Brimham Rocks could surprise you, a landscape of fantastically shaped crags and boulders that might look more at home in a theme park. It’s a place you should visit if you can’t afford the ‘bus fare to Arizona, Utah, or anywhere else that has an abundance of weirdly eroded rock formations. Not that Britain doesn’t have other curious, naturally sculpted, stones – Woolpacks on Kinder Scout is one of several on my ‘must visit’ list. But Brimham is unique and, in its own way, special. Of course, Britain doesn’t do really enormous geographical features; we prefer to keep things fairly modest. So, think of Brimham Rocks as Yorkshire’s answer to the Grand Canyon if you like; but just bear in mind that it’s smaller by some considerable margin and with a damp, far less extreme, climate. It is also in Nidderdale – closer to Pately Bridge and Harrogate than it is to Tusayan or Flagstaff.
The shorter story of the stones is that, about 320 million years ago, half of Yorkshire was the delta of a huge river that flowed south from Norway and Scotland. The water deposited layers of granite sand which went on to form a hard sandstone, Millstone Grit. Erosion, mostly during the last Ice age between 80-10,000 years ago, has worn away the softer rock, leaving harder rock exposed, sometimes in improbable positions. Once owned by the monks of Fountains Abbey, the Rocks have been a tourist attraction for at least 200 hundred years. At one time, they were thought to have something to do with Druids (wasn’t everything?). Nowadays, they are a magnet for families, their dogs and walkers (sometimes with more dogs). There is plenty of opportunity for adventure including, of course, clambering on, and falling off, the rocks.
I have written about Brimham Rocks before and declared that “This attraction carries a SEVERE CHILD WARNING: if you are not the keeper of young children, or feel distressed or intimidated by the presence of hoards of loud, scurrying, sometimes barging, and seemingly unsupervised small humans, DO NOT visit Brimham Rocks during the school holidays.” This came after an exceptionally harrowing visit in 2016, but both the (I thought obvious) humour and underlying serious point were unfortunately lost on some, who helpfully suggested a) that popular places sometimes get crowded and/or b) that they had some sympathy with the idea of not going anywhere during school holidays. It is particularly unfortunate, because I am fond of children – I just couldn’t eat a whole one. In fact, Brimham Rocks is the kind of place where children’s imaginations can run riot; they should be there, having a complete blast in the outdoors; it is a fabulous natural playground as well as a natural sculpture park. The most interesting comment, though, came from a brain cell calling itself ‘Danger_Ranger’, who wrote: “I’m guessing there’s loads of retired moaning old gits about when it’s not the school holidays, the type that were never once young themselves, envious that the youngsters have their whole life ahead while they are at the end of theirs.” Sadly, I have been unable to identify ‘Danger_Ranger’ – none of the options that came up when searching seemed to fit the profile of angry simpleton – and I can only assume that s/he happily enjoys life under a stone in one of our soggier habitats. The underlying serious point, of course, is that there is a breed of parent who genuinely, but erroneously, believe that everyone else is eager to share the experience of their darling, but amoral, children. The notion of consideration for others is alien to these people, who, alas, will presumably pass this cognitive deficit onto their offspring.
In 2018, a group of five youngsters, every one of them a potential Brain of Britain candidate, pushed one of the finely balanced rocks at Brimham off the top of its crag, thus destroying 320 million years of history.
The environment at Brimham Rocks includes heathland, bog and woodland. So there is a variety of plants, including various mosses and marsh plants, heather, bilberry, oak, rowan and – apparently – some particularly fierce birch trees, which have to be controlled by rangers. The rangers’ remit unfortunately appears not to extend to feral children, or their parents. Amazingly, Holly Blue and Green Hairstreak butterflies apparently manage to survive in these harsh surroundings. I have no idea what Holly Blue and Green Hairstreak butterflies look like; I just read this somewhere.
Some of the rocks have been given names – not personal names like Adolf or Goneril, but names which suggest the shape of the rock when viewed from a certain angle, such as ‘the Eagle’, ‘the Anvil’, ‘the Druid’s Idol’ and ‘the Fractious Child’ (I might have made the last one up).
Since 1970, Brimham Rocks has been owned by the National Trust, who in addition to caring for the place provide a shop (which sells locally made bilberry jam), toilets, information and basic refreshments in what used to be Brimham House. On a good day, Brimham would be a great spot for a picnic. It is certainly an intriguing place to see, with some wonderful views, though it can get crowded; did I mention that? The last time we visited it was busier than IKEA on a wet Saturday and made Prime Minister’s Questions seem civilised. The NT car park (free to members) was full and an enterprising farmer was offering spaces in a neighbouring field for the princely sum of £4.00 for each vehicle. We estimated that revenue would at be a minimum of £1,000 a day – not a bad little earner over a holiday period.
Brimham Rocks has popped up in various kids’ programmes, apparently, but the height of its fame, until being featured by A Bit About Britain, was an appearance in the video for the Bee Gees’ You Win Again in 1987. I’m sure you could find it if you want to, but here it is anyway. I expect Barry, Robin and Maurice filmed it when the kids were at school. Take it away, boys…