According to local historian, Thomas William Thompson, the Spen Valley was once inhabited by a “brave, fearless people” who were “small in stature” but made up for that by their physical strength. They were known as the Brigantes and controlled the vast majority of Northern England in pre-Roman times.
The Geography of the Spen Valley would have been key to how these lived, and Thompson also gives us a captivating description of what the Spen Valley may have looked like in this pre-Roman era. The area of Spen was “densely wooded with beech, oak, pine and thorn trees” and “gorse, broom, and blackberry bushes” would reach the edge of the “broad stream of water” that would one day be known as the River Spen. This river itself twisted down the valley, collecting driftwood and other debris brought downstream by melting snow or stormwater. There were probably stretches of moorland, at places like Harsthead Moor, that were “covered with bracken, ling, gorse, broom, and blackberry bushes”.
Bee-hive shaped “wattle-and-daube” huts may have been built in this landscape. These huts were built by the Brigantes and were supported by a network of tree branches, interwoven with twigs, and covered with mud or clay. It was dark inside the huts, night or day, as there was only a small hole to enter or exit. One family resided in one hut, and they were all built close together, forming a small village that was protected by a fence or enclosure to keep out dangerous wild animals.
The Brigantes didn’t have any knowledge of metal, so, therefore, could only use tools made of bone, wood or stone. They typically used choppers and hammers for weapons, which were mainly used for defensive or hunting purposes.
Men would leave to go hunting in parties, typically killing wolves and bears, to secure their skins, which were then taken to the village to be preserved. Women would use these skins to create clothing for the village; they would use bone needles and strips of hide to sew the clothes together. Of course, the men would also hunt other animals for various other purposes, including to eat.
The people were likely self-sufficient, eating a diet of fish, deer and wild boar. They also collected nuts and succulent roots to be eaten in winter and during summer and autumn could rely on an abundance of wild fruits. The Brigantes could make fires, and these would be lit outside where they would cook communally, away from their huts to avoid setting them on fire.
There is not much known about the religion of the Brigantes, but they probably worshipped a goddess named Brigantia.
The Brigantes remained a dominant force across the North of England up until the Roman conquest and would take the Romans decades to subjugate. It is arguable that the distinct identity of Yorkshire and the unique genetic identity of West Yorkshire can be traced back to the Brigantes, to an extent.
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