In one of my columns about the Yorkshire Wolds I wondered where the ancient inhabitants of Thixendale sourced their water.

There has been evidence of activity in the area since the Mesolithic and the Neolithic periods (Middle Stone Age, 7,000-10,000 years ago and New Stone Age, 5,000-7,000 years ago) as shown by the discovery of man-made tools found in barrows, or burial mounds, dotted about the landscape. Settlements, for obvious reasons, grew up around sources of water, and yet Thixendale lies in a dry valley.

A reader got in touch to suggest that the Gypsey Race might flow through there. When I heard that, the question that immediately entered my head was "What on earth is the Gypsey Race?" As I now know, the Gypsey Race is a natural watercourse that has its source a little east of Wharram-le-Street on the Yorkshire Wolds, passing through villages such as Duggleby, West Lutton, Foxholes, and Burton Fleming, ending where it enters the North Sea at Bridlington. Thixendale lies west of the source, and therefore the river cannot possibly flow through there.

What is peculiar about this particular river, though, is that it flows both above and below ground, and for much of its journey is quite invisible. The word "gypsey" is an East Yorkshire term that refers to a waterway that comes and goes. If the weather remains dry, then parts of the waterway above ground will remain dry, whereas during a period of wet weather, it fills up and flows above ground.

What is happening in reality is that the water table is rising and falling, depending on the level of rainfall, and in dry conditions, it simply falls below the level of the stream bed, rendering it invisible to us land dwellers. However, it will still be held in the aquifer below our feet where we cannot see it. If you watch the river closely, you might see bubbles bobbing up to the surface. These are little pockets of air being pushed out from the chalky layer below.

There are such rivers in other parts of the country, with each region having its own term. In some areas, they are known as "winterbourne rivers", the word "winter" referring to the time of year it is most likely to flow above ground, and the word "burna" being an old term for a stream. Places with "Winterbourne" in their name occur where we find chalky ground, mainly on the eastern side of the country. In Kent, they are known as "nailbourne rivers" and in Hampshire they are called "lavants".

Darlington and Stockton Times: The Gypsey Race just about visible in the centre of this picture, near the village of Duggleby on

There is some folklore around gypsey rivers, the most common being that when it is in spate, it is a portent of doom. It is only relatively recently that we have begun to understand the scientific reasons behind its quirky behaviour and in previous centuries, it baffled and unsettled many, as described in this 1911 quote from "Examples of Printed Folk-lore concerning the East Riding of Yorkshire’" edited by a woman known simply as "Mrs Gutch".

"To solve the mystery of the 'Gypsey Race', as the strange waters are called, has been the ambition of many modern scientists. Little, however, has yet been discovered to account for its eccentricities. Almost as suddenly as they came, some six weeks ago, the waters will shortly disappear, and may not be seen again for years. Only five or six times during the last twenty-one years has this brook run its eerie course. Its source of origin is a hidden mystery. The strange workings of Nature, however, appeal to the curiosity and imagination of the Yorkshire wold-dweller.

"Day by day young and old watch the stream running its twenty-mile course of hide and seek among the chalk to the sea at Bridlington. Astonishment is often mingled with awe, for according to tradition dire disasters follow in the wake of the brook, and which in consequence bears the sinister title of 'The waters of woe'. Superstitions die hard, and in these out-of-the-way wolds people are still to be found whom it is difficult to dissuade that the running of a stream fed by an intermittent spring is not in some way associated with the supernatural." 

Advances in science mean we now understand why the Gypsey Race behaves as it does. And yet the question remains – where did the ancient residents of Thixendale get their water?

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