The Mystery of Otley's Vacca Wall
I regularly walk my dog on Otley Chevin and walking up from the East Chevin Quarry Car Park to Surprise View, I often pass a long substantial wall of stone slabs along one of the paths. They almost look like some sort of Neolithic remains, so intrigued I set about finding out more…
The wall runs east-west across the edge of the Chevin and consists of large, upright, flat stone slabs made of the local gritstone situated in a long line next to a trackway through the woodland. The straight line follows a contour of 230m and can also be reached from the steep steps up from the White House Café to Surprise View.
It turns out that there are lots of theories about the origins of the structure. One is that it dates to Roman times, but whilst an ancient Roman road used to follow the high ground behind the Royalty Pub near Surprise View, it is unlikely that the vertical stones were erected during this period. Some people believe that they are simply a boundary marker with no purpose, to communicate where land ownership changed. This again is doubtful as many straight boundary markers consist of single standing stones like those that exist on the Moors.
Another theory seems to point to its origins being that of a medieval Vaccary Wall (or Vacca Wall). This name came from the Latin for cow – Vacca/Vaccaria and so its purpose would have been to act as a wall or barrier for keeping cattle in.
There are lots of similar walls across the country in the Pennines, all supposedly used to enclose cattle. Perhaps the most famous is the Wycoller Wall near Colne.
With the Chevin valley side seeming to turn from grassland/moorland to woodland close to this pathway and it being situated next to where the edge of the Chevin drops away steeply due to landslips on the valley sides, this seems to makes sense. With cows being valuable creatures, the last thing a farmer would want would be to lose their livestock falling down a steep hill.
The slab stones appear to have come from the nearby Yorgate Quarry, where the carboniferous gritstone/sandstone, naturally splits (or can easily be split) and is therefore not difficult to quarry as flat slabs. This suggests that the stone would have been easier to use as a barrier than building a dry stone wall. By setting the slabs into the ground in prepared pits, it would have also been a more substantial barrier to hold large animals such as the cows than a wooden fence or drystone wall.
Whilst many Vacca walls date to medieval times it appears that Otley’s Vacca Wall is more recent. Local historians P.Wood and C.Dean have posted a great article on Otley Local History Bulletin which seems to have solved the mystery. They believe the wall dates back to 1783 when Laurence & Thomas Flesher – a local firm of tanners were allocated the leasehold to the land as part of the Parliamentary Enclosures Act of this year. The plot edge followed the contour of the wall.
Therefore, it appears its purpose was a boundary marker as well as an enclosure for cattle to aid stock keeping. But, the Otley Vacca Wall therefore does not date to the middle ages but instead to the 18th century. I hope you agree it’s still a pretty fascinating monument to Yorkshire’s local heritage and the effort to construct something like this which has stood the test of time is still pretty impressive!