A VISIT to Osmotherley and the nearby Cod Beck Reservoir can always produce something of interest. And so it was the day before compiling these notes just over a fortnight ago. My wife and I decided to visit the reservoir in an attempt to research the species of birds it attracted, and to learn a little more about the history of the village.

On a bright and sunny winter day, we crossed the moors above Hawnby and passed the famous and former Chequers Inn, being rewarded with stunning views across the vast Vale of York towards the Dales as we descended into Osmotherley. As always, the village was busy if the number of parked cars was anything to judge by – I have never visited Osmotherley when it has not been busy.

Even on this quiet winter day in the middle of the week, teams of hikers and other visitors thronged the streets.

Some will recall that the old Chequers Inn used to be a drovers’ inn on the route from Scarth Nick to Sutton Bank Top, and it had a sign which said: “Be not in haste, step in and taste, ale tomorrow for nothing.”

Some visitors fell for that old trick.

The sign was stolen in 1960 but was found in Northallerton in April 1984 and restored.

I didn’t see it when I passed on this most recent excursion.

A look at earlier reference books that feature Osmotherley, some going back perhaps a century or more, seem to ponder whether it was then a small town or a large village.

Nowadays, I am sure it will rejoice in its “village” description.

Its name has long presented interesting speculation because it is so unusual.

A very early attempt to explain its meaning suggested it came from Northumbrian kings or saints such as Oswald, Oswin or Osmund, the latter also being the name of a young prince known locally as Os who died in tragic circumstances on the slopes of Odinsberg, i.e. Roseberry Topping, several miles to the north-east.

The most likely source of Osmotherley’s name is Asmund or Osmund’s lea or leah, the latter words referring to a clearing, but not “Os by his mother lay …”, as some have suggested. Asmund or Osmund is a personal name of Norse origins and so the name probably means Osmund’s clearing which was sometimes presented as Osmund’s Ley, Osmundslay or Osmonderley, the latter being used in the 16th century.

In addition to its name, the village is rich with history.

One of the most intriguing objects is what appears to be a square stone table sitting on five low pillars in the centre of Osmotherley. Its age and purpose are a mystery, for no history book explains its purpose, except that it is very ancient. One theory is that it was probably used to display merchandise during village markets. It is known, however, that it was used in 1754 when John Wesley, at the invitation of the local Catholic priest, stood upon it to deliver a powerful sermon, following which he arranged the building of one of the first Methodist chapels in the North York Moors.

Curiously, the Wikipedia entry on the internet makes no reference to the Catholic presence in Osmotherley, despite it being part of the community for centuries.

It refers to the Church of England parish church of St Peter, the arrival of Wesley as above, and the founding of a Friends’ Meeting House erected in either 1690 or 1723.

However, history acknowledges the Catholic origins of many older C of E churches, and St Peter’s at Osmotherley is no exception; even its bell bears the Latin phrase “Sancte Petre ora pro nobis” – St Peter, pray for us.

This building suffered badly during the Edwardine Visitations when former Catholic churches were stripped of their ornamentation such as the altar, statues, rood screens, crucifixes and so forth, in addition to wall paintings being obliterated with whitewash. In this case, Joseph Morris in his classic book The North Riding of Yorkshire (Methuen 1906) records that this church was barbarised in the “churchwarden” (sic) period but restored circa 1892.

In some cases, the debris from that “churchwarden” period can still be seen in old churches, abandoned on window ledges and in the porch.

The Catholic presence in Osmotherley remained unbroken throughout the aftermath of the Reformation, the ruins of Mount Grace Priory and the nearby Lady Chapel being utilised in secret.

In the reign of James I (1603-25), it was said of the Lady Chapel “the spot continued to be the goal of secret midnight pilgrimages by diverse and sundrie superstitious and popishly affected persons” who used the ruins especially on “the Lady’s and other saints’ eves”.

As late as 1881, the Anglican Archbishop of York issued a writ to prevent these midnight visits, but it was ignored.

At the height of the Catholic persecution, Lady Juliana Walmesley bought The Old Hall at Osmotherley and in 1665, invited the Franciscan friars to establish a priory there for the help and support of pilgrims. That old house near the centre of Osmotherley still contains that Catholic chapel which remains in use.

I think the Wikipedia entry should be corrected.

It is said that the Queen Catherine Hotel in Osmotherley is thought to be named after Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. It is believed to be the only inn named in her honour, although some suggest it is named after Catherine Parr, his sixth and last wife. Unless, of course, it refers to Catherine Howard, his fifth wife.

After a splendid lunch at The Three Tuns we headed for Cod Beck Reservoir which includes a car park, a circular walk around the lake and a picnic area. A set of bylaws has been necessary to safeguard both the reservoir and those who visit the area; for example, swimming is not allowed and the rules now forbid anti-social behaviour, litter, camping, fishing, ice-skating and other acts that might damage the locality or prove dangerous.

We took advantage of the walk around the perimeter of the reservoir as we wished to see what species of wild birds might be observed on the water or nearby in the woods or on the moors. But when we stood and searched the surface with binoculars, it looked deserted. A strong and very cold breeze was ruffling the surface as we enjoyed the walk, and then we spotted a white duck-like bird at the far side.

With a very dark green head that looked black from a distance but with pinkish white lower parts and red beak, this was a male goosander, but it seemed to have the lake to itself – until we noticed another one with a warm brown head and grey plumage – the female. She made many dives to emerge some distance way after a considerable time.

And then we saw two female mallards and one drake, a greylag goose that appeared from the trees to run ahead of us until it gained the water, and finally a coot. And that was all.

A quiet day on the water but made interesting by the goosanders.

And finally, the name Cod Beck Reservoir is nothing to do with the fish that might be caught here. It could derive from coed meaning woodland as in Betws-y-Coed in Wales, or our local dialect word cawd meaning cold, i.e. cold beck.