Moor Walls, Dales and Wolds. (Part 1)

You know the idea of the ‘Bucket List’, a whole page of dream wishes that you one day WILL do; often places to visit, challenges to attempt (why eighty year olds want to go sky diving is beyond me and as for Kilamanjaroo …) or deciding to wear purple clothing, well ….

Being less adventurous and perhaps more sloth-like in my vision of my dotage, I have some geographic targets in my bucket (but nothing that requires extreme effort or endurance!).  Some of them are near continent but most of them are on the shores of this ‘sceptred isle’.  Fate has picked one of the areas out of my pale and galvanised bucket and set me into venturing forth.

Circumstances have landed me in North Yorkshire.  Being that far north has enabled me to go and explore two areas I have long wanted to visit.  My main target for a long while has been the moors of North Yorkshire.  It has similarities to the Dales but is also different in many ways.  For one thing the large expanses of open moors !  I imagine somewhere in my distant past I learned that this particular area was also a landscape of walled fields and isolated farmsteads.  That vision must certainly have been coloured by the incredible TV series following one remarkable old lady who lived and farmed alone in the bleakest of places.  ‘Hannah’ became very famous and several biographies were written about her.  The TV programmes were sensitive to both her and the area, the books gave the reader the true sense of the hardship, loneliness and extremities of weather endured by this lady over a lifetime.

North York Moors

Open heather moors stretch to the skyline. The North York Moors are definitely a place to see.

The impetus to one day visit the area, a determination to visit the area in fact, came from an accidental discovery of a wonderfully descriptive book about the old farming methods and communities of the area. Titled ‘Life in the Moorlands of North Yorkshire’ (published by J.M. Dent in 1972 Isbn: 0 460 03961 x) the book was compiled by two intrepid ladies, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby (they also did a similar account of life in the Yorkshire Dales).  It is a deeply evocative account of the people and their methods of living and farming the dales and moors of the area.

Another part of the old East Riding which summoned me is the ‘Wolds’, an area of rolling chalk hills, softly rounded, with deeply incised valleys.  This geographic zone exists to the east of York and is bordered by the Humber on the south, the sea on the east (with famous places like Flamborough Head and Bridlington) and the Plain of Pickering to the north.  As the name implies, it is historically an area of sheep rearing.  As well as boasting the largest standing stone in Britain at Rudston, it is also home to the most studied DMV.  Now I am sure many of you will already be thinking “a most studied motor car?”.  You would be nowhere near, the simple pseudonym stands for Deserted Medieval Village.

I set forth on a peculiarly hot Friday in the middle of September, driving north from the small market town of Pocklington in the lowlands to begin the long slow climb to the Wolds.

Arable fields of wheat in East Yorkshire

Yorkshire Wolds: large arable fields looking out over the plain of York with the Minster just visible in the distance.

The area around Pocklington and way out to the east coast is nothing but huge rable fields as is the first part of the wolds, before the geology really changes.  Rising to the ridgeway along which runs the A166 York to Bridlington road, I stopped to gaze out over the vast flat plain of York and saw the edifice of the Minster, uncluttered by the surrounding city buildings, rising in the distance.  It clearly showed how the great tower had dominated the medieval landscape.  Crossing the A166 I was immediately into chalk land where arable changed to pasture.  Ancient looking valleys plunged from the flat open top on which relatively ‘modern’ enclosed fields were either not bordered or edged with hedgerows of limited (sometimes single) species.  A hedgerow full of hawthorn is a sure sign of a hedge planted by the local estate owner around the middle to end of the eighteenth century.

I went down steep hills into valley bottoms in which sat small villages with ‘Quixotic’ names (which are actually olde Anglo Saxon) like Thixendale.  Single lanes wind between the fields with, here and there, re-entrants in which root crops and some oil seed rape grew.  Navigating by the sun as much as my road map I turned north and climbed a steep incline with the scar of a large chalk quarry off to my right.  In the narrowest of valley bottoms there seemed to run the old course of a long gone railway.  I stopped in a gateway, mainly to see the bright blue flower that was growing in the field edge which, at first, I did not recognise.  A passing walker stopped to chat and informed the plant was chicory and the railway line was the one which used to run from Driffield to Malton.  “But it appears to end just there” I said pointing to the valley head.  “There was a tunnel under Burndale Warren” said my knowledgeable local.  Apparently, in the weeks prior to D Day, both De Gaulle and Churchill had travelled in the latter’s private train to visit Free French Forces training in the area.  The night saw the train parked in the tunnel with tanks parked at each end.

Burndale Warren on the old Driffield to Malton line

The course of the old railway line from Driffield to Malton at Burndale Warren where it disappeared into a tunnel. Churchill and De Gaulle spent the night aboard Churchill’s train in the tunnel guarded by Free French tanks at each end.

Cresting the brow of the hill I came in sight of my first ‘bucket list’ target.  For years, since beginning my studies of Landscape History, one name has been at the forefront of my places to see, a national treasure of medieval revelation.  Wharram Percy is the most studied and thus most celebrated of DMVs.  Hidden until aerial photography picked out the strange lines on the side of a steep Wold’s valley and the ‘derelict church’ of  St. Martin’s appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, the village became the forty year obsession of two renown academics.

St. Martin's church, Wharram Percy.

St. Martin’s church in the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy in the folds of the Wolds in the old East Riding of Yorkshire.

The first to get interested was not an archaeologist but rather an economic historian named Maurice Beresford.  His particular area of interest and writing was the ordinary lives of the working class and land labourers especially of the medieval period.  A chance encounter with a geologist turned aerial photograph interpreter named J.K. St Joseph set Beresford on the trail that led him to his forty year study of Wharram Percy.  Fortunaately he was soon joined by a ‘proper’ archaeologist who introduced scientific methods of excavation and recording which probably saved the whole from becoming something of a disaster.  John Hurst exploited the fairly new notion of  ‘open area excavation’ (rather than digging small pits the idea was to open up large areas of ground to expose the various layers beneath) which revealed the buildings themselves not just small pot sherds or metal remains.

Wharram Percy house foundation

One of the stone foundations revealed in the excavation. It is a house in one of the long rows which occupy the hillside to the north of the church.

Dozens of houses of the ‘longhouse’ style with the animals and cattle housed under the same roof, were revealed in two separate rows.  A large village green where stock was allowed to graze and large strip fields to the east of the site were also plotted.  As well as the church there were the remains of mill ponds and mills, manor houses and farm buildings.  The whole is nestled in a narrow valley in which runs a clear chalk stream and is gained by descending a pre-historic sunken lane.

From 1950 to 1990 the two intrepid explorers, able assisted by hundreds of volunteers and other experts revealed the palimpsest that the hidden layers revealed.  A village occupied and vibrant suddenly gone after the ravages of the Black Death, changes in land ownership and a move to open ‘wold’ sheep farming where small tenants farmers were a nuisance.

All in all an astonishing and spiritual place which more than lived up to its billing – in my humble view !

Not too far from that historic settlement lay another astonishing and rather under-stated monument.  I did not even know of its existence until a colleague mentioned that if I was wandering the Wolds I should definitely head to Rudston.  Perhaps even more of a shock as it was unknown !


Monument, Rudston, Yorkshire

Neolithic standing stone at Rudston in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The tallest in Britain can you believe !

The stone stands well over 7 metres and dominates the surrounding countryside, or at least it did when it was first erected around 2000 year BC in the late Neolithic.  Unfortunately some clot went and built a church right next door  almost touching in fact, probably to extinguish once and for all whatever ‘pagan’ practise the huge stone represented.  As usual, how it got there, how it was erected and all the other questions which envelope such perplexing pre-historic emblems lie unanswered here too.  It’s not often I am rendered open-mouthed but arriving at this hidden gem  my jaw drop for sure.

Rudston Monument and All Saints Church

All Saints Church, Rudston, North Yorkshire. A large stone stands next to it !

The site has another  hidden gem, again rather understated on a small notice.  In a dark corner of the churchyard, nearest the junction of the two roadways that converge just outside, lies a pretty impressive Roman grave.  The stone lined tomb lies un-noticed alongside a couple of other important early Christian chambers.

Roman grave lying in churchyard at Rudston

Roman stone grave at Rudston church

As if a rather impressive Roman grave and a Neolithic standing stone was not enough there are two other plots of some significance.  One a gentlewoman, the other a whole tribe of warring chieftains !

Macdonalds of the Isles burial plot at All Saints, Rudston

The graveyard plot of the Macdonalds of the Isles, several Baronets lie within.

I have no idea why the 15th, 16th and 17th Baronets, all Bosvilles, should be buried in this corner of North Yorkshire but there they are;  it just goes to show how wandering around a country graveyard can bring forth an elegy !

Baronets of Sleat burial plot.

Baronets of Sleat lie in the corner of a quiet English churchyard in North Yorkshire.

In the photo above can also be seen the flower bedecked grave of Winifred Holtby, the early twentieth century writer and feminist.  She is perhaps best known for her novel ‘South Riding’ which was published after her death in 1936 and has been adapted several times for television and radio and is still in print.  She also wrote the first critical account of Virginia Woolf, ‘Mandoa Mandoa’.  As well as her early feminist activities (her book Women and a changing Civilisation published in 1934 is still relevant today) Winifred was a pacifist and a strong socialist, perhaps coming from her strong agricultural roots in the old East Riding of Yorkshire and the Wolds especially.



Quite a church that All Saints at Rudston, perhaps the better as I came across it quite unexpectedly….. who put that big stone in the way !

From the beautiful Wolds I headed north across the plain of Pickering to enter the North York Moors National Park, a journey a long time in the making….

Coming soon to Welshwaller !


One Response to “Moor Walls, Dales and Wolds. (Part 1)”

  1. Jan Says:

    We used to holiday in Glaisdale on the moors and have many happy emerges of the journey from Grimsby across the Humber bridge and North through Beverly and Malton, on to Pickering and the over the Moor past the Fylingdales golf balls. Top secret except that they were impossible to hide. Not shown on any maps. Fish in Whitby is the freshest you will find any where. And the abbey is a must visit. My highlight was always Runswick Bay, Crab sandwiches in the pub there and the lunar landscape left by the alum mines. Perfect for a landscape fanatic.

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