A VISITOR delving into the history of Wensleydale might be forgiven if he or she puzzles over the part played by the river called Yore. Even though Wensleydale’s main river is now called Ure, many references to its earlier name of Yore continue in use.

There are businesses, associations, houses, a school, clubs and even local addresses which make use of the Yore name, and indeed the term Yoredale creeps into some of those references. Over the centuries, the river has had other names too such as Eure, Jore, Jor or Jer, all of which mean water, and there is a local area known as Clifton-on-Yore whose castle overlooks the River Ure.

Jervaulx Abbey makes use of the ancient Jer river name as a prefix to its own title, just as Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley is named after the River Rye. Those places and associations that continue to bear references to the Yore or even Jer must raise in many minds the question of why a dale containing such a famous river does not bear its name.

It is now called Wensleydale.

Indeed, one of the best books about Wensleydale was written by Edmund Bogg and published in the 1920s. Its title is Beautiful Wensleydale but Bogg always refers to the River Yore and to Yoredale.

Some years earlier, in 1900, J S Fletcher produced his famous three-volume masterpiece called A Picturesque History of Yorkshire but he called the river by the name we now use, ie the Ure. One of my older maps revised in 1920 also called it the River Ure whilst a reprint of the first edition (1843) of an Ordnance Survey map of the locality refers to the river as the Ure.

Even if the river has basked in the glow of several titles, none has given its modern name to this beautiful dale.

Wensleydale is named after a mall village a short distance upriver from Leyburn which is widely regarded as the capital of Wensleydale. So why is such a large Yorkshire dale named after such a tiny village?

The answer, it seems, lies in ancient history when Wensley was an important town with some 700 inhabitants. It was granted a market charter in 1202 and for a hundred years afterwards, Wensley was the only market town in the dale.

Because it was the premier town, therefore, it gave its name to the dale.

Sadly, a terrible plague struck Wensley in 1563 and many of its residents died. Those who survived fled from the area and settled in nearby Leyburn, and Wensley never fully recovered from that tragedy. Thereafter, it remained a small community as it is today, and its market trading gradually disappeared.

Leyburn then took over the mantle of the dale’s main settlement.

Jervaulx link

Following my notes about Whitby Abbey (D&S Times, Oct 29) and my earlier references to Jervaulx Abbey (D&S Times, Sept 17 and Oct 8), there is a curious but probably unintended association between these famous ruins.

A Knaresborough correspondent referred to a piece of shale from Jervaulx which he owns and which broke to reveal a fossil mollusc or a very large snail, and he reminds me that the coat of arms for Jervaulx Abbey is three such shells.

Whitby is renowned for many things but its coat of arms is also three snail-like creatures called ammonites which are fossilised shell-fish belonging to the family of cephalopoda.

These creatures had feet and crawled around the seabed to find their prey, and they could also swim. The fossilised remains of these creatures were often found in the shale of Whitby’s cliffs.

Our ancestors did not know what they were when lots of them were found on the beach among the broken shale, and assumed they were snakes. Local people thought they had been despatched by St Hilda, the Abbess of Whitby, with one account saying she threw them over the cliffs where the fall killed them and removed their heads. As a consequence, the legend grew that these were the emblem of evil that had been thwarted by the saintly Hilda and the three coiled “serpents”

now appear on Whitby’s coat of arms.

Sir Walter Scott mentions this old legend in his Marmion.

Some lines tell us:

And how, of thousand snakes, each one

Was changed into a coil of stone

When holy Hilda prayed.

These ammonites, which are some 190 million years old, are not snakes but it is their likeness to petrified snakes that created this long-surviving legend.

Otters return

In the world of conservation, there is good news about otters.

The future of otters has been of major concern to conservationists for some 50 years or more. At that time, their numbers were rapidly depleted owing to pollution of our rivers and it was feared they would become extinct.

Conservation agencies supported by the Government began a programme of events designed to make landowners, industrialists and others more aware of the dangers of polluting our rivers. It was not only otters that suffered, but all creatures and indeed plant-life that depended upon fresh clean water.

The results of the most recent survey undertaken by the Environment Agency reveals that numbers of otters have recovered to such an extent that they are now more numerous than they were halfa- century ago.

In some cases, otters were reintroduced into rivers from which they had completely disappeared and since then have thrived, but it is interesting to note that their best performances were in rivers that had not been re-stocked.

In those cases, nature had been allowed to take its course with remarkable results.

Otters are now present in the rivers of every county in England, except one – Kent. They were located in 59 per cent of 3,300 sites visited by the agency representatives between July last year, and March this year. Indeed, in some areas numbers of otters had almost doubled since the last survey which was in 2002 and it is now hoped that we might see otters swimming under Tower Bridge in London.

And, of course, in the rivers of Kent.

Curious customs

We can’t ignore the fact that tonight is Bonfire Night, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes’ Night, Plot Night or even Tar Brush Night. The story of the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament is well known, if distorted somewhat, and it will be marked tonight by bonfires in family gardens or as part of community gatherings.

On the North York Moors in the past, there were some curious means of celebrating.

One was to steal brooms and besoms, soak them in tar and then set them on fire. The youths who stole them then raced around with blazing brooms or besoms. I am not sure of the reason for this curious ritual but it became known as Tar Brush Night. It must have died out many years ago because I have never witnessed it.

In some other Yorkshire rural areas, tharf cakes were eaten on Bonfire Night. These were spicy buns but the origin of this custom is not known.

There is a vague theory that the word tharf, which means shyness or diffidence in the local dialect, may be connected, or that the buns might have some links with the Norse god Thor.