WHEN I was a child exploring the countryside around our family home, one of my regular cycle rides was from Yorkshire’s Eskdale and over the North York Moors to Guisborough, one of the North Riding’s clutch of attractive market towns. There I would meet fellow members of our Tees-side-based cycling club and we’d go for a bike ride!
However, Guisborough intrigued me for two reasons. One was the magnificent and gigantic horse chestnut tree in the grounds of Gisborough Hall, (which is sometimes spelt without the “u” following the G.) That splendid Hall is now a hotel. The second reason for my interest was the intriguing tale of treasure hidden beneath Guisborough Priory and guarded by a giant raven.
With regard to the giant horse chestnut tree, I could only view it as I cycled past because I understood it was then upon private property. The tree was said to date from around the time of the Reformation when the nearby priory was dissolved and the monks ejected. With a massive trunk, it was said its branches were so heavy that they touched the ground around the tree, and then took root. This caused new shoots to grow and so the massive tree looked more like a copse than a single tree.
Its sheer size earned it the name of Umbrella Tree because it sheltered quite a lot! Horse chestnuts are spectacular trees which are often grown in avenues or spaced around parkland. When their blossom appears the flowers are often known as candles because they stand upright in a very showmanlike manner.
It is these flowers that later produce the famous conkers so beloved by school children as they do battle with other conker owners to try and produce a world-beater by smashing the opposition. This was done by boring a hole through the conker and threading it onto a string, then smashing it into the opposition which was also dangling on a string.
The score depended upon how many enemy conkers could be smashed and so the winning conker was allowed to count the scores earlier made by the vanquished challenger, and add them to his own; one might therefore have a conker that was a one-hundred-and-forty-fiver or even more. Some players would cheat by hardening their conkers in the oven or filling the shell with cement!
Not surprisingly, the name conker comes from conqueror and in former times, this game was played either with snails’ shells or cobnuts, this being an old name for hazel nuts. At this time of year, of course, the annual crop of conkers is far from ready – the flowers are just appearing and keen conquerors must wait until autumn before they find their world champion.
Among the puzzles associated with Guisborough Priory is the precise date of its foundation; it is generally said to have been founded upon the orders of Pope Calixtus (1119-1124) who ordered Robert Bruce to construct the priory, and in fact the Pope issued Robert Bruce with a charter of confirmation. However, other authorities suggest the true date was 1129 but my various sources suggest the earlier date is correct.
Among the curiosities of Guisborough Priory is that three priory churches were built. The first was part of the original construction and some traces of that one are said to remain. It was replaced by a second church which was of Early English design and built around 1230-1250.
Unfortunately, this one was burnt to the ground in 1289 when a plumber working on some lead pipes somehow set the building on fire. It was destroyed but a third church was constructed on the site, probably incorporating some remains of the destroyed building. This was completed around 1309.
The dissolution and ransacking of our great abbeys and priories at the Reformation resulted in many treasures being rescued and hidden before the Commissioners arrived on their mission of confiscation. In some cases, especially in village churches, objects like altar silverware or statues may still come to light centuries after being hidden. I recall a statue being found buried in the graveyard of Kirkdale Minster only a few years ago, doubtless the result of the Reformation.
Another outcome might have led to the concealment of Catholic treasures in a tunnel beneath Guisborough Priory. According to legend, the tunnel reached from near the town and continued beneath the priory. The treasure was concealed somewhere midway along the tunnel but no local person dared to search for it, as it was protected by a massive raven.
However, a cobbler called Crispin Tocketts decided to search, marking his trek along the tunnel with a ball of wool – and deep inside he found the treasure in a massive oak chest. But as he tried to open it, a huge raven burst out and attacked him before turning into the Devil.
Crispin ran for his life and since then, no-one has tried to find the treasure.
Worm of Sexhow
This area is rich with similar tales with perhaps the story of the Lambton Worm being one of the best known. However, a similar tale is told of the Worm of Sexhow. This is a small community near Hutton Rudby with a population of around a hundred and was once described as being a station between Stockton-on-Tees and Whitby.
Despite its small size, Sexhow boasts two stirring folk tales, one involving a spirit called Awd Nan who had a particular manner of dealing with a greedy farmer but the second tale involves a pestilent dragon that lived on a small hillock near Sexhow.
It was a menace to local farmers because it fed exclusively on milk produced by local dairy herds. If it could not satisfy its hunger, it breathed fire onto the crops to destroy them, and it also killed their poultry and other livestock. The people of Sexhow suffered greatly from its activities but could find no way of stopping it.
Then, as in all good dragon stories, along came a knight in shining armour. He rode through Sexhow and saw the Worm in its most foul mood but instead of dashing away to safety, our hero decided to fight it.
There followed a truly memorable battle of which we have no clear details, nor do we know how long it lasted. But the gallant knight slew the Worm to the delight of the villagers in their new freedom. But the knight rode on without even stopping for refreshments; he disappeared and was never seen again.
The carcase of the Worm remained and for many years, it’s tough, scaly skin was displayed in Hutton Rudby church, hanging over the Sexhow pew. But like its conqueror, it had disappeared when I called to view it – and so had the Sexhow pew.