When living through difficult times like ours, one can easily forget the troubled times in the Dales over the centuries with plague, wars, oppression and famine. The early and middle decades of the 17th century saw enormous upheaval.

Here Wilf Fenten writes of the history of Airton Meeting House and its new Grade II star status.

Discontent was rife, religious uncertainty abounded, there was turmoil and political tension that would soon lead to bloody civil war.

Disillusioned, searching for truth, people were looking for new ways of political and religious understanding. During this time a semi-clandestine group known as Seekers emerged around Craven.

They rejected existing churches and creeds as corrupt. Instead, they met in silent assemblies, often in the open air, private homes or buildings like Airton Meeting House.

In her new book Roots of Radicalism in the Yorkshire Dales, Airton Friends Meeting and its Antecedents, Laurel Phillipson concludes that Airton Meeting House “was purpose-built, most probably in the first decade of the 17th century, apparently as a dissenters’ meeting place”.

We cannot be sure, however, as the Seekers appeared to be deliberately and successfully clandestine.

For many decades the Meeting House presented to passers-by only a blank stone face (see photo reconstruction).

It was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘building hidden in plain sight’.

Successful efforts to obscure its origin and purpose have left its early history uncertain.

It was probably constructed by Josias Lambert, father of future Major General Lambert, born in Calton near Airton and later second in command to Oliver Cromwell.

When George Fox, the Quaker founder, walked in 1652 from Pendle Hill to Sedbergh, most likely via Skipton and Airton.

He would have found more or less existing congregations of dissenters awaiting him.

His message took roots and regular Quaker worship took place in Airton in the 1650s, possibly starting 1653.

Early Quakers were considered rebels by many as they did not attend established church services and often withheld their tithe, a tax considered unjust and pernicious.

When two early followers of George Fox preached in Settle market place in the 1650s, they were very roughly treated and had to be rescued from the hostile crowd by sympathisers, possibly active Seekers.

In 1700 the building and burial ground were purchased by Airton Quakers William and Alice Ellis.

They refurbished the Meeting House installing oak wall panelling and a room divider with drop shutters - an important prototype for later Quaker meeting houses.

Quakerism in Airton flourished well into the 18th century. Then, after a period of decline, numbers increased again in the 19th century when Airton Mill became active as a cotton-spinning mill.

The 20th century saw many ups and downs by which time the Meeting House and its surrounds had become a haven of peace .

In the words of Rev W J.Gomersall writing about Airton in the Craven Herald in 1912-13, he says: “Yet still the Quaker house of prayer … shall breathe the tranquillising air.”

This ‘haven of peace’ remained continuously open before lockdown and people could pop in for quiet contemplation.

A local resident describes its atmosphere as an ‘age-old feeling of tranquillity’, that ‘stems from the Quaker quiet reflection and tolerance’.

She feels that the Meeting House is important for Airton as the community uses the building for many different purposes.

Visitors to the Meeting House value a sense of real history and faith, peaceful as ever, where we met 54 years ago.

Some admire the honest vernacular structure … particularly the fact that the late-seventeenth century woodwork has survived.

It is, of course, still a place of worship.

One regular worshipper remarked: “History and a sense of place need to be cherished; without them, we would all be rootless.”

Another Quaker commented: “I worship from time to time in Airton Meeting House.

“I have enjoyed attending numerous musical performances there.

“I have picnicked with friends in the grounds. I attended a stained-glass making workshop and have woven sheep’s wool into mats.

“I also enjoy meeting refugees there when they are hosted for weekends by Malhamdale people.

“Its simplicity and its age remind me of the people who have used the building over centuries.

“I like the sense of seclusion and peace.”

Yet the importance of Airton Meeting House goes well beyond the local community.

In May this year, the historical and architectural ‘star quality”’ of Airton Meeting House was finally fully recognised when Historic England added a star to the Meeting House’s listed building grade in recognition of its national significance.

Amongst the reasons for the II* upgrade were the wonderfully simple interior woodwork and the fact that the interior, exterior and entire complex of buildings are substantially unaltered from their 17th century appearance.

After a long journey, from rebellious times in the beginning, this haven of peace will soon be open to everybody again.

Roots of Radicalism in the Yorkshire Dales, Airton Friends Meeting and its Antecedents, by L Phillipson (£8.50), available from: Airton Meeting House (books), Calton Lane, Airton BD23 4AE, or contact airtonbarn@gmail.com, tel. 01729 830263.

Hidden in Plain Sight, History and Architecture of the Airton Meeting House, by L. Phillipson & A Armstrong (£9.50), available from: Airton Meeting House (books), as above.