Mastiles Lane was a mediaeval track forming part of a road system connecting Fountains Abbey with its lands in the Dales and the Lake District.
It commenced at Kilnsey where many tracks converged on a monastic grange built in the twelfth century. This served all the Fountains Abbey estates in Upper Wharfedale, Littondale and upper Airedale. From here it crossed the open moorland of Kilnsey Moor and Mastiles, past Street Gate.
This name has also been given to the road itself, and is an indication that the route has actually been used in Roman times, and possibly even before that. Aerial photography and archaeology has revealed a Roman marching camp on it, just north of Low Stony Bank.
After Street Gate it crosses Malham Water, the short stretch of a stream that issues from the Tarn before disappearing underground to re-emerge not below the Cove as originally thought, but south of Malham village at a place known as Aire Head.
The name Mastiles Lane applies only to the stretch from Kilnsey to Malham, but the monastic route continued over to Stainforth and then north-west towards the Fountains Abbey lands in the Lake District. The origin of the name is not known, but it is not inconceivably related, albeit distantly, to the old Cumberland dialect word mastel, meaning a patch of an arable field never ploughed.
Wayside crosses were erected at prominent places along this stretch of the route: somewhere for a quick prayer to help you on your way, and to guide travellers over the somewhat featureless landscape.
These were generally square shafts inserted into hollowed sockets cut into a stone base. Five of these bases survive, though the crosses themselves have disappeared, re-used in later stone walls no doubt. A good example is near the point where Cow Gill crosses Mastiles Lane and the oddly named Smearbottoms Lane meets it (SD 9299 6548) – pictured right.
Two crosses that appear intact can be found in the vicinity of Malham: Nappa Cross and Weets Cross.
Nappa Cross is by Kirkby Fell, 3 km west of Malham village, just north of an old track to Settle (SD 8751 6416). Sadly, this is not entirely authentic: it has been moved, possibly from the junction of this path with the Settle track, and re-erected incongruously on the top of a dry-stone wall. And the shaft was replaced in 1965 according to the National Park.
Weets Cross is 2 km east of Malham, on Weets Top (SD 9252 6323). It is at a high point on a track from Mastiles Lane to the Fountains lands south of Malham, and a logical place for a wayside cross. Especially as it is at an important point of great antiquity where five townships meet: Bordley, Hetton, Calton, Hanlith and Malham.
Sources: article by David Garside in the Dalesman, August 2021; Geoffrey N Wright: Roads and trackways in the Yorkshire Dales (1985); websites: historicengland.org.uk, outofoblivion.org.uk, yorkshiredales.org.uk. Photos by David Garside and Milestone Society.
RWH / August 2021