THIS region contains a number of interesting old castles, ranging from the might of the one at Richmond down to far smaller ones such as Whorlton Castle near Swainby or Danby Castle in Eskdale. And who can forget that wonderful advert some years ago that announced the sale of a semi-detached castle near Snape?

All can boast interesting stories, many of which form part of our country’s long and fascinating history, but the size or age of the castle is not often a reliable guide to its importance or the role it played in national affairs.

Among the smaller examples is Whorlton Castle near Swainby which was probably built in the 14th Century and was once owned by Henry VIII. It occupies a very strategic position overlooking a busy road which is now the A172 leading from the Cleveland Tontine towards Stokesley and Middlesbrough. This vantage point must have been very advantageous in times past for it provides wide views over the surrounding countryside, ideal for raising early alerts of impending raids. There is no charge for entering these ancient ruins and no guide although I believe it is now in the care of the Department of the Environment.

Although Henry owned this castle (along with many others) there is no suggestion that he ever lived there, but it did play a part in our history. King Henry gave it to the Earl of Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots and it is said that the intrigue surrounding that marriage was plotted in Whorlton Castle.

In the past, the castle was surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge but today very little of the castle has survived. However, its magnificent gatehouse bears four shields that are carved on the stonework. They belong to three families – the Meynells, the Darcys and the Greys, with the fourth one above these; with an arrow running through, it depicts the union of the Meynell and Darcy families.

When I visited the castle for a look around, three workmen were cooking their lunch over a log fire in one of the surviving vaults and the smoke provided a wonderful sense of timelessness in those old ruins.

Nearby, however, is a truly fascinating but crumbling Catholic church that dates to Norman times. It is the Church of the Holy Cross at the end of a long avenue of ancient yew trees. When I called, the nave had no roof and the aisles had gone, but some Norman arches survived along with a 15th Century tower complete with a medieval bell and the east window from the same period. The chancel roof is still intact and I’m told that area is sometimes used for funeral services. It contains a curious stone cross propped against a window.

Of greater interest in that chapel, however, is one of this country’s earliest known hollow wooden effigies. Lying upon a canopied tomb probably dating to around 1400, it is a hollow figure carved in oak. It depicts a man lying with a dog at his feet and it is thought to be that of Sir Nicholas, the second Lord Meynell, who died in 1322.

From these ancient remains, it seems that Whorlton was formerly a village of some importance as indicated by its castle and church. However, it was hit by the plague in 1428 and its population fell to only ten people. They fled to live in the safety of nearby Swainby.

Of further interest on the wooded slopes behind these ruins are trees that were planted so that, from the air, the initial letters E II R can be seen in the differing colours of the foliage. This display was to honour Her Majesty in this rather unusual way – but they can (or could) be seen only from aircraft overhead. I was told about this by a friend who was a pilot with the RAF.

From castle to fortified farm

Another small castle is at Danby in the Yorkshire Eskdale. Very little remains today although part of the ruin is still used for meetings of the local Court Leet. My grandfather was one of the jurors, and I was privileged, as a child, to be shown around this ancient place, complete with its terrifying dungeon. Now, its surviving structures are used as farm buildings – the farmhouse has the appearance of a fortified farm.

Danby Castle stands on the north-eastern tip of Danby Rigg and overlooks the River Esk with the ancient Danby packhorse bridge, known as Duck’s Bridge or Dux Bridge, spanning the Esk just below the castle. It is likely that an owner of the castle commissioned the construction of that bridge in the 14th Century.

The castle was the original seat of the Latimer family and it has been said that one of the wives of Henry VIII lived there. This was Catherine Parr who later married John, Lord Latimer. The successors of this family were the Nevilles who later owned the castle. In fact, the walls bear the shields of other noble families including the Bruces and de Roos.

In the hills only a couple of miles or so from Danby is the village of Castleton built on the northern extremity of Castleton Rigg. From its name, we would expect to find a castle there – the name suggests Castle Town. Although some of my reference books make no reference to a castle here, Joseph E Morris in his book “The North Riding of Yorkshire” (Methuen, 1906) states that a castle formerly stood on the crest of a brow to the east of the village. The road leading from Castleton to its railway station passes this point. The castle belonged to the Bruce family who held land here as early as 1087 but I have no knowledge of its demise or more recent owners or occupiers. In its heyday, it was known to be built of wood with three water moats at different levels but was superseded by Danby Castle only two miles away.

Time to welcome winter guests

Following my notes in recent weeks about the absence of cuckoos and other summer bird visitors like house martins, I have received replies from readers who have heard the cuckoo in this region this year, and there have also been sightings of house martins!

I spotted a few house martins in Ryedale but by no means as many as in previous years. They tend to arrive later than swallows and swifts, and consequently depart much later. I spotted a small flock of house martins in Ryedale around the time of the equinox (Sept 21) but have not heard or seen a cuckoo during the recent summer.

My correspondents report hearing cuckoos in Wensleydale and on the North York Moors in the Bilsdale area; in the past, cuckoos seemed plentiful in my part of North Yorkshire, but there is no doubt that their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. As I mentioned in my recent notes, this seems to be associated with a reduction of numbers of host species who rear the young cuckoos in their nests.

I await next year’s cuckoos and other summer visitors but it is now time to turn our attention to winter visitors such as fieldfares, redwings and all those others who come to our country to spend their winter here.