Humans have used the landscape of Skipwith Common for thousands of years, and due to its unique preservation a lot of this early use is still visible to us today as archaeological features, for those who know how to spot and interpret them.
Bronze Age burial mounds, dating back up to six thousand years, can be found dotted across the Common. Some of these were dug in antiquity (pre 1900AD) and found to contain either cremation urns or crouched burials, the latter usually with flint and stone tools, and pottery beakers.
Round in shape like a shallow dome, these have a ditch around the outside and while thousands of years of erosion have worn away at the mounds and filled in the ditches, these can still be quite impressive features. There are a number of these scattered all across the Common, though most notably in the area (mis)named the Danes Hills. This is because antiquarians wrongly believed them to be the burials of Viking warriors, left by their comrades before they returned home after losing to King Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
The Common also hosts more than one Bronze Age territorial bank and ditch system. These are made up of multiple banks and ditches, one set of which stretches from the northern to the southern boundaries of the Common, a total of 1.6 kilometres. They would have separated the territories of different tribes up to four thousand years ago.
Also along the northern boundary of the Common is an Iron Age enclosure which can be seen when the vegetation dies down in winter. This is a square feature, with ditches on all four sides, which would have had a high stockade type wooden fence around it 2000 years ago. This would have been a safe haven for a family or small community and their animals, in the event that raiders tried to steal their valuable livestock. A defensive bank and ditch system has been found close to the enclosure, this would have acted as an extra deterrent to potential invaders.
To the north of the Common and the north west of Skipwith village there is evidence of other enclosures, track ways and field systems from the Iron Age, visible from aerial photographs as crop marks. A crop mark is a difference in the height and lushness of the crop, caused by buried features under the ground. Ditches would cause that section of the crop to grow higher than the surrounding plants, where a wall would cause much more stunted growth. These differences can be seen from the air and plotted onto maps, where experts can interpret them.
Another feature that can be found close to the northern boundary is an area of Ridge and Furrow ploughing. These can date from the Middle Saxon period (c800AD) right through to the Late Medieval (c1500AD), though they are often referred to as being medieval. The large and heavy ploughs used at this time caused deep furrows and high ridges to form, while they also usually left behind a broad ‘headland’ at the top and bottom of a field, where the team of oxen would have needed the space to turn around. Given that the Common has always been pretty poor farming land, this reasonably narrow strip appears to have been an experiment which failed, as the ploughed land is now ‘enclosed’ within the boundaries of the Common.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was a peaceful and popular uprising against King Henry VIII between October 1536 and January 1537 that was caused by a number of grievances among the people, including economic and political. But most of the problems were driven by dissatisfaction at the King’s break from the religious rule of Rome, the setting up of the Church of England and the dissolution of the monasteries.
The acknowledged leader of the rebellion was Robert Aske, youngest son of Sir Robert Aske of Aughton near Selby and a successful London barrister. On his way to leading nine thousand followers to occupy the city of York, Aske arranged for a number of muster points across the county where the rebels could meet. One such muster point was Skipwith Common, then known as Skipwith Moor.
It is unknown exactly where on the Common the rebels met, as five hundred plus years ago much of what we see today would have been open moorland with few trees and even fewer landmarks of any significance. However, Sands Lane is acknowledged as an ancient track-way across the Common and would be a possible site for a meeting of so many people.
The Pilgrimage of Grace was ended by King Henry promising many concessions to the rebels, most of which he later broke. In 1537, 216 members of the uprising were executed, including Robert Aske and Sir Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland and then owner of nearby Wressle Castle.
The Common has provided a number of services to humans down the years. Animals will have grazed here for centuries and peat extraction has also taken place in many other areas. A number of fairly modern sand extraction pits have been found and surveyed across the Common as well, most likely from the Victorian period. Skipwith is known for its fine quality sand, which is very close to the surface in a number of places. These are often close to the edges of the Common, to allow for easy removal. Also from this period are the Line Ponds, an area of man-made watercourses that would have been used for flax retting, the separation of the fibres from the stalks. This is the vital first step before the processing of linen can begin.
RAF Riccall was commissioned in 1942, built across both Skipwith and Riccall Commons, and first training began on October 1st that year. It was officially opened one month later, on November 1st 1942. The base was decommissioned in 1945, but remained a storage depot for the Royal Air Force until they sold it in 1960.
The base was a ‘heavy conversion unit’, which meant it retrained aircrew who were used to flying twin-engined Wellington bombers to fly the heavier, four engined Handley Page Halifax. Thirty-two of these were stationed on site at all times and they took a crew of seven. Training time was eight to twelve weeks. Over 6000 Halifax’s were built, while between 70 and 100 from RAF Riccall crashed, for a variety of reasons.
One such accident, still remembered in the area, occurred on 10th May 1944, when Halifax JB789 collided with the spire of St James’ Church in Selby and flattened a number of houses on nearby Portholme Drive. All seven crew and eight civilians were killed. The church was rebuilt with just a square tower, the spire was not replaced.
At its height the base had 50 officers and 900 non-commissioned officers permanently attached to the site.
At the request of Natural England and with the blessing of the owners of the Common, Escrick Park Estate, Oxford Archaeology North have been providing training for the Friends for a number of years. Experienced project manager, Jamie Quartermaine, has visited Skipwith Common over the last three years with GPS and Total Station equipment to assist in the survey of ‘lumps and bumps’ across the Common. With his help the Friends have surveyed the Bronze Age territorial boundary network which stretches across the Common from north to south. Also during these training days with Jamie the Friends have discovered a number of sand extraction pits, a windmill platform, ridge and furrow field systems and a previously unmapped Bronze Age burial mound.
The Friends have also benefited from the assistance of York Community Archaeologist Jon Kenny on a number of occasions. As well as members attending his regular study days in and around York, he has visited the Common to help with measuring tasks, field walking, tape surveys and geophysics.