Beautiful barns of the Dales

PUBLISHED: 18:24 20 November 2009 | UPDATED: 15:47 20 February 2013



There are thousands of them but they go largely unnoticed - Jo Haywood turns the spotlight on the beautiful barns of the Dales

Bill Bryson likes a good barn. As an internationally renowned travel writer and people watcher he regularly jets around the world to observe its many and varied wonders. But in his quieter moments, he likes nothing more than exploring a dusty old Yorkshire barn.

'Many of the best of England's barns are in the Dales,'

'People are often surprised to learn that farm buildings are the single largest category of listed structures in Britain. There are some 30,000 of them in England alone - dovecotes, sheds, byres, outhouses, stables and above all barns.'

Bill reveals this little known fact in his foreword to a beautifully presented new book, Barns of the Yorkshire Dales: History, Preservation and Grand Designs. 'The finest barn I know - one of the finest buildings really - stands on a lonely stretch of road between Settle and Malhamdale on the brow of a craggy glory known as Kirkby Fell,' he said. 'For eight years when I lived in the Yorkshire Dales, I drove or cycled (well, wobbled breathlessly) past it several times a week while enjoying what is unquestionably one of the world's most sublime landscapes.

'I don't believe I ever failed to marvel at that barn - for how beautifully it was built and how perfectly it enhanced its setting. I've no idea why it was built where it was, in the middle of nowhere, still less why it was built with such handsome and scrupulous care, but thank goodness it was,for it really is a treasure.'

But this is just one of the thousands of barns scattered among the villages, meadows and pastures of the Yorkshire Dales. Stone structures of great character, they form a monument to the immense labour it took to successfully work the land in years gone by. Barns of the Dales, written by David Joy and Andy Singleton, falls into two distinct halves that represent the diverse interests of its authors.

David is an historian and writer. He comes from Upper Wharfedale farming stock and knows many individual barns from first hand experience. He writes fluently about the history of these often lonely-looking stone structures, documenting their rise and decline and the changes in rural life that dictated their fate. 'I grew up with barns,' he explained. 'As a small boy I earned a daily sixpence by meandering down to fetch milk from the village. It was fascinating to watch the cows getting their turn at the milking machines, but not nearly as exciting as meandering over to one of the outlying barns.

'These barns were dark and mysterious places with their very own aroma of dung and damp. I started to sense the special qualities of barns with their dimly lit interiors giving a church-like atmosphere of calm and repose and they soon featured on my list of books to write.'

Andy is much more hands-on. He has been a builder in the Dales for more than 25 years and has worked on many barns, breathing new life into them while creating marvellous new homes for a lucky few. He talks knowledgeably about the construction methods and materials used to build barns and even reveals a few tricks of the conversion trade. 'Don't ever live in a caravan on site unless you are doing the work yourself,' he said sagely. 'No, don't even do it then, particularly if you have small children. You will become depressed, fall out with your builder, walk around looking like a refugee and get divorced as soon as the project is completed and you can sell the building.'

He is a no-nonsense Yorkshireman, and in that fine old tradition of no-nonsense Yorkshire 'speaks as he finds'. 'Working outside on a Dales barn is surely far more satisfying for the soul than squinting at a bilberry mobile,' he said. 'Sadly, it doesn't have much monetary value though. In today's world you need large piles of cash merely to breathe, eat and travel. It's a huge shame.

'At our current rate of consumption of natural resources our lifestyle is unsustainable; so how did we arrive at the point where any Simpkins who knows his way around a computer can earn three or four times more than a man who can build something that will stand for hundreds of years?'

'I don't know the answer... that's probably one of the reasons I'm skint.'

Barns of the Yorkshire Dales: History, Preservation and Grand Designs by Andy Singleton and David Joy is published by Great Northern Books, priced 16.99. To order a copy, phone 01274 735056 or click on

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