is an Iron Age village nearby, and a Roman fort stands guard over the dale. This view of the house is from the Pennines, near Maiden Castle Roman fort.

The area was first named Athelstan's Moor, now Stainmore, before the Norman Conquest, and is near one of the main east-west Pennine crossings where many battles have taken place, including the betrayal and death of Eric Bloodaxe the last Viking ruler of England, in 954; his grave has never been found. Cumbria was part of Scotland in early medieval times and was not mentioned in the Domesday book for this reason. Rey Cross nearby marked the boundary between Scotland and Northumbria.
In Stainmore parish as a whole there are some 280 residents (there are a lot more Swaledale sheep!) The houses are spread in a typical upland settlement with buildings such as St. Stephen's Church, on the right hand side of the photograph above, as community meeting places as well as being a church. The small road is a council maintained highway with access to the A66 (2 miles), Barnard Castle (12 miles), Kirkby Stephen (6 miles), the M6 at Tebay (15 miles) and to the highest public house in the UK, Tanhill Inn (6 miles). The nearest mainline railway station is at Kirkby Stephen on the historic Settle-Carlisle railway line. The house is almost central to the UK, north-south and east-west.

The section of OS map above shows just to the north the Argll Woods nature reserve, only a field away from the house and garden (outlined in red). There are waterfalls, woods, paths, footbridges and carpets of bluebells and primroses in season. The nature reserve is run by Cumbria Wildlife Trust and has a thriving population of red squirrels, roe deer and other mammals, plus lots of birds including woodpeckers and kingfishers, crystal clear water in the river and plenty of fish. Red squirrels regularly visit the garden along with a wide selection of wild birds – the photograph above was taken from the kitchen window in August 2015.

Below is the view north, towards the nature reserve:

The oldest part of the house is the dining room, pictured above, and the pantry, below. There were sleeping lofts reached by a circular stone staircase. It was of cruck construction, with a steep roof thatched with reeds. The oak cruck beams have been re-used and can still be seen in the barn. The floorboards and roof timbers in this part of the house are also oak and all the downstairs floors are the original sandstone flags. There have been improvements to the house and buildings throughout its history but, without fail, a Westmorland farmer wasted nothing so any rebuilding always incorporated materials from the previous building.

The Border troubles provoked by Edward I put Brough Castle and Stainmore back into a war zone. Not only were there armies, both Scottish and English, tramping through the area, but the king's demand for food was a problem for already impoverished farming communities. The Scottish raids increased in intensity. In 1314, and again in 1319, their armies devastated large parts of the Eden Valley. They burnt the town of Brough, trampled the crops, "and carried off an immense booty of beasts, horses and oxen, about 500." The window on the former circular stone staircase (above) was never glazed and faces north where it could easily have been used to watch for coming raiders...

In late medieval times there was a fear of evil spirits. To protect from bad influences ritual or apotropaic carvings were made on beams. They were believed to be lucky and were often carved over doorways and stairs. It is thought that these ritual carvings often date from the 1500s, a time of religious upheaval. There are a total of eight sets of carvings at Great Skerrygill although we have not carefully checked all beams in the roof space. Many of the beams are marked with 'V' and 'M' shapes used to invoke the protection of the Virigin Mary.

There are a series of four bee boles near the door. In each of these a skep (a small bee hive made of straw or rushes) would have been placed. Before modern bee hives, the hives were kept in bee boles to protect them from wind and rain. The boles faced south or east to get the morning sun. Sugar was an expensive rarity and not plentiful until the 17th century. Before this honey was in high demand as was beeswax for candles. Many bee boles have been destroyed or lost but the ones that survive, including the ones at Great Skerrygill, are listed with the bee society. The oldest known bee boles date from the 12th century.

Scotland and England had shared a monarch since 1603 and the Acts of Union passed in 1707 put an end to Border warfare and left the Eden Valley in peace. Agricultural earnings grew, houses were improved as the area prospered and many new houses were built in the 18th century. Many of the doors at Great Skerrygill date from this time and almost all the woodwork, snecks (door handles) and hinges. The windows mostly date from the Georgian period and though the sashes have been replaced, the frames with their fine woodwork and the glass were restored. A lot of the hinges, snecks and even the nails are handmade.

Parish Records and Church registers are rather haphazard until the 18th century. The first record found relating to Great Skerrygill is to the Hiltons who were a yeoman farming family: 1710, March 15, baptised, John, ye son of Andrew Hilton of Skirrygill.

This John went on to inherit the farm and his will of 1761 survives, a section of which reads: "First I give and bequeath to my son John Hilton my best Bed-Stead above Stairs. I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife Sarah Hilton, the Clock now standing in my kitchin during the term of her natural life and after her decease to become the property of my said son John Hilton or his Heirs. Lastly I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved wife Sarah Hilton all the rest residue and remainder of my household stuff money goods and Chattles whatsoever."

In 1777 the window tax return said that widow Sarah Hilton, paid 3 shillings which meant the house had 7 or more windows – a substantial house for the time. In 1827 a descendant of John and Sarah, Mary Hilton married Benjamin Blackett and they continued to farm at Great Skerrygill.

On the 1843 tithe map the owner is listed as John Hilton and the tenant as Benjamin Blackett. On the tithe map plan, the buildings are exactly the same as now but the present kitchen (above) hasn't yet been built, but it is shown on the first OS map of 1861.

The cobbled and flagged yard has been cleaned and kept exactly as it was (except for the drain inspection cover). This is, to my knowledge, the only cobbled and flagged courtyard to survive on Stainmore – all others have been concreted over. The smaller barn was used as stables, a byre and a hayloft. It now has domestic planning permission with a studio flat/office upstairs where Hayloft Publishing is based and three store rooms below. The office/flat has an independent heating system from a wood burning stove, a shower room, and a 'kitchen' area as well as enough space for two bedrooms.

From the window of the studio/office door above you can see westwards for more than 30 miles up the Eden Valley to Blencathra in the Lake District, with the Howgill Fells to the south and the Pennines to the north. This view is called 'The Plains of Heaven' after a painting dating from 1851-3 by John Martin who painted the Eden Valley from Stainmore. The painting is part of a triptych and shows a celestial landscape where the good, includng poets and artists, are shown on the crest of a hill in the foreground of the picture. Behind them stretches the deep blue expanse of a heavenly lake, filled by the rushing water from the distant falls, and surrounded by majestic mountain scenery. The painting is now in the Tate Galley.

The second, and larger barn also has permission for domestic use. The ground floor has been used as a workshop/garage and has a new concrete floor, electric sockets, lighting and a water supply. It also has the preserved cow stalls with enormous stone flags and original woodwork. The first floor (pictured below) has been used as a studio and dark room. It has night storage heaters, a WC and washbasin, and an attic storage area

The first Ordnance Survey map of 1860/1, pictured below, shows the buildings and garden on the same footprint as they are today. On the north face of the 'office' barn is a survey bench mark at 931 feet (283m) above sea level. The map was completed just before the Stainmore railway was built in 1863. The railway included Thomas Bouch's famous Belah Viaduct, sadly demolished a century later, after the Beeching cuts, when the line was closed. It was considered the most beautiful railway line in the UK.

There used to be an outside toilet at the eastern end of the barn. We rescued the 'thunderbox' and re-used it with a modern loo in the downstairs laundry/washroom while there is a large family bathroom upstairs.

In June 1896 John Hilton in his will left the farm to his daughter Jane Coates. The name Hilton, so long associated with Great Skerrygill, was at an end. During the early years of the 20th century the farm was rented out. The final farm sale was held in 1964. The council road was made in 1963, mains electricity was connected in 1983, and mains water in 1984 – there is also a spring supply from the field but this only supplied the byre while drinking water came from a spring down the field.

The main house has four double bedrooms, with an original early Victorian cast iron fireplace in one of them:

The sitting room has an open wood burning fire, fitted carpet and bookcases:

The only modern addition to the house is a small conservatory, with flourishing grapevine and door to a terrace. The garden and courtyard go right round the house and the boundaries are traditional dry stone walls surrounded by open fields. There are two flagged terraces for sitting outside, one on the south and one on the west side of the house. The nearest neighbours are quarter of a mile away and out of sight over the hill. This relaxing paradise is only 7 miles from Kirkby Stephen Station on the famous Settle-Carlisle railway line. It is quarter of a mile outside the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, five miles from the Yorkshire Dales National Park and ten miles from the new extended Lake District National Park.

The house and barns have an approximate total area of 4,540 square feet of space as the drawing below shows. The house has had two recent valuations one of £400,000 and another of £450,000.


Telephone: 07971 352473

Post: Great Skerrygill, South Stainmore, Kirkby Stephen, Westmorland, CA17 4DJ.

Directions from Brough: From Brough on the A66, take the A685 towards Kirkby Stephen. Turn left at the end of the 40mph limit and follow this road past Augill Castle. You'll come to a crossroads (just above the 'S' of Brough Sowerby in the map below) - go straight over and keep going for about three miles in total until you get to the top of a hill and reach a T junction (at the 'y' of Brough Sowerby in the map below).

Turn left again. Carry on for another half mile and, before you start going uphill again, turn left again over a cattle grid near a former chapel. Hayloft is just over a mile from this last left turn (three cattle grids in total).












































































































































































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