Geology and History of Brimham Rocks

Brimham Rocks, North Yorkshire in 1950.

The history of Brimham Rocks spans over 340 million years and is a treasure trove of geological and scientific interest. The natural and human history of the rocks have been enchanting visitors for generations. It is a place of history, adventure, peace and tranquillity.

Panorama of Brimham Rocks.
Panorama of Brimham Rocks, North Yorkshire.
Panorama of Brimham Rocks.

Geological  Brimham

The rocks at Brimham have been made by entirely natural processes that have taken many millions of years. Between 430-380 million years ago a mountain range as tall as the current Himalayas was created in the north of Britain when two continental plates collided. When this mountain range began to be worn away, sand and grit was laid down by the erosion in a vast river delta that covered half of Yorkshire. The unusual shapes at Brimham Rocks are a result of more recent activity in geological terms. During the last ice age 18,000 years ago, glacial winds blowing off an ice cap that covered the Pennines carried tiny particles of sand and other debris. These winds often blasted the rocks at ground level which explains the strange mushroom shapes of many of them including the Idol Rock and the Druid’s Writing Desk.

The rocks at Brimham are gritstone which is sedimentary rock comprised primarily of sand and grit. Specifically, it is fluvial sedimentary rock which means it was formed by an ancient river system. The rocks show the flow of the sediment which is known as a bedding plain. During the ice age when a passing glacier created Nidderdale valley, the hard compressed millstone grit resisted this weathering and was left exposed as the soft rocks were cut away by the ice. The soft rock and shale was further affected by sand blasting and weather to leave the famous stacks of millstone grit. Wind, rain, and frost still attack the weaknesses in the rock. Some parts of the rock are quite soft and can be worn away by climbers.

Natural Brimham

Brimham is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI). In the summer the ground cover is awash with colour from the common heather and bell heather as well as the frutiting bilberry bushes, and cowberries. The area is home to a variety of wildlife such as solitary mining bees and green tiger beetle as well as various bird species such as the meadow pipits, red grouse and finches. Brimham as a landscape is among the rarest in the world which makes it a very special place to enjoy the varied and abundant wildlife in the area.

People at Brimham

Visitors at Brimham in the 1800s on the Rocking Stones.
People visiting Brimham in the 1800s
Visitors at Brimham in the 1800s on the Rocking Stones.

Following the Norman conquest of 1066 the land was recorded in the Domesday book as ‘birnebeam’ - a name that means heavily wooded - and was described as ‘waste’ land. In 1132 nearby Fountains Abbey was founded and the Cistercian Monks grazed livestock at Brimham. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 the land passed into private hands and gained mass appeal in 1786 when Major Hayman Rooke visited the rocks and declared that they were carved by druids. Brimham House was constructed in 1792 as ‘accomodation for strangers’ and in 1970 the land was gifted to the National Trust. The site has since been open for people to wander and enjoy the views as well as experiencing the fascinating wildlife on offer.