I SPENT my childhood in a moorland village said by the author Arthur Mee to be “cut off from the world by the moors”.
That was Glaisdale which could have been considered remote until it was jerked into the industrial age by the erection of three blast furnaces that processed the iron ore mined locally. It was then despatched to the rapidly growing industrial Teesside. That industrial era of Glaisdale was short-lived, starting in 1866 and terminating in 1876.
By the time of my birth in 1936, however, that industrial site had concluded its role and the site was reverting to agricultural land although, in the meantime, the village had been expanded by the construction of houses to accommodate the iron-ore workers. Quite suddenly, there was a busy village with shops and inns, the latter attracting salmon fishermen who came to fish the River Esk.
Quite amazingly, the transformation from industrial site to tourist destination was swift and effective although one of the inns, for a time owned by my grandfather, was known as The Three Blast Furnaces. Wisely, Grandad Rhea changed its name to Anglers’ Rest but it is no longer an inn, but a private house.
With the disappearance of its short-lived industrial role, Glaisdale reverted to a peaceful and calm community in the depths of the North York Moors, halfway along the route of the River Esk that flowed from Esklets near Westerdale into the North Sea at Whitby. It is a flood-prone journey of about 24 miles but is the only river in the North York Moors to flow from west to east.
Despite the many changes to Glaisdale it retains a remarkable amount of folklore ranging from the 17th century Beggar’s Bridge that spans the Esk to the story of the Hart Hall Hob. There is also a collection of wrongly-named witch posts and tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men hiding in nearby Arncliffe Wood that spreads towards Egton Bridge.
The folklore of England has an amazing capacity for survival in spite of the arrival of television, the use of handheld radios, computers, mobile phones and other gadgets. In the past, it was books that helped discover our folklore although word-of-mouth remains an effective way of perpetuating such tales. However, sales of books are declining so whether our folktales will survive in the face of such change is debatable. As libraries continue to close, so the number of book sales will decline.
It is arguable whether folklore is fact or fiction – for example, did such creatures as hobs actually exist? Is the romantic story of Beggar’s Bridge really true and did Robin Hood and his Merry Men regularly hide in a cave in Arncliffe Wood?
And if the so-called witch-posts were not installed to keep the house free from witches, then what was their purpose? And ghost stories are not usually featured in collections of folktales.
Here is a brief look at some moorland folklore. Moorland hobs are recorded at Hart Hall Farm, Glaisdale and at a Farndale farm, in caves near Sutton Bank and one in a cave at Runswick Bay. In all cases, they are dwarf-like little men who worked at night in secret without wearing any clothes except a rough sark (shirt). They demanded nothing in return for their labours and grew angry if someone donated clothing or food as a thank-you. All they asked for was a glass of fresh cream when their work was finished before dawn. So did they really exist?
Robin Hood gave his name to Robin Hood’s Bay but did he and his merry men actually hide in a cave in Arncliffe Wood when the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men got rather too close at Robin Hood’s Bay? And did he excavate a tunnel between the Bay and Glaisdale?
With regard to Beggar’s Bridge at Glaisdale, was it built to allow Tom Ferris to meet his girl friend without getting his feet wet? Or was there a more practical purpose? It allowed laden packhorses to cross so perhaps Ferris, a powerful businessman, had an eye on profits?
And finally, the witchposts of the moors did not acquire that name until the 20th century although the posts were in place in the 17th century. Contrary to many reports, they are not made of rowan wood, a witch deterrent, but are of solid oak and feature on inglenook hearths only around the North York Moors, except for six in Rawtenstall, Lancashire.
My research indicates they are the work of the Egton-born Martyr of the Moors, Father Nicholas Postgate (c1599-1679) who used the X-mark to symbolise the Five Wounds of Christ. It has appeared on altar stones, tunics of the Crusaders and other locations to signify oppression of the Catholic Church. And Postgate’s assistant during his Mission of the Moors was Father John Marsh of Lancashire – and I have found similar X-marked posts in Holland on display to indicate Catholic households.
FOLKLORE OR TRUTH?
A good deal of our Yorkshire folklore features Robin Hood in parts of the county some distance from Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby and Glaisdale. Indeed, there are claims that he was a Yorkshireman and that he spent much of his childhood in and around Wakefield. In fact, there is a verse which goes:
The Father of Robin a forester was,
And he shot with a lusty strong bow.
Two north country miles and an inch at a shoot
As the Pindar of Wakefield doth know.
The Pindar was the man who was responsible for the pound in which stray animals were placed.
The pindar cared for such impounded animals and one of his responsibilities was to collect the fees from the owner of the impounded animals. This money was then handed to the local Court Leet which was responsible for maintaining the pound.
It seems that the Pindar of Wakefield was a shepherd who undertook his Pound duties in his spare time but there is a tale about a youthful Robin Hood who, with a friend, decided to rob this pindar of his collected cash. As the pair launched their attack, the pindar, a hardy moorland shepherd, thrashed them both thoroughly.
There are few reliable records of Robin Hood’s wanderings around Yorkshire but some accounts tell us that his cousin was called Elizabeth Stainton or Staynton who was the Prioress of Kirklees. Upon her death, she was buried at the south side of Kirklees Church along with two other nuns. Apparently, her tombstone was discovered in 1706 and it bore a Latin inscription which was translated as “Sweet Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, have mercy on Elizabeth Stainton, prioress of this House.”
One of the enduring tales of Robin Hood is that he is buried at Kirklees Priory after firing an arrow to see where it landed, and his cousin, so it is said, ensured that his eternal rest would be at Kirklees exactly where his arrow had landed.
So is this another piece of Yorkshire folk lore, or is it true?