THE North York Moors as a feature within the national park that bears their name provides considerable interest to those who explore this area of rugged uplands. Their sparkling becks and streams are a bonus.
A blanket of purple heather provides an additional attraction in the autumn whilst snow-capped areas of high moorland often complement the scenery in winter.
There is no doubt that this district of upland Yorkshire with its memorable landscape and coastline plus abbeys both ancient and modern is a most interesting and historic area. It is a good companion for the nearby Dales and Wolds but quite different from either. All three areas have their special charms, interesting history and visual delights.
Having been born and reared deep within the Moors, I grew up knowing a good deal about the region’s history, folklore, dialect and items of interest around the moors and indeed in other parts of the county. However, if someone asked me to suggest the best place to visit, perhaps as a stranger to the moors, it would not be easy to make a feasible suggestion. One would be tempted to produce a whole list of great ideas all with marvellous scenery and welcoming inns.
However, the North York Moors do contain some remarkable features that are not so numerous or prominent in other parts of our huge county. I am referring to the crop of stone crosses that can be found in various parts of the moors and which, to a first-time visitor, provide a great puzzle.
There is more than a mere handful of them – I do not have an accurate calculation but I believe they total around 1,300. This is said to be the largest collection of standing stones in such a compact area. Some are shaped like crosses, e.g. Young Ralph Cross on the roadside between Castleton and Hutton-le-Hole. Others are mere pillars of stone without the cross pieces, although they might have borne such arms in the past even if they now look like abandoned gateposts.
Indeed in some cases, the name “cross” is given to a flat patch of moorland with no sign of a stone or cross. Perhaps in times past a cross did mark that site or indeed, it might have been nothing more than a place where two routes crossed one another. Here, of course, we appreciate that some crosses served as way-markers, a particularly useful asset in dense fog or blizzard conditions.
However, the basis query is: who erected those crosses and why?
In some cases, the name of the cross provides a useful clue because several were erected to the memory of people who had perhaps been a great influence in the area or a long loved member of a local family.
The mere appearance of a cross does not often reveal its age or purpose, consequently some may have been erected many centuries ago with a particular reason in mind. That reason has probably been lost in the passage of time. The important thing is that the crosses are still standing to convey a message of sorts to those who see them with the skill necessary to recognize the original purpose of the cross.
Perhaps by doing so, we are honouring people who died many centuries ago after perhaps following some major service or undertaking past support they had provided. There is no doubt that several of the crosses are memorial stones erected to the memory of someone important, either a family member or perhaps due to some service or friendship offered in the distant past. Equally, others are probably nothing more than way-markers in a barren landscape.
Nonetheless, some of the crosses do bear personal names and here are a few examples from the North York Moors: The Margery Cross sometimes known as The Margery Stone, Percy Cross, Jack Cross, John Cross, John o’ Man, Cooper Cross, Tom Smith’s Cross, Donna Cross, Jenny Bradley, Redman Cross, Anna Ain Howe Cross, Robinson’s Cross and Hudson’s Cross. The Mauley Cross stands just inside Cropton Forest and commemorates the de Mauley family and there are three crosses all named Job Cross but they are thought to have been way-markers.
Ralph’s Cross on the Hutton-le-Hole to Castleton moor road (mentioned earlier) should really be known as Young Ralph. Old Ralph, only some five feet tall, stands a couple of hundred yards away to the south-west while not far away on the road to Rosedale is Fat Betty.
This is a white-painted boulder which is more formally known as The White Cross; several such boulders lie upon those moors and most bear a personal name.
However, there is an ancient story that links Fat Betty with Old Ralph. Nearby at Rosedale was a Cistercian nunnery whose members were known as The White Ladies. Their arrival had created a good deal of suspicion and unrest among the community but an elderly man called Ralph would help them, particularly when travelling upon those remote moors.
It seems that one of their regular tasks was to solve the problems of interpretation of various religious practices so Ralph would guide the senior nun, Sister Elizabeth, to Baysdale Abbey not far away, there to discuss things with her counterpart at that nunnery.
Then one day, Sister Elizabeth was asked to discuss such a matter with a learned nun from Baysdale, Sister Margery. It was suggested they meet about halfway between the two communities and this was agreed. Ralph escorted Elizabeth to the site which was where Young Ralph now stands as they awaited Sister Margery.
But a terrible moorland fog, known as the roak, descended and enveloped the area so greatly that the two nuns could not see one another. Ralph tried shouting to attract their attention and then to guide them, but Sister Margery was afraid of the shouting man she could not see and would not follow his guidance. She simply stood still to await the departure of the fog. Suddenly, the fog lifted and the nuns could see one another, standing only yards apart and so their meeting went ahead, apparently with great success.
Ralph decided to commemorate that meeting by erecting three stones or crosses at that place to represent the three players in the drama. The Margery Stone still acts as a way-marker for hikers on the moors, Young Ralph continues his vigil on that moorland road, while Sister Elizabeth was represented by a white boulder that has become known as Fat Betty.
It is always pointed out that Fat Betty is not a true image of Sister Elizabeth but there is an old tradition that if ever Old Ralph, still standing nearby, and Fat Betty ever meet, they will get married. So far, that has not happened.
Another nearby stone is The Face Stone that was first mentioned in the perambulation of Helmsley Estate Boundaries in 1642.
Its unique feature is a face carved upon it but it is not known whether this marks a grave and whether the face was carved by a friend.