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History of Brimham Rocks

Visitors to Brimham Rocks in the 19th century
Visitors to Brimham Rocks in the 19th century | © Brimham Rocks Archive

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.

The beginning of Brimham

Brimham’s rocks are largely made from millstone grit. The North America and Eurasia plates collided 400 million years ago, creating a huge mountain range to the north of the Brimham/Nidderdale area.

Around 335 million years ago, the UK was located over the equator where warm, tropical seas dominated. Approximately 15 million years later, erosion from the mountain range transported silt, sand and pebbles by fast flowing, powerful rivers, periodically flooding this tropical paradise.

The grit included crystals of steel-hard quartz and softer crystals of feldspar. The deposits by the rivers were compressed and hardened over time to form the millstone grit rocks of Brimham.

Bedding planes

As grit and sand is laid down, each depositional episode form layers called bedding planes. Bedding planes represent periods of time and depending on the angle at which they are laid down, show the direction the river was flowing.

A change in the angle of the bed is representative of a change in the river direction. In some places at Brimham the bedding planes run diagonally as well as horizontally, showing where huge underwater sand dunes once were.

Holes and tunnels

In places there are large holes and tunnels. Some of these were formed by stones getting caught in an indentation and being swirled round by water, wearing away circular holes.

Long, tunnel-like holes are likely to have been formed when giant vegetation (such as roots) were buried in the rock when it was being formed. It then would have eroded more quickly, leaving a tube-like hole.

Close up of rock formations at Brimham Rocks
Rock formations at Brimham Rocks | © National Trust Images/John Millar

A ripple effect

When North Africa collided with Europe about 50–25 million years ago, forming the Alps, there was a ripple effect extending north to parts of the UK, resulting in massive forces putting lots of pressure on the rocks. This caused some to crack and fracture. An example is Eagle Rock where the sides of the two rocks fit together perfectly.

The Ice Age

During the last Ice Age (30,000–18,000 years ago) a passing glacier carved out the Nidderdale Valley, creating a deep U-shaped cross-section. The hard millstone grit of Brimham resisted this glacial erosion and was left exposed as the softer rocks of the Nidderdale Valley were cut away by the moving ice, before it finally melted about 10,000 years ago.

The gritstones at Brimham were exposed above the glacier and subjected to fierce Arctic-like weather, further eroding the rocks into even more fanciful shapes.

House exterior at Brimham Rocks.
House at Brimham Rocks | © National Trust Images/Paul Harris

People and Brimham: Medieval times to present day

Medieval times

From 'waste' to estate

In the Domesday Book Brimham is recorded as ‘Birnebeam’ – a name suggesting that it used to be heavily wooded – and described as ‘waste’, uncultivated and unpopulated.

By 1252 it was owned by the monks at Fountains Abbey and used for grazing livestock. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, Brimham passed into private hands and became part of the Grantley estate in the 18th century.

Stacked rock formation at Brimham Rocks, with blue sky above

Discover more at Brimham Rocks

Find out how to get to Brimham Rocks, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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