The “Forest of Knaresborough” was an ancient area to the west of the present town, first mentioned in 1167, though possibly established even before the Norman Conquest, as a royal hunting-ground. It was not a forest in the modern sense of the word, ie a continuous stretch of woodland, but much more open land. It covered a huge area, around 40 square miles, containing 24 townships between the Rivers Nidd and Wharfe, extending almost as far as Pateley Bridge and Appletreewick.
There were attempts to enclose the forest in the 16th and 17th centuries, which all failed due to local opposition. Because of the large number of illegal (though generally small) encroachments that were being made, an investigation was ordered in 1766, resulting in a Commission being set up the following year. This reported that a good deal of the Forest common was “capable of cultivation and improvement”, and the Enclosure Act followed in 1770.
The first task of the Commission, however, had been to establish the forest boundaries. Accordingly a perambulation was announced, starting at Ribston (on the Nidd, three miles south-east of Knaresborough) on September 3rd 1767, with the assistance of local people. The boundary was then marked by a series of round-topped stones carved with a number, the letters K-F, and the date (normally 1767).
There were 49 stones, of which around 30 survive, not all in their original position. The route of the boundary is described in Christopher Butterfield’s booklet (details below), which has photographs of all the surviving stones .
The Commissioners started at the junction of the Nidd and the Crimple (or Crimple Beck), just below Ribston. The boundary follows the Crimple, which flows south of Harrogate, as far as Pannal, where stone no 1 is found, and continues in a clockwise direction to no 49, near the Nidd between Killinghall and Ripley. This is presumed to be the last in the series, as the boundary follows the river back to where the Commissioners started.
Nos 8, 9 and 10 have different dates (1823 and 1825); these are in the parish of Great Timble, and are presumed to be the result of a boundary dispute which took a long time to resolve. Another dispute is possibly responsible for the absence of stones nos 19 to 25 in the lead-mining area around Stump Cross.
Two surviving stones do not conform to the usual pattern (it has been suggested that one stone-mason was responsible for all the stones). These are no 12, at Gawk Hall, on the moors north of Ilkley where four parishes meet, and no 18, at Lord’s Seat, two miles east of Appletreewick. For these the legend has been carved on a large existing natural boulder or outcrop of rock, in situ.
Sources: Christopher Butterfield, comp. and Cyril Mason: The boundary stones of Knaresborough Forest (published by the authors, 6 Ashville Close, Harrogate, HG2 9LZ, 2009); Harrogate WEA Local History Group, ed Bernard Jennings: A history of Harrogate and Knaresborough (Huddersfield: Advertiser Press, 1970); Olwen Middleton: Knaresborough Forest boundaries (Milestone Society Yorkshire News, 2013, no 13, pp 3-5). Photo by Joe Regan on geolocation.ws.