IN times long past, when leaders of the community were unable to explain the presence of outstanding features in the countryside, they claimed that several very prominent conical hills and other features were the work of giants or even the Devil.
These include Blakey Topping, near the Hole of Horcum (itself the focus of such a legend), as well as Roseberry Topping between Great Ayton and Guisborough, and Freeborough Hill that stands beside the Whitby-Guisborough road.
Blakey Topping was said to be the work of the Devil when he scooped out the earth to create the Hole of Horcum between Pickering and Whitby. He tossed it across the moors to become Blakey Topping.
He must have been a mighty giant because it was also said that some of the earth and rocks he removed to create the Hole of Horcum were thrown even further away to become both Roseberry Topping and Freeborough Hill, themselves associated with various legends. Those massive earth-moving actions led to the Hole of Horcum being known as the Devil’s Punchbowl. In truth, the Hole of Horcum is probably the result of moorland streams over the ages carrying away loose earth.
A contrary tale tells us that it was in fact the giant Wade who scooped the earth away to create the Hole of Horcum because he needed the soil to conquer his enemies by smothering them with it.
Yet another tale says that Wade used the earth and rocks from the Hole of Horcum to help his construction of the Giant’s Causeway that was built across the moors above Goathland. We know it as the Roman Road but many of our ancestors had no real knowledge of their early history, so they created their own. Amazing works by giants seemed to fill the gaps and offered an explanation for apparently impossible acts.
Not surprisingly, some of those landscape features have developed their own legends or folk lore. For example, although Roseberry Topping is little more than 1,000ft high (320 metres) it has long been regarded as the highest peak in Yorkshire, but this is not the case. Quite simply, it appears to be the highest due to its prominent location.
It was purchased by the National Trust in 1985 but stands on the borders of two counties – North Yorkshire and Cleveland. The boundary runs directly across the summit and the ascent to the summit is very popular and not particularly demanding – and offers splendid views.
So what does the word "topping" signify? It appears in the names of both Roseberry Topping and Blakey Topping and is generally thought to come from an old English word "top" meaning summit or hilltop, which in turn may have originated in a Danish word "toppen" – a peak or summit..
Of greater interest is the prefix Roseberry. How did this famous hill come to be called Roseberry Topping? In fact, in the 12th century, it was known as Othenesburg., Ohtenburg or Othenburg. Later, this became Ouesberg and then, in the 16th century, Ouesbery. In Viking times, it may have been called Odinsberg in honour of the god Odin, the Scandinavian equivalent of Woden.
One theory is that “Roseberry” may derive from an Old English word, now obsolete – it was "rosland", which indicated a heathery area or open moorland. There is an equivalent in Welsh – "rhos" – which also refers to heather or moorland. The story of Roseberry Topping appears to have no links with Rosedale, a name which also suggests heather and moorland.
The topping has links with the explorer Captain James Cook whose father’s Airyholme Farm stood on its southern slope. The young James worked that farm and was educated in nearby Great Ayton. On the summit was the Odinsberg Spring or Roseberry Well, whose waters were said to be curative, especially for rheumatism and eye disorders.
There is a sad legend where a baby prince, son of the royal family of Northumberland, died in that well. King Osmund and his queen had longed for a child without success but eventually, their baby, Prince Oswy, was born, but royal advisers said the child would die by drowning before he was two years old.
As the mountain known as Odinsberg was within their kingdom at that time, the king and queen decided to take baby Oswy to the highest mountain in the land, a place where no water would flow. They could sleep in an old hermitage and take their own food, then remain there until the child was safe on his second birthday.
But as the heat of the day and their general weariness overtook them, they fell asleep and baby Prince Oswy toddled off and fell into a pool of water at the Odinsberg Spring near the summit. He drowned and no amount of resuscitation could revive him. King Osmund buried his queen and his son in a monastery at Tivotdale.
At that point, the village changed its name to Oswy-by-his-mother-lay – we now call it Osmotherley. Hardly true, but a good story!
I could not find any further legend linked to Blakey Topping but Freeborough Hill has its own rumours. It is said to be the grave of hundreds of soldiers and war horses from past conflicts. It is also one of several places where King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are said to lie asleep in a cavern deep within the hill. They are waiting until England needs them to protect us from tyranny.
The names of locations are always of interest and Bilsdale is no exception. One might think that the dale’s links with William (Bill) the Conqueror have produced a name beginning with Bil – but not so.
It is probably derived from Bild’s Valley, the prefix Bils appearing in other locations across England, e.g. Bildeston, Bilsthorpe and Bilstone.
However, the dale will never forget the passage of William the Conqueror and his army down Bilsdale in a severe snowstorm. They were returning to York from Teesside but the storm was so ferocious that William and six of his mounted escort were separated from the others.
William and his six companions spent the night seeking them, shouting and cursing in a foreign language (French) and this terrified the local people. They all went into hiding until the matter was resolved but the experience lived on in sayings such as “Cussing like Billy Norman” or “Billy Norman kept hissen warm by cussing”. However, there was a stream known as Willelmsbec, now William Beck, which may honour him.
But I like the tale of the Conqueror asking the way from a local farmer while speaking in French. The farmer did not understand and shook his head. William called him "espec d’idiot" whereupon the farmer replied: “Aye, mebbe so, but Ah’m not lost.”