Although pretty much any structures they built are now long gone, traces still remain in much of Northern England, of the European settlers/raiders who arrived here in the Early Middle Ages – not physically, but certainly linguistically in the place names they left behind. They’ve definitely mutated in the intervening centuries/millenium, but they’re there, ’Thwaite’ is a particularly common suffix1 and appears to be derived from the Old Norse ‘þveit’ which translates to ‘clearing’. Looking at the sparse rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales it’s easy to forget that despite their reputation as a place of ‘natural beauty’, the current landscape is anything but, and is actually the result of centuries of human intervention predominantly for the purposes of farming. Originally, dense woodland wood have covered great swathes of the area, leading any break in the vegetation to be of enough significance to warrant especial naming.
The lonely farmstead of Sarthwaite lies below the Southern portion of the Howgill Fells which effectively separates the Yorkshire Dales from the Lake District, and having sorted the ‘thwaite’ in the name, the ‘Sar’ proves a little trickier as I can’t find any close match that sounds plausible. The word ‘sær’ isn’t too far off though and is defined as ‘eccentric/odd’ which I really like. You’d have to be fairly eccentric to live in a remote place like this, without electricity or vehicle access well into the 1980s! My theory however, is that it probably refers to a person’s name so Sarthwaite could mean something like ‘Sar’s Clearing’, possibly after the original discoverer or settler. Though the land itself appears to have been settled for well over a millennium, the current farm buildings date to around 1710 and seem to have been fairly constantly occupied until the late 1980s2, when the last residents finally moved out at what looks to have been Christmas time judging from the scraggy remnants of tinsel around one of the old fireplaces inside.
The farmhouse would once have been whitewashed with lime – you can still see faint traces of it on the exterior stonework, but if you venture inside, the effect is much more evident in the living room you enter into, where the walls have not had to endure several decades of weathering. There are still a few objects of interest left by the previous occupants – a couple of what I believe are caving suits that lie rotting away in the corner of the kitchen, along with a Lascaux Caves poster upstairs possibly give a little insight into their interests and why they’d choose to base themselves in such an isolated place – the area is rife with limestone caves and old mineshafts to explore for the seasoned underground adventurer.
I’ve been in a few of these old farmhouses now, and it always surprises me how the rather plain exterior prepares you for a similarly austere interior, but more often than not the rooms are either painted incredibly vibrant colours or have beautifully intricate wallpapers that stand in stark contrast to the vanilla exterior. In Sarthwaite’s upstairs quarter the walls in one of the bedrooms are a rather garish shade of Orange, with what looked to have been a complementary Blue ceiling that’s now decided the floor is a much more preferable place to hang out. Much of the heavy furniture – beds, dressers and the great big range downstairs has been unsurprisingly left behind by the last occupants – you’d never get a removal truck up the rough dirt access road that leads here, nor the will to carry the stuff most likely. There is however a more unforgivable crime afoot here, in the form of a poor teddybear left to fend for himself on a chair at the top of the stairs – a truly despicable act of callous abandonment. I didn’t rescue him though if that’s what you’re thinking – like an architectural David Attenborough I merely observe, not interfere.
A recent(ish) land inspection from 2015 indicates that the eventual intention is to restore and lease the house out again which could end up being an ordeal similar to East/West Scale in nearby Grisedale due to national park planning constraints – the electricity supply would probably be the biggest nuisance, as I imagine the Parks Authority would want it laid underground, rather allow ‘unsightly’ pylons to be erected. The house seems structurally sound though, these 18th century dwellings were built to last, but until then, it looks like Teddy will have to wait before he gets a new home…
- See Swinithwaite, Adamthaite, Narthwaite for starters, and that’s just in the near vicinity of this particular farm.
- Interestingly tracing back the occupants, it appears as if Sarthwaite was once owned by the father of famous artist Myles Birket Foster although it doesn’t seem as if Myles himself spent any time here.