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Bradford Dale: A Changing Landscape

Physically, Bradford resembles a basin with its centre on lower ground, surrounded by higher areas. Ilkley is a lofty 1,319 feet above sea level compared to shallow Shipley at 259 feet. Over time, this landscape has experienced significant change.

Early stone markings, Baildon Moor
Cup & Ring Stone, Rombalds Moor, Ilkley

Throughout the Ice Age, the area to become known as Bradford was trapped under ice. In the Stone Age, the ice started to melt, creating a lake in Bradford’s basin. During the Middle Stone Age (7000 – 3000 BC), people hunted and gathered on the higher tundra ground. As temperatures rose, the lake shrank, trees grew and the soil became peat. By the end of the Stone Age (3000 – 1600 BC), hunter-gatherers were now primitive farmers, tentatively settling on Bradford’s higher ground. 

Farming has a long history.

From 1500 to 800 BC, Bronze Age tribes set up farms on high moorlands. From 800 BC, Iron Age or Celtic tribes-people developed more advanced hill-farming methods. Due to its high altitude, bad weather and poor soil, when the Romans came to Britain in 43 AD, they did not settle in Bradford. However, there are the remains of a military fort in Ilkley. Between 410 and 1066 AD German Saxons, then Vikings, settled in Britain. Farmers began clearing the land of trees and drained Bradford’s valley floor.

Medieval Bradford, or ‘Bradeford’ as it was recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book, was an active wool market town. The 14th-century legend of the Bradford boar in Cliffe Wood tells us that during this time Bradford was still a wild, wooded area. Bradford’s focus on the wool trade continued to develop for centuries, making use of its hills and fields for pastoral farming to rear sheep for wool which was washed, combed, spun and woven as a cottage industry.

View of Bradford, William Cowen, Bradford Museums and Galleries Collection

By the middle of the 19th century, there was a rise in the number of people migrating from Bradford’s countryside and from across the UK. Town life, with increasing numbers of mills, factories and houses, encroached on the surrounding countryside. Bradford’s rural landscape was altered as canals, roads and railways were carved through it. Despite this rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, Bradford still had strong farming communities and retained acres of green spaces. Today, two-thirds of Bradford is woodland, green space, moorland, agricultural or farming land with areas of ecological, scientific and geological importance.

C. H. Wood’s aerial photographs of Bradford and beyond give us a snapshot of how that landscape was at that particular time.