Moor to landscape than meets the eye

COLOURFUL: The standing stone above Rosedale, as featured in Discover the North York Moors by Roger Osborne

COLOURFUL: The standing stone above Rosedale, as featured in Discover the North York Moors by Roger Osborne

First published in Countryman's Diary by

THE North York Moors are known for many reasons, not the least of which is because it is England’s largest area of open heather. There have been other claims too – for example, that it is one of the last great unexplored and unexploited parts of England. It contains hundreds of square miles of beautiful and spectacular scenery both inland and along the coast with some of Britain’s highest cliffs and it has also witnessed the world’s first flight in a manned aircraft.

The moors are dotted with ancient castles and abbeys, Whitby playing its part in national affairs when its famous synod confirmed the method of calculating the date of Easter in England.

Also, that same abbey introduced England’s first poet, Caedmon. The role of the moors in national and now international matters is highlighted by the presence of Fylingdales Ballistic Missile Early Warning Station whereas living history is perpetuated in the North Yorkshire Moors Railway that passes very close to Fylingdales BMEWS.

The Moors have many other links to local, national and international affairs and to date, the area is largely unspoilt by industry and development schemes. I have a particular interest in the North York Moors because I was born in a village said to be cut off from the world by those moors. It must be said we knew little of that world but now our knowledge can embrace worldly matters through astonishing methods of computerised communication and the fact that this column can now be read around the world within minutes of publication would have bewildered Major J Fairfax-Blakeborough, who wrote this column for some 60 years before his death in 1976.

Having boasted about such assets, there is another I have not yet mentioned. It is the fact that the North York Moors contain what is probably the country’s largest assembly of standing stones.

Certainly it is the largest in such a compact area but these collections comprise all manner of stones – parish boundary markers, route markers, the remains of stone circles, earthworks, gateposts, religious crosses and memorials. There are others whose original purpose is unknown – they might be the sole remains of an ancient building or someone might have erected them for a private, unknown reason – or simply as a gatepost.

I am fortunate to possess an old map of that part of the Moors where I was born. It was produced from a survey of the Glaisdale area between 1849 and 1853, and I found it interesting because it depicted the location of various stones. I found Yoak stones, grey stones, the Rokan Stone, Hart Leap Stones and dozens of others marked simply stone or stones. There was even a site marked “pile of stones”

and such notices appear on modern maps of the Rosedale/Farndale heights.

Sadly, lots of moorland stones have been stolen but others have been recycled in modern structures.

The origin of some of these names is known. For example, Yoak stones are so named because the word comes from “ye olde oak tree stone” which was a parish boundary marker of bygone times. The stone would have been put near the oak tree, hopefully to survive when the old tree died. Hart Leap Stones mark the distance of a gigantic leap of 14ft by a fleeing deer near Glaisdale. Grey stones may be due to nothing more than their colour while the Rokan Stone, a marker along an ancient route, may have helped to guide people in dense fog, then known as roak or roke. It is significant that many of these stones have been erected along the routes of ancient tracks, and they were tall enough to poke out of the deepest of snow drifts on those moors, and so guide travellers.

A considerable number of standing stones on the moors are in the form of crosses, but conversely there are some that do not look at all like crosses, but which bear that name. Quite curiously, many of these bear personal names. One that does not look at all like a cross is the White Cross as it is formally known, but most of the local folk called it Fat Betty. It is a bulky rock painted white and it sits on the moor not far away from Young Ralph, which is more widely known as Ralph’s Cross. Ralph’s Cross is not its correct name because Old Ralph stands close by. Blakey, with its famous Lion Inn, is nearby where the road from Hutton le Hole drops steeply towards Castleton.

Many of the moorland crosses with personal names include Percy Cross, Jack Cross, John Cross, John o’Man, the Margery Stone, the Face Stone, Lilla Cross, the Elgee Stone, Cooper Cross, Tom Smith’s Cross, Donna Cross, Jenny Bradley, Redman Cross, Three Lords Stone, Anna Ain Howe Cross, Robinson’s Cross, Hudson’s Cross with one complete example of an ancient stone cross being the Mauley Cross which stands just inside Cropton Forest.

This is named after the de Mauley family who formerly owned Mulgrave Castle and Estate. There are also three Job Crosses on the Moors.

Inevitably, questions are asked about how these crosses acquired these names and although the reasons behind some are recorded, there is no definitive answer for many of the others. Stories and legends, many now forgotten, might have been associated with them, or indeed some might be memorials to loved ones of long ago. Quite possibly, we may never know the reason for neither the names of the stones nor the presence of the stones themselves, but they will surely survive for many more centuries to puzzle and intrigue us.

My attention has been drawn to a blog which purports to deal with the Swaledale Corpse Way.

Some readers will be aware of this ancient funeral route along which bodies were carried by hand through the lanes of Swaledale en route to Grinton parish church for burial. This splendid old church, often known as the Cathedral of the Dales, provided the necessary consecrated graveyard.

When a poor person died some distance away, the only way to transport the remains to the church was by hand and special lightweight wicker basket-style coffins with handles were created.

Also, there were approved halting places so that the bearers could rest and eat.

Sometimes, such a halt was nothing more sophisticated than a large flat rock.

However, this blogger says that the Roman Catholic faith, then the religion of the Dales, was brought by the Romans. I don’t think that is true – it seems there is confusion here between Romans and Roman Catholics, the latter term not appearing until the mid-17th century. Hitherto, the term Catholic embraced the entire Christian religion; it was the English Protestant spindoctors who introduced the term “Roman” in their attempts to make the Catholic faith appear foreign. This actually succeeded.

When the Romans invaded Britain in 55 BC, they were pagans who worshipped several gods but they allowed the Celts to continue their own faith. I know of no English Christian church that was built by the invading Romans although the first church above ground in this country was built in AD 63 at Glastonbury. This was expanded several times but there is no suggestion it was ever a Roman temple. In AD 303, another mighty Catholic church was established at St Albans (scene of England’s first Catholic martyr) to be followed in AD 597 when the Pope sent St Augustine to Canterbury to teach the “heathen” English and convert the children he called angels, i.e. Angles.

Romans and Roman Catholics are quite different species!


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