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Brimham Rocks – man made or natural - how this iconic rock formation came to be?

In Nidderdale not far from Pateley Bridge is the National Trust site of Brimham Rocks. This collection of dramatic, weirdly shaped rocks set in dramatic moorland is a popular visitor attraction and one of my favourite places in Yorkshire as it is so photogenic.

Many of the rocks have been given names after their specific shapes – so it is worth a walk around to see rocks such as The Dancing Bear and the Rocking Stone.

But how did this strange rock formation come to exist?

With a bluffers guide to geology I will try and explain…

Over 400 million years ago two tectonic plates one containing Europe & Asia and the other North America smashed together creating mountains up in the North. At the time the rocks of Yorkshire were actually just south of the equator and Yorkshire was below a deep tropical sea.

About 320 million years ago the mountain ranges had started to erode, the sea levels over Yorkshire had dropped and fast flowing rivers carried the eroded silts and sands containing feldspar and quartz from the eroded mountains into Yorkshire.

These deposits built up and compressed to form a type of sandstone. As the rivers were fast flowing they could carry larger grains – carrying coarser sand and grit – meaning the deposits around Nidderdale ended up forming a rock called Millstone Grit. (The coarsely grained rock was ideal for making millstones to grind wheat and make flour).

Millstone grit is a type of sedimentary rock – which means it is laid down in layers. At Brimham we can see these layers but they are not all horizontal, there are some at angles where underwater dunes were moved by flooding.

So we have explained how the rock was formed but we have millstone grit in other parts of Yorkshire which hasn’t created such weird formations. So how did they form.

There are a couple of factors in play here, firstly about 50 million years ago the North African plate collided with Europe pushing up The Alps, but the force of the collision also created pressure causing the Nidderdale gritstone to fracture and crack in some instance.

Then more recently during the last Ice Age a huge glacier came from the North carving out the U shaped valley that is now Nidderdale. The harder millstone grit rocks at Brimham resisted the glacier but the rocks were exposed by the moving ice. The ice melted about 10,000 years ago but the exposed rock has since been subjected to eroding from wind blown sand, rain, freeze thaw, water and ice which has created the strange formations we see today.

So as well as this ancient history, in more recent times – Brimham was mentioned in the Domesday book as Bimebean but was recorded as “waste” – the area having been subjected to the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror. The land became owned by the Monks of Fountains Abbey who grazed their sheep in the area, before becoming part of the Grantley Hall Estate after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

People started to visit Brimham Rocks in the 1700’s and they attracted much interest from antiquarians who believed the formations were man made and that they had been built by ancient druids for worship. There actually were never any Druids in the area but some of the rocks get their names from this myth.

In Victorian times the location became popular with writers, painters and poets as well as day trippers and a tearoom was opened in the early 1900’s.

It’s worth mentioning that it is not just the rocks people come to see but also the surrounding countryside. This unique upland woodland and moorland landscape is so important that it has been classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A number of the strange shaped rocks have been eroded at their base from sandblasting and windblown ice – a great example of this is the Idol Rock. A huge rock balanced carefully on a tiny plinth at the base which has mostly disappeared. It is only a matter of time before this disappears and the rock falls!

The Druid’s Writing Desk is another rock which has been sandblasted into a mushroom shaped rock which looks like a desk.

The Flower Pot is a cylindrical shaped rock near Druid’s Castle Rocks where a more square block of rock has been eroded into something which is round and resembles a pot.

So if you visit, see if you can head out and spot some of the other rocks with names such as The Smartie Tube, The Blacksmiths Anvil, Lover’s Leap, The Dancing Bear, The Eagle, and the Rocking Stone.

My guests from Singapore in December loved visiting just before sun set and their kids had great fun exploring the formations and pulling their own shapes of the rocks – particularly the Dancing Bear.

There are a number of public footpaths and trails through the site, from a short half an hour walk from the car park to a 9 mile loop walk around the area.


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