ONE of the least visited areas within the North York Moors is probably Fryup. This small community is spread around two dales – Great Fryup Dale and Little Fryup Dale, in the Esk Valley between Danby and Lealholm.

In times past, Fryup was separated by the moors from larger towns and it is not surprising that stories of magic and mystery developed here. One such tale is based on Fairy Cross Plain.

But first a brief look at Fryup, beginning with its rather odd name.

It has nothing to do with the traditional fry-up of eggs and bacon for breakfast, but its origins are uncertain.

It appears likely to be derived from Friga, an Old English personal name while up or hop indicates a small valley. Around 1223, the twin dales were known as Frihop and a century later it was changed to Frehope, the pronunciation of which (especially in dialect) was remarkably similar to the present name. Literally, it means Friga’s Valley.

The two parts to the dale are joined in a U-shape and are orientated north-east to south-west with the dale head to the south-west near Glaisdale High Moor and Rosedale Moor. Standing in the Ushape is rising ground known as The Heads with Danby Crag at the mouth overlooking the River Esk.

To the west lie Crossley Sides where, as a child, I went picking wild bilberries, and at the northern tip of that higher ground are the remains of Danby Castle with links to the families of Latimer, De Ros and Bruce.

There is no village in Fryup – it is a collection of scattered farms and cottages with no parish church, although there used to be a village school. Navigation was once taught there but it is no longer a school.

There are hints of a long-lost industry in the name of Furnace Farm at the northern entrance to Great Fryup Dale. Long ago, iron ore was smelted here and iron was carried out by packhorses and taken to Whitby for shipping to customers. In 1227, seven furnaces were operating where mounds of cinders can still be found.

My own memories of Furnace Farm were of magnificent Cleveland Bay horses being bred here.

As their name suggests, they are coloured a warm brown or bay with black feet and a black tail – with the tail never cut short.

Long tails are a feature of this breed. Once known as Chapman Horses, they were highly efficient carriers and haulers of loads ranging from pots and pans to heavier weights.

For this reason, they were used by tinkers, chapmen and others trekking over the moors with loads carried in packs.

They were also known as excellent carriage horses in the Golden Era of coaching, and their calm temperament makes them ideal for ceremonial occasions.

They are still used to haul the royal coach and Queen Elizabeth II maintains a string of Cleveland Bays with Her Majesty being president of the Cleveland Bay Society, established to perpetuate the breed.

In 1984, Her Majesty hosted a reception at Windsor Castle in honour of the Cleveland Bay.

Near the southern end of the rising central ground called The Heads, there is the area known as Fairy Cross Plain.

I used to play here as a child but never found any fairies – but this is where they were thought to live.

The name dates from around the 18th century and the term “cross”

refers to several moorland tracks which met here. One linked Danby and Pickering castles and was used by Edward II.

It seems the legend of the Fryup Fairies arose due to the mystical appearance circles on the ground among the turf and grass.

This was puzzling to our ancestors who thought the rings had been made by fairies, but in fact they were created by a fungus known as Fairy Ring Champignon (marasmius oreades). Sometimes this grows on lawns and it is edible.

It spreads by creating circles and new growth appears year by year in ever-expanding rings – a sure way of puzzling our ancestors.

Sometimes, the name Fairy Ring was given to a circle of small white or yellow flowers and because our forebears did not understand these rings, they thought they were magic and the work of fairies.

It was believed the fairies danced in the circles, and some thought the rings indicated the whereabouts of an underground fairy village.

In the light of a full moon, local people would dance nine times around these circles while being very quiet as they listened for the fairies singing, laughing or playing games in their underground village.

It was not considered sensible to do this on the Eve of May Day or at Halloween because those nights were given over entirely to the fairies. Intruding upon the fairies’ merrymaking was thought to give rise to future problems in the locality.

Children would regularly dance around the Fryup Fairy Rings but never more than nine times – if they outstayed their welcome, it was thought the fairies would whisk them into their underground tunnels, to be lost forever.

Traditional belief also added that sheep and cattle would never graze near the fairy rings and the local people considered it very risky to try and remove any of them.

In today’s society we may scoff at such beliefs but in his renowned book Forty Years on a Moorland Parish (1908), Canon Atkinson of Danby referred to the local belief that Fairy Cross Plain was a “desperate haunt o’ fairies” when an inn stood near the present site with the largest fairy rings being found behind the building.

One man, as a child, was warned by his mother that if he misbehaved, he would be left outside all night so that the fairies would take him away for ever. Some two centuries ago, he believed that.

Canon Atkinson provides a firsthand account of the belief in fairies at this location. His version is written in the North York Moors dialect of that time and may be incomprehensible to many, so I will re-tell it in English.

An elderly lady explained how she had often seen the fairies as they came down slopes known as Stanch Bullen and headed towards the inn’s entrance. Then they went underground near the stone supports of the nearby bridge which spanned Little Fryup Beck; there was a culvert which they used as their entrance. She described one as a small green man wearing a queer sort of cap, and as she told this story for Canon Atkinson, her husband butted in and said: “Where do they live then?”

“Under the ground,” she replied.

“Nay, nay,” said her husband.

“How can they live underground?”

“Moles do,” was her retort. “If they can, why can’t fairies?”

She said she had heard them at night, busy and making sounds like butter-making – fairy butter – and next morning she had found some smeared on a farm-gate.

If you are brave enough to visit Fairy Cross Plain at midnight on Halloween when there is a full moon, you might hear fairies laughing and playing beneath those fairy circles ...