Interest in the Harrogate Stray tends to be aroused only when it is under threat of some intrusion, as very recently when the scheme for a Starbeck By-pass would have cut a wide road through part of it at Granby Corner.Otherwise, as the late Mr. John Wilshere, former manager of the town s entertainments, was wont to say, people are generally satisfied to check now and then that it is still there.
The absence of any marked show of appreciation for the long-standing of that heritage need not, however, preclude us from learning something of the history of this very important asset to the growth of Harrogate. Over the years it has been the subject of endless controversy, some of it essential, some neurotic, and some quite unnecessary. Time and again, a clear understanding of the Stray's whys and wherefores would have helped either to avoid controversy or to prevent not only some of the more wayward acts and proposals which have led to controversy but also the loss to the public service for Harrogate of some excellent councillors.
Many will remember the long-sustained uproar conducted between the wars about "Flowers on the Stray" A Town Council otherwise well equipped to cope with Harrogate's economic problems in those years put up a stubborn fight against Stray Defenders who rightly demanded that flower beds should not decorate the Stray and before it acknowledged defeat many a good member of the Council lost his seat to be replaced by opponents who at a difficult period had to learn that local government was concerned with a great deal more than just preserving the Stray inviolate, important though that function was.
In 1770, when the Enclosure Act for the Forest of Knaresborough was passed, Harrogate consisted of two villages, High and Low Harrogate, respectively parts of the townships of Bilton with Harrogate and Pannal. The villages' fame rested on the periodical discovery from 1571 onwards of medicinal springs, first of the chalybeate (iron) kind in High Harrogate and, a little later of the sulphur kind in Low Harrogate. Where these springs were found on the common waste land of the Forest they were public property and so long as the Forest remained unenclosed (i.e. so long as the common waste land was not allocated to or acquired by private individuals) the public in the widest sense of the word had access across the common waste to the springs of which anyone could drink freely.
The area's mineral springs, believed then, and indeed believed by people with practical experience to this day, to have remarkable medicinal properties were not only discovered on the common waste land. Now and then some fortunate property occupier came across a spring or two on the land he occupied and exploited his discovery since the growing fame of the Harrogate spa waters was annually bringing a rich harvest of visitors to partake of them.
The growth of Harrogate's hospitality industry for which it is notable to this day was largely in the hands of individuals who had not been so lucky as those few who had discovered a mineral spring on their property. These lodging house keepers and innkeepers necessarily relied on the free and public availability of the springs on the common land.Since the Forest of Knaresborough, a royal hunting ground since at least the days of John of Gaunt, had reverted to the Crown as Duchy of Lancaster there had from Tudor, let alone Stuart, times been occasional efforts to capitalise on the huge area of land which ranged from the Nidd at Knaresborough to Greenhow Hill. The Forest tenants who had acquired their tenancies for the most part by surreptitious incursions and enclosures for which they were fined, the fines being resolved into rents kept artificially low thanks to the accretion of rights and usages, were never warmly disposed to an Act of Enclosure which would possibly deprive them of the rights they had inherited and for which they obtained Royal confirmation at expedient times.
Nevertheless, the time had to come when the need for farmers to be independent of the common fields system and the need of the Crown for money converged into the formal reorganisation of the Forest into enclosed tenures adequately serviced with roads and bridges. It had taken all of two centuries to bring those concerned to the sticking point and manifestly the years leading to 1770 brought a threat of unimaginable proportions to the people in the flourishing hospitality industry of the two Harrogates who relied on their visitors' being able to gain access to the public medicinal springs. If the land on which the public springs were sited went into private ownership they could say goodbye to their livelihoods.
Thus it was that a powerful lobby petitioned Parliament successfully that 200 acres "adjoining or near to" the various springs should be set out in order that people resorting to the waters should have access to them and, additionally, should continue to have the benefit of "taking the air" in the vicinity of the public springs.
The Act of 1770 contained this provision and appointed Enclosure Commissioners to undertake the mammoth task associated with the enclosure of the Forest including the definition of the 200 acres, to convert them into a stinted pasture, to determine on the local freeholders and copyholders who should have the grazing rights on the 200 acres, and to set out the stint. i.e. the number of animals which each allotted recipient would be permitted to graze.
The clauses which dealt with the establishment of what was to become known as the Stray constituted but a small part of the great Enclosure Act but they ended with the memorable phrases which have been repeated time and again:
"the said two hundred acres of land shall for ever hereafter remain open and unenclosed, and all persons whomsoever shall and may have free access at all times to the said springs, and be at liberty to use and drink the waters there arising, and take the benefit thereof, and shall and may have use, and enjoy full and free ingress, egress, and regress, in, upon, and over the said two hundred acres of land, and every or any part thereof, without being subject to the payment of any acknowledgement whatsoever for the same or liable to any action of trespass, or other suit, molestation, or disturbance whatsoever in respect thereof."
No subsequent legislation has in any way materially altered what might be termed the Rule of the Stray contained in that concluding clause. The law has been refined on the subject, largely to organise the management of and responsibility for the maintenance of the Stray; its trusteeship has changed hands; and various reasonable uses have been incorporated by rules, by-laws, and custom. But to this day the fundamental proposition remains that the Stray shall remain open and unenclosed for ever and that 311 people shall have the right to "take the air" on it.
The Enclosure Commissioners were required to tackle the job of enclosing the Forest of Knaresborough and to carry out among many other things the business of laying out the Stray by preparing an Award which would have the force of an Act of Parliament and which took eight years to complete.
Until then it can be taken for granted that, safe in the knowledge that he accessibility of the public to the springs had been guaranteed and would not diminish, owners of cattle continued to graze their animals on the land. The time would come when only a selected few of them would have that right and when that day came there would inevitably arise instances of what amounted to trespass by persons not entitled to any stint who nevertheless took their cattle on to the Stray. From this arose the first, but only the first, of many controversies which were to enliven the following two centuries.
When it was made, on August 19, 1778, the Award carried out the instructions to the Enclosure Commissioners contained in the 1770 Act. he area of the Stray was defined as a great horseshoe, its eastern, southern, and western boundaries bordering on the established encroachments on the inner side of the horseshoe, the outer edge of the horseshoe distant enough amply to contain the discovered springs and to give space for exercise. Though the western extremities of the Stray reached into Low Harrogate and to a very small extent into the township of Pannal, known as the Constablery of Beckwith with Rossett, the favoured copyholders to whom the rights of pasture were first assigned were copyholders with property only in Bilton with Harrogate.
In order to organise the stinted pasture, the 200 acres were divided into 50 imaginary "gates" of four acres each. These 50 gates were allocated to a total of 26 people or couples, the latter presumably enjoying their holdings jointly. The distribution was quite uneven, presumably in deference to the size of the recipients' other copyholdings. The devisees of the late Sir John Ingilby were allotted 12 gates; James and Charles Brown were allotted six gates; others received two, one, or only half a gate.(For the first gateholders see Note I)
What mattered, of course, was the stint, the number of animals which could be pastured on one gate, though necessarily all the animals would roam free over the 200 acres in so far as there was grass to crop and areas of swamp did not forbid a foothold. Cattle of more than two years old could each be depastured as one gate; three of two years of age could depasture two gates; a calf represented half a gate; a horse of three years or more would have one and a half gates but under that age such an animal needed only one gate; four sheep would have one gate and these included ewes with unweaned lambs. In the interests of pasture, however, only horses and cattle were to be pastured during the first seven years from 1778. Sheep and lambs could be brought on to the Stray only after that time. As for asses, mules, goats, swine or geese. they were never, ever, to be pastured on the Stray.
The allotments to the gateholders were to be regarded as part of the allotment of other commonable lands in the Forest to these copyholders.The award concluded with the already famous phrase about the Stray's remaining forever open and unenclosed and accessible to all at all times.The Crown reserved to itself all rights of mines, minerals and quarries and in any event a clause of the 1770 Act forbade any digging, sinking of pits, or quarrying, etc. which could damage the mineral springs.Consequently, what the recipients of the Award got for their gates was literally nothing more, as the great Samuel Powell was to say, many years later, than the right to pasture a number of animals according to the stint which would graze such grass as had not been trodden underfoot. They owned neither the land, the soil, nor anything beneath the soil. Neither the 1770 Act nor the 1778 Award had a word to say about responsibility for the upkeep or improvement of the 200 acres.
The assumption seems to have been that the gateholders would improve the Stray by draining and seeding but as seems to have been typical of 18th century legislation, especially in respect of unusualsituations, Parliament was crediting human nature with a capacity for public-spiritedness which it was very far from achieving.
The Act and the Award should have been the end of the matter. On the contrary, they were only the beginning of a 70-year period of controversy and dissension.
Considered in the context of the period there was really little else that could have been done at the time. The local innkeepers and traders, most of them still, in mid-l8th century, concentrated in High Harrogate though the claims of Low Harrogate on the public's favour were fast being justified, were above all anxious that the public springs should remain public, exploitable by no single individual and that there should be free and unimpeded access to them. In a sense, the whole population had an interest in the public aspect of the springs which attracted that harvest of summer visitors which never failed.
Yet the two villages constituting High and Low Harrogate had no local government to speak of, township and quarter sessions government being concerned with the barest necessities of local services and certainly not then (and indeed again not in 1841 when an additional form of local government was invented) capable of taking on responsibility for the newly-defined Stray.
On the other hand, the copyholders who received the allotments of Straygates were perhaps understandably a little inclined to look their gift horse in the mouth. The land, for centuries an unploughed waste, was in evil condition. It is true that if they improved it they would get better grazing, for of a certainty it would in the past have been overgrazed, but the snag was that any improvement would also be of benefit to the public who had the right to walk and ride on the land. It would go against the grain of Yorkshiremen to spend precious money on anything that might remotely be of advantage to someone else.
A further complication was that as to grazing and such limited rights as they enjoyed over the Stray, there were 26 sets of gateholders, in single or pair groupings, who if they were to overcome their natural disinclination to benefit the public at their private expense would have to do so both voluntarily and unitedly.
That, as the ubiquitous Mr. Powell was to observe sardonically in the 1830s, was more than unlikely: "They never could be brought to agree on anything at any one time".