Gayle was originally a farming settlement but the population grew during the late 18th century to around 350 with employment in local quarries, coal-mining in Sleddale and in a water-driven cotton mill on Gayle Beck. The population of the village later contracted.
Gayle Mill, constructed in 1776, is now a Grade II* listed building, a scheduled monument and came third in the BBC's 2004 Restoration contest. Originally a cotton-spinning mill it was converted to a sawmill in 1878. It is the oldest structurally unaltered cotton mill in existence, and its Thomson Double-Vortex turbine built by Williamson's of Kendal in 1878 is believed to be the world's oldest surviving water turbine still in its original situation. The mill has been restored and is now open to the public.
Gayle has a Methodist Church, constructed in 1833. A breakaway Methodist sect, associated with the Sandemanians in Scotland, was previously associated with the village, but only their graveyard remains.
Gayle relies primarily on farming and tourism, with the area boasting campsites and bed-and-breakfasts, as well as being a popular location for holiday homes.
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