National Character Area 36

Southern Pennines - Description

The Southern Pennines today

The large-scale, sweeping landscape of exposed upland moorland and pastures contrast strongly with deeply incised valleys with wooded sides. There is widespread and obvious evidence of man’s activities throughout history, which gives the area a historic richness but reduces its sense of remote wilderness.

The moorland plateau is dissected by many small, fast-flowing streams, which join to form four main river systems – the Wharfe, Aire, Colne and Calder, which drain eastwards, and two further rivers, the Roch and Irwell, which drain to the west. Most of the valleys are narrow and steep-sided, with woodland on the steepest slopes. The Aire and Wharfe are broader valleys, with pastures and meadows on the more level and fertile valley floors.

Agriculture is largely limited to livestock grazing on upland pastures, with some small-scale dairy farming in the valley bottoms. The field pattern is small fields defined by walls of local gritstone, and in places post and wire fencing. Improved pastures are found on the relatively better-quality land on lower moorland fringes and in the wider valleys and, in places, extensive Parliamentary enclosures have resulted in strong regular patterns of walled fields. Many of the farms hold rights to graze livestock on the moorlands, which they actively exercise.

On higher land, there are extensive areas of semi-natural habitats with the different types of moorland vegetation fluctuating in response to grazing regimes, exposure, hydrology and management. In places, the effects of enclosure, grazing, uncontrolled burning and atmospheric pollution have resulted in vegetation dominated by purple moor grass, mat grass and cotton grass. The core of the area however supports a rich variety of upland habitats, including internationally important blanket bog and upland heathland, which form an intimate mosaic with species-rich flushes and acid grassland. These habitats provide food and shelter for a number of bird species, including merlin, shorteared owl and golden plover.

These upland habitats contrast with the grasslands of the moorland fringes, which are generally under less extensive agricultural management, giving rise to a patchwork of fields, with varied texture and colour. The wetter rushy pastures provide feeding and nesting areas for birds such as lapwing, snipe, redshank and curlew. The remaining species-rich meadows on the valley sides and bottoms offer colourful displays of flowers in spring and early summer, while also providing a valuable food source for the nationally important populations of twite.

Woodland is sparse and generally limited to the steep sides of valleys, where woodlands of beech and sycamore occur along with small areas of conifers. Internationally important upland oak woodlands, primarily associated with wooded cloughs, extend up to the moorland, but some are in poor condition. There are a few 20th-century conifer plantations on higher land, in some instances associated with the reservoirs. The isolated farmsteads on the moorland fringes are often sheltered by copses of trees.

The moorland plateau provides extensive views out over the valleys, and across the plains and conurbations of Manchester and Lancashire and across the conurbations of the wool towns of Yorkshire to the east. This reduces the sense of isolation that is often experienced in other upland moorland locations, but there remains a sense of grandeur and spaciousness on the moorland tops, with big skies and exposure to the elements. Built forms including Stoodley Pike, wind farms, communications masts and pylon lines are prominent features that are visible from long distances. Quarries are largely restricted to moorland fringes, with the exception of the heavily quarried valley at Whitworth.

The Southern Pennines have a rich history, with evidence from prehistory on the moorland tops, medieval boundary stones, and early and late industrialisation. The many weavers’ houses with wide windows, for example in the older villages such as Heptonstall and Luddenden located on the shelves of land above the valleys, provide evidence of the early practice of processing wool at home. The fast-flowing streams were used to power corn, wool and cotton mills, and the lime-free water arising from the sandstone was ideal for processing textiles.

The many structures in close proximity to water provide ideal sites for bats, notably Daubenton’s, while waterbodies such as mill ponds provide suitable conditions for the vulnerable native crayfish.

The settlements are predominantly built from the local sandstone, with stone flag roofs, in a vernacular style, so that there is strong visual coherence, with many of the settlements making a significant contribution to the overall aesthetic quality of the landscape. Other historic features, notably the many non-conformist chapels, reveal the independent thinking of the people of the area and remain as striking landmarks.

The area is a valuable water catchment area and contains a large number of reservoirs for the supply of water to adjacent conurbations as well as making a substantial contribution both to landscape character and to the attractiveness of the area for visitors. Other attractions include Brontë countryside around Haworth, Hardcastle Crags and the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.

The landscape through time

The Southern Pennines are formed from the Millstone Grit Group and the Coal Measures, both of Carboniferous age. The hills of the Pennines here dip down relatively gently to the east but are steeper to the west, giving rise to some elevated scarps on the west side.

In the middle of the area, thick, coarse-grained sandstone (gritstone) beds lie horizontally and are separated by softer mudstone and siltstone beds, creating a terraced landscape of flat-topped hills and interlocking escarpments. Between Todmorden and Bacup, the Westphalian-age Coal Measures, a sequence of thin coals, shales and sandstones overlie the Millstone Grit.

The area is cut by numerous faults, giving rise to a complicated pattern of rocks. Cliviger Gorge, a deeply trenched glacial erosion feature, follows the line of a fault. The alternate bedding of hard grit and softer shales gives rise to a number of waterfalls, such as Lumb Falls near Hebden Bridge.

In the south of the area, between Rochdale and Huddersfield, the Pennines are at their narrowest, with crag-capped edges running parallel to the main valleys. Ice melt has deepened these narrow and steep-sided valleys.

To the north-east of the area Rombalds Moor, a distinctive lower ridge of Millstone Grit, is separated by the wide valley of the River Aire, where glacial till occurs along with alluvium. During the last ice age, glacial moraine ridges blocked drainage of the valley, forming a series of glacial lakes, the deposits of which are preserved beneath the alluvium.

Extensive woodland clearance of higher land during the later Neolithic period and the Bronze Age has formed the open peat landscapes of today. Significant evidence can be seen in the nationally significant Neolithic carved rocks of Rombalds Moor and the Mesolithic deposits preserved beneath the peat on Castleshaw Moor.

There is evidence of iron-age settlements, and of a Roman road between Manchester and Ribchester, while during the medieval period a network of packhorse trails was established across the Pennines. Royal hunting forests were established in the Norman period on the slopes above Rossendale, Hoddlesden and Trawden, which formed the framework for later farmsteads, hamlets and cattle farms (vaccaries).

The combination of fast-flowing streams and soft water quality made the area very suitable for textile production and, based on sheep reared locally, the textile-producing areas grew in prosperity from the 14th century. Farming was often combined with home-based weaving, coal mining and quarrying, while the wooded valley sides were coppiced. More land was enclosed and new, aisled farmhouses and farm buildings were built, while small and irregular fields around settlements developed in the 17th and 18th centuries as weavers’ subsistence plots.

From the 15th century, enclosure on the moorland fringes began, accelerating in the 16th century. In the late 18th century, large-scale division of much of the remaining land was undertaken, some initially for arable cropping, though most was devoted to sheep rearing.

The hard, impervious sandstones created conditions for the construction of large reservoirs, firstly to supply the canals and then to provide drinking water for the expanding conurbations to the east and west. The hard sandstones were also widely used for building farms, barns, walls, factories, terraced houses and chapels. Evidence of coal mining and stone quarrying can be seen on the valley sides, as at Bacup, Haslingden and Cliviger.

The home-based textile industry, with its stone cottages built with large windows to light the looms, was overtaken in the 18th century by rapid industrialisation which concentrated people into the valleys where water-powered fulling and spinning mills were built. This was facilitated by the improvement of the transport infrastructure, with construction of the canals (which opened up trading routes to the Atlantic), followed by railways and road improvements.

By the 19th century, the landscape was dominated by large mill buildings with chimneys and extensive rows of terraces clinging onto the hillsides. Non-conformity was well established, and chapels became a common feature. There was some depopulation of the higher land, some as a result of actions of the early water companies, as reservoirs were built across this area to supply the new mill towns. The decline of the textile industry, following the slump of 1920, left many mills derelict.

Over recent decades, there has been a continuing pressure from development in the area, especially in the east and south, with a large number of barn conversions. Farmsteads continue to be sold off separately from the land, with consequent changes in curtilages, including the division of adjacent fields into pony paddocks. Many mills have been converted into other uses, including retail and housing. There is demand for space for wind farms, to capture the strong winds on the moorlands. There has been an increase in the area of woodland, and more woodlands have been brought under management, in particular to restock and expand upland oak woodlands.

Farm size remains small and livestock numbers remain high, although they have dropped significantly since 2000. In places, drystone walls are collapsing through lack of maintenance and some intensification of grassland management has occurred.

Historic grazing regimes, coupled with air pollution and artificial drainage, have all had a significant effect on the blanket bog, mire and wet-heath communities of the South Pennines. In many locations, a recent increase in the frequency of moorland burning is associated with a reduction in overall biodiversity. Where this effect has combined with wildfire events, moorland habitats can become overly dominated by single species of flora, such as purple moor grass.