Tranquil woodland in the heart of Skipton

© Skipton Town Council 2016

The_wilderness_top2 squirrel l squirrel r

History & Heritage

The Wilderness was formerly the garden of Skipton’s first Grammar School, Ermysted’s, dating from the 16th century


The school was built on green fields, on the eastern edge of town. The Ordnance Survey map of 1852 shows the school buildings then standing free of other buildings, quite unlike the built-up area we know today. Interestingly, the site is adjacent to one of the early routes into Skipton from the east - via Sunmoor Lane and the pack horse bridge, a medieval

entry to the growing market town.


The garden itself dates from the 18th century and had a Shell Grotto, still there today though now in ruin. It is thought to have been created by Headmaster Samuel Plummer,1773-80, when he built himself a fine new house (now the Cross Keys pub) using money from the sale of school land to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company. This included a paddock and the garden planted with flowers, shrubs and trees. After a period of neglect the grounds and school buildings were rebuilt in the 1840s to create a second master’s house, boarding accommodation and the schoolroom. The neglected garden was allocated £10 for cultivation.


The Shell Grotto was a feature probably dating from the creation of the garden in the late 1700s. Lined with scallop shells and glistening pieces of calcite in a sunburst design, it must have looked spectacular. It appears from the 1852 Ordnance Survey map to have had an apron frontage and paths laid out to follow the stream. The two weirs, above and below the grotto, would have created a pool in front of the grotto. This is possibly the origin of the anecdote of a swimming pool for the boys.


In 1876 the Grammar School moved to new premises on Gargrave Road, and the old site plus grounds were put up for sale. At first in private hands, the main

building, the Headmaster’s house, was later bought by a brewery and the Cross Keys pub was created and opened in the late 1950s. What had been a proud

garden with grotto became a dumping ground for rubbish - totally neglected.


In 1998 the town’s Civic Society, as a Millennium project, decided to rescue what had now become known as The Wilderness. Led by the late Gwynne Walters, they

raised almost £30,000 to buy it from the brewery and restore it to an approximation of its original layout. In August 2000 it was formally handed over to the town.


The Friends of the Wilderness group was formed in 2008 to care for and maintain the area. We strive to hold a balance between what is essentially a ‘wild’ and natural area and managing this to ensure you can enjoy it in safety

packhorse_bridge old_grammar_school shell_grotto 1852 OS MAP

1852 map

The Wilderness Time Line



The project to reclaim the Wilderness was initiated by Skipton Civic Society, led by the late Margaret Robinson and Gwynne Walters.


1999 - 2000

Almost £30,000 was raised and the project put underway. The layout was based on original maps and records.

A tree and plant survey was carried out.



In August  ‘The Wilderness’ was formally handed over to the Town. During the Summer months a group of volunteers, led by Gwynne Walters formed a litter rota to ensure the site is always kept clean and tidy.



Primroses, wood anenomes were planted. The Wildlife Watch made bird and bat boxes and put them up on site.



Sadly Gwynne Walters, one of the original cause founders passed away. Isabel Warren stepped in to continue the good work.

A Lottery grant was received. The  paths were redone. A diseased beech tree was felled.



The Friends of The Wilderness group was formed.

The Friends of The Wilderness Constitution was agreed.

A Management Plan was implemented.

More Bird boxes were put on site.

Working Party days were implemented (e.g. once or twice a year on Saturday mornings).



The First Open Day was held. The day helped to raise local awareness of the site.



Research into the restoration and conservation of the shell grotto began.



A dead elm tree was felled, but the wood from the tree was used to make seating for The Wilderness.

Information leaflets were produced with the help of funding from the Mechanics Institute.

A North Yorkshire Reward Grant was received and used to improve pathways and produce interpretation boards.



The interpretation boards were added to the Wilderness site, creating a point of reference for visitors.



A grant was received from Yorventure.

The funding enabled the clearance of two major snowberry sites and the planting of primroses, bluebells, wood anenomes, a woodland selection including nettle leaved bell flower, ferns, saplings for understorey, including willow, dog rose, blackthorn, rowan, bird cherry.



Thanks to the generosity of Bentleys Engineering, in early March  ‘Operation Snowdrop’ took place. Volunteers lifted over a 1,000 snowdrops from ‘High Trees’ on The Bailey and transplanted them to the Wilderness site.


A rare species of moth was discovered- Lee Wiseman, who used to live in the area and still occasionally visits the Wilderness has reported spotting several ‘Least Black Arches’ (Nola confusalis), a rare species of moth. The moth has not been recorded in the whole of South West Yorkshire (VC63) since 1995 with only 8 records in total. There is a good supply of lime trees in the wood and within them is the food plant for the larva of this moth.


Research into the possibility of improving disabled access began.