THE North York Moors are known for many things, ranging from the covering of purple heather in the autumn to the carpet of yellow in spring when the Farndale daffodils present themselves to the world.
To those famous features, we can add the marvellous sight of the heights of the moors compared with the depth of the dales that divide the area into lofty regions and fascinating vales with sparkling rivers and becks.
We cannot overlook history either. Ruined abbeys, ancient churches and a castle or two complete the picture while, of course, there are always charming villages to explore, plenty of wild life to watch and a noted coastline not far away. There are legends too, tales of Robin Hood and of little people known as hobs.
However those moors are known for something else – witchposts. It is claimed the largest collection of them anywhere can be found around those moors, with a further handful across the border in Lancashire. It has long been claimed that these indoor articles keep the house safe from the evil machinations of witches especially when added to other witch deterrents such as iron nails around the doors, cast horseshoes of iron hanging on doors, stable doors and cowsheds.
Twigs of rowan, stones with holes in them, corn dollies, witch bottles and elderberry trees planted near cattle sheds would all act as deterrents against witches and their spells. Or so it was believed.
The truth is that there are no such things as witchposts. However, around the moors in private houses and some museums, there are oak posts that form part of inglenook fireplaces. Some bear an X-mark carved into the face of the woodwork near the top, plus a number of “scrolls” that are ripples carved into the woodwork below the X-mark. The ripples probably number between two and 12.
Because no-one recognised the real purpose of those posts, some authors in the past suggested they were to deter witches and witchcraft in the house but, according to Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby in their book “Life in the Moorlands of North East Yorkshire” (Dent, 1972) they became known as witchposts only within the 20th century and not before. The authors added that no folk tradition exists and so it was surmised the posts were to safeguard the house against witches. But that was pure guesswork. It seems no-one knew the real purpose of those posts.
However, we are given a clue by author Joseph Ford in his “Some Reminiscences and Folk Lore of Danby Parish and District” (Horne and Son, Whitby, 1953.) Ford was born in the moors, his parents having a farm at Hamer above Castleton. Thanks to the storytelling of his ancestors, Ford became an authority on local lore and customs.
He referred to the X-marks on the posts as priest marks, but the stories he heard from his ancestors clearly shows they were worried about the activities of witches both in the home and on the farm. Ford writes about a mysterious ceremony being carried out by the parish priest after which the priest carved the X-mark on the face of the post, near the top. It became known as a priest mark. I am sure the “mysterious ceremony” was a house-blessing conducted in Latin by a Catholic priest but the people believed that once the X-mark was in position, no witch or witch craft could pass that point.
That was a curious mixture of religion and superstition but Ford was not a Catholic. He was a very fervent Methodist, some of whose number regarded the X-mark as a pagan symbol.
From dates carved on some “witchposts “ and the fact that the houses in which they appeared date to a particular period , we know that the posts existed from around 1630. For example, the post in Postgate Farm, Glaisdale bears the date 1664 which was during the Moors Mission conducted by Father Nicholas Postgate from 1662-79. It is quite possible that he blessed the house and cut the X on the post, leaving the date to be carved by the householders. Dozens of such “priest marks” appeared in and around Upper Eskdale around that time.
The X, known as St Andrew’s Cross, is the emblem of The Five Wounds of Christ that was widely used by Catholics whenever their faith was under attack. It appeared on the banners of the Crusaders, for example, and also at the Pilgrimage of Grace. It features on all altar stones used in Catholic churches where the X-mark comprises five small crosses arranged in that shape. Fr Postgate also made reference to The Five Wounds of Christ in the hymn he composed while in York Castle prison awaiting execution for being a Catholic priest.
I am sure he was responsible for those X-marked posts.
Small and loud
The birdlife in our garden continues to intrigue and entertain us and the hero of the hour, who made himself conspicuous by his distinctive loud music, was a busy little wren. Our garden is bordered by an old stone wall with lots of gaps between the stones but also covered with climbers like ivy and roses.
We were enjoying lunch in the conservatory and could first hear, then see, the tiny figure of a wren who was running along the wall-top hunting titbits. He was alone and, due to his brown plumage and short tail sticking up in the air, was sometimes difficult see but, of course, instantly recognisable.
The wren is one of our smallest birds but equally one of our loudest singers, whose short song is endlessly repeated and at this time of year, with courtship in mind, a ready guide to the male’s presence.
The male is in full song at this time of year for he is anxious to impress the lady of his choice. He does so by selecting a number of nesting sites where he builds several nests for her to examine. Figures vary but I’ve been told that a busy wren can construct around eight or even ten nests for her to consider. As she rejects one, he will build another and will continue until she is pleased.
Wrens are noted for selecting nesting sites among or even within disused gardening utensils such as old watering cans, kettles and anything else that takes their fancy, even the disused nest of another species. Quite often, the nest will be built in a hedge and not inside a container of any kind. Such a nest will be like an oval ball with a small hole serving as the entrance at one side, near the top.
The nests are very cosy and soft, being a mixture of moss, wool, dried grass and feathers, and it will expand if necessary to cater for the chicks when they arrive. They generally number between five and eight, all well looked after by their busy parents.
And finally, a large gathering wrens is known as a herd.