DURING a research trip into Yorkshire’s Eskdale (where I was examining a newly-discovered cross post at Glaisdale, one of several located around the North York Moors, which I believe to be wrongly called witchposts), my wife and I decided to pay a return visit to Westerdale.

It is many years since we have been able to revisit this rather small and remote moorland settlement – indeed some of my very early invitations were to the home of Major J Fairfax-Blakeborough, who wrote this column for about 60 years before I took over in January 1976. I recall his Westerdale house being very comfortable and full of books – and most welcoming, as indeed he was.

With only a handful of houses forming its main street, along with the C of E’s Christ Church, a disused Methodist chapel and the imposing Westerdale Hall, there is little to attract visitors, except for the remarkable moorland that surrounds it. As long ago as the compilation of the Domesday Book, the area around Westerdale was considered wasteland. At that time Westerdale was known as Camisedale but by the following century the name had become Westerdale or Westerdail, indicating the most westerly valley of the moors.

At the time of the Domesday Book, the Cleveland district of 120,000 acres had only 11 farmers and 58 ploughs, Loftus was worth nothing and the area from Westerdale to Crunkley (near Lealholm) was seven miles long and three-and-a half wide but provided work for only eight ploughs. All this was the result of the Harrying of the North by William the Conqueror.

However, there are things of interest. Westerdale Hall, formerly known as Westerdale Lodge and built prior to 1874, was the baronial shooting lodge of the Duncombe family before becoming a youth hostel after the Second World War, and then reverting to private ownership.

The origins of the parish church are obscure and it may include some Norman stonework, but it was massively restored in 1838 and again in 1875.

In the garden of a cottage near the church there stands the strange and unique Bulmer Memorial.

Covered with lettering which is difficult to read, I am indebted to Harry Mead’s book Inside the North York Moors which offers this interpretation: “1727. In this year it was my true intent to make here a lasting monument to show Thy mercies everywhere around and save us when no mankind are to be found. Of this, I have had large expieryance”


The “expieryance” was a shipwreck undergone by a local man called Thomas Bulmer and his companions.

The inscription adds that Bulmer had often crossed the Main to foreign shores, then Germany, Holland, France and Spain, adding: “Wrecked at length his frail bark, the hopeful anchors cast, is now unrigged and here lyeth moored fast.

Tossed on rough seas on broken pieces of the ship until daybreak, then they escaped all to land. Remember man, thy sail on sea, short it must be, and then be turned to dust.”

It must have been an horrific experience, especially for a landlubber from Westerdale.

Thomas’ tombstone may be found in the graveyard.

One interesting aspect of Westerdale is the presence of three moorland streams – known as Esklets – that flow down the dale where they merge to form the River Esk that eventually enters the North Sea at Whitby. Near the village those waters flow beneath an ancient and beautiful arched pack-horse bridge which once formed part of a route across the infant River Esk. It is known as Hunters Sty Bridge.

It carries armorial bearings on its keystone which suggests it may have been built by a local nobleman. It is widely thought to date from the 12th century, albeit with some inferior 19th century restoration to the parapet which may coincide with the later restorations of the village church.

The presence of that small but pretty bridge is a reminder of the time when Westerdale hosted one major settlement in this area with a minor one nearby.

The major one developed from the Knights of the Temple founded in 1119.

They protected pilgrims on their long, perilous pilgrimages to the Holy Land. From this there developed the Knights Hospitallers or Knights of St John, whose role was to minister to sick pilgrims and to protect them. These men were Catholic priests or deacons, despite their militaristic appearance.

During the reign of Henry II (1154-89) they established a preceptory at Felixkirk, near Thirsk, from where they continued their work in England to eventually found ten preceptories in Yorkshire, where they became known as Knights Templar.

One of those preceptories was in Westerdale, where its work was supported by several local noblemen and it is possible it was their presence that led to the construction of Hunters Sty Bridge. There is no doubt the presence of the Knights Templar led to work creation in Westerdale – cobblers, blacksmiths, farriers, cooks, stonemasons, wheelwrights, millers, shepherds, farmers and others all prospered due to their presence.

There was even a teacher and a school whilst only about a mile away was a minor settlement – the supportive Cistercian nunnery at Baysdale which was founded in 1163. No trace remains.

Westerdale must have been a very busy place! Incidentally, there is another Westerdale to the south of Thurso in the north of Scotland.

AFURTHER aspect of Westerdale was that, in Norman times, the barren moorland around it enjoyed the right of warren. This leads me neatly into the topic of black rabbits, but in this case it meant more than breeding rabbits for domestic use. The barons of Norman times were allowed to grant the right of free warren, i.e. free chase, otherwise known as hunting.

For example, Nicholas de Meynell received the right of free warren of stags, does, fallow deer or other beasts of the wood at Whorlton, Greenhow, Seamer and Eston. Another example was that the monks of Jervaulx Abbey had special permission to keep mastiffs in the Forest of Wensley to protect their cattle against wild beasts by hunting them down.

Following my notes about black rabbits (D&S Times, June 21) I have received a lot of correspondence relating to Wensleydale, along with its famous warren and silver rabbits. Woodhall Warren is thought to have had medieval origins and was located on Lady Hill in Wensleydale, probably as a source of food at that time.

Later, silver-coloured rabbits were bred for their fur which seems to have been in great demand during the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries. Their skins were still being used for hats as late as 1930. The fur of silver rabbits was black at birth.

In addition to this specialised breeding, it seems that black rabbits can occasionally be born from mothers with brown fur, just as a white sheep may produce a black lamb. One correspondent who used to live in Wensleydale at Bainbridge reminds me of whitish coloured ladies in places like Tenerife where slavery was practised, who may still give birth to very dark children without any contribution from a father with dark skin. It’s in the genes, as they say.