LAST week, we suggested that Bilsdale, on the North York Moors, got its name because William the Conqueror became lost in the fog there. As he stumbled blindly around, his language became more and more colourful, giving rise to a popular phrase – “swearing like Billy-o” – and giving the area its name: it is Bill’s dale.

Harry Mead, who knows these folds in the countryside so well, writes to say that, rather than being just an appealing legend, there is some truth in the story– only it was a blizzard, rather than fog, that William got lost in.

Harry says:

The many accounts of the episode down the years all stem from a near-contemporary record by a medieval monk, Orderic Vitalis (1075-c1142), who is regarded as a trusted source by modern authorities.

According to Orderic, William and his army had marched north from York to deal with a remnant of rebellious Yorkshiremen reported to have taken refuge, with their families, on the Tees marshes at Coatham. Some say they were Yorkshire’s last opposition to the ruthless Conqueror, whose ‘harrying’ campaign, between 1069 and 1071, laid waste the entire region from Tyne to Humber.

Having crushed this outlying resistance, the Conqueror headed back for York.

But it was January and the North York Moors had to be crossed. The principal routes were along the moor tops, with Bilsdale more or less in a direct line.

A paraphrase of Orderic’s account is published in John Leyland’s book The Yorkshire Coast (1892). It reads: “Through that wild region William now made his way amid the cold and ice of winter… The march was toilsome and dangerous. The horses died in crowds. Each man pressed on as best he could, thinking only of his own safety. At one point William himself, with only six horsemen, lost his way and had to spend the night in utter ignorance of the whereabouts of his main army.”

Darlington and Stockton Times:

William the Conqueror

As Orderic noted: “A chance attack from some band of wandering outlaws might perhaps have freed England.” History could have been changed. But, amid the storm, probably few outlaws would have been out and about looking for victims.

In her 1979 book The Story of Cleveland, Minnie Horton suggests the Yorkshire rebels at Coatham were not defeated but dispersed themselves ahead of the Conqueror’s arrival.

She says the rebels had established a sizeable and sophisticated camp. Reached only by a narrow causeway it was further defended by a broad ditch and a 21ft high rampart. Inside, its defiant occupants “lived in safety”, while for food they had “salmon and other fish from the river and an abundance of wildfowl.”

Astonishingly, this camp survived until 1965, when Dorman Long smothered it with slag. Minnie Horton comments: “It was tragic the historical interest of this site was not recognised. After remaining intact for 900 years the camp could have been a gem of Cleveland County – a tourist attraction.”

Over in Bilsdale, the local phrase “swearing like Billy-o” is not the only one said to recall William’s narrow escape. An alternative is “swearing like Billy Norman”, which ties the Conqueror and his mishap even closer to the dale.

Of course, its much-celebrated Spout House cricket club, with its improbably-steep field, postdates the Conqueror. Historic enough though. Some early details were dug out three years ago by Ida Atkinson, of Stokesley, a former secretary of the Bilsdale Study Group.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Though early scorebooks are missing, games were recorded in the York Herald. The earliest report of what was almost certainly a Spout House match on January 7, 1843. It records that “a match of this manly game came off in Bilsdale on Thursday week”. That would be December 29, 1842!

The opponents were Ingleby Greenhow, and a possible theory for the midwinter date is that both clubs were newly formed and couldn’t wait to get started. Anyone able to offer a better explanation?

That “Bilsdale” was Spout House is virtually confirmed by names in later reports, especially one “Dowson”, sometimes “Dawson”, long-time Spout wicket-keeper. The switch to “Spout House” seems to have come when a second club was formed in the dale – at Chop Gate.

A Herald report of July 15, 1871, states: “A friendly game of cricket was played on Monday last between the young members of the Chop Yat and Spout House cricket clubs.” The “Chop Yat” lads won, taking a cricket ball as a prize.

These reports and others, including one of a match on the ancient Drove Road near Osmotherley, are presented in Ida’s privately-circulated book The Bilsdale News, a priceless collection of 19th Century newspaper reports of local life – from the Ploughing and Hedgecutting Society to churches and clergy, court reports, accidents, and, of course, the weather.

As for the pub, the Sun Inn, to give the cricket club’s base its proper name, the particular opening and operating arrangements devised by current landlady Audrey and her husband Richard have saved a community asset that risked being lost. The ownership link with the Ainsley family, who have had the pub since (it seems) almost the time of Orderic, is retained, with sheep farmer William Ainsley, the latest of many namesakes who held the licence, living across the yard.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Add to all this 1) the 15th Century thatched cruck house, the original Spout House, the oldest domestic building on its original site in the national park; 2) the long former association with the Bilsdale Hunt, a claimant to the title “England’s Oldest Hunt”; 3) the curious story of a famous painting of the hunt that led to a copyright row with Bovril); 4) the two playing visits to the cricket club by Prince Harry (2007 and 2009); and 5) the memorial stones in the top wall of the cricket field, honouring two secretaries who each served more than half a century, and there’s justification for claiming there’s more history per square yard at Spout House than at York Minster.

Join my wife in putting on a sceptical smile if you dare.