Moor Walls, Dales and Wolds. (Part 2)

In the most glorious September sunshine I left Wharram Percy and headed across the flat lands between Malton and Pickering to the edge of the North York Moors.  A brief stop in the bustling Friday market town and tourist mecca of Pickering was curtailed by my abject failure at working out how the car park pay machine operated – it was totally unfathomable to me, sorry, I should say “It t’were totally unfathomable to me !”

After several weeks up in’t north I’m already saying “nowt” and “t’were”… but that’s surely a sign of how much I am enjoying being up in this pleasant land with such amiable folk.

Sandstone dry stone walls in North York moors

Can these stones be real !? Surely they are just too uniform …

Immediately on leaving the town and heading a few miles west to Wrelton, I started to see dry stone walls.  The stone was quite astonishing, big evenly bedded blocks laid in regular courses, just like man-made bricks, created a ‘tidiness’ not familiar to my eye.  I quashed the need to stop and build a fallen section I encountered !

Turning off the main A170 I followed the valley of the River Seven (that’s Seven not Severn, as in Wales !) northwards to the little hamlet of Rosedale Abbey.  This was not one of the great Cistercian houses of the area but a little ‘ecclesiastical’ type house around a small village green, very crowded on that Friday afternoon.  It was another sign of just how popular this area is to caravanners and holidaying foreigners.  Once through the village the road narrowed and began climbing inexorably to the high moors.  I pulled off the road at a high point, looking down on the Rosedale valley and out over the vastness of the heather moorland.  The ‘clecking’ of the resident game bird could be clearly heard and soon I saw several pecking away in the purple blanket.  The high plateau of North Yorkshire is nothing but mile after mile of Grouse moorland, managed  with one intent, to blast the poor creatures to death once the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ arrives.  At least the birds are native and are not kept in such large numbers as to destroy the other ecosystems that exist.  It can be justifiably argued that the shooting is why the heather is so bountiful.  Controlled burns and other management regimes, whilst all about providing good feeding and breeding grounds so as to make a successful shoot, result in a fine heather covered moor which is quite something to behold.

Standing stones on the North York Moors

Heather, grouse and pre-history all exist in some sort of harmony on’t moors.

There is, unfortunately, a price to be paid, not just by the poor grouse.  I saw several road-kills, not of grouse interestingly (they seem to have learned that the motor car is dangerous, unlike the silly pheasants that commit suicide everywhere they are released) but the other (partly) native critter, the rabbit.  Now where I live a run-over rabbit would be incessantly pecked away at by buzzard, kite and crow until, in a very short time, it disappeared.  Not so here, the carcasses were untouched leading me to suspect myxomotosis was abroad in the area.  I stopped to examine three large dead bunnies expecting to find the tell-tale signs of emaciation and bulging blind eyes.  Nothing of the sort, these were perfectly healthy specimens which would have afforded an excellent meal to any passing raptor or predator.  Why then hadn’t they been touched ?  Quite simply, there are no predators, winged or on four legs.  I saw not one bird of prey, indeed I saw not even a corvid or any small bird for that matter.  Certainly no fox or badger roam these moorlands, they, like the avian predators, are not welcome.  The only predator allowed to exist up there is homo-erectus with his shotgun.  So sad when there is room and food for a thriving upland moorland eco-system.  In that sense the beauty is a sham, lovely as the heather is to see, yes, it can be quite satisfying to see the odd grouse within it but to see ‘nowt’ else is quite tragic.

My intention for the trip was to find a good camping ground from which to venture out in the coming couple of days and to that end I aimed myself in the general direction of the National Park’s Moor Centre at Danby in the vale of the river Esk.  There I was given the address of a farm that turned out to be exactly my sort of place, in more ways than one !

Fryup vale in the north York moors.

Great Fryup Vale was my camping spot for my moorland adventure.

Firstly the site was a peaceful corner of a field which looked out across the vale of the Esk and the setting sun.  That aspect is a must for me when out in my little tent.  As the weather was so clear the sunsets were quite something and sitting out until well after nine o’clock was an added bonus (only a week later I was snuggled up in my canvas shelter by 8.30pm !).  The vale of Fryup of course had its own attraction but when I got chatting to the farmer I discovered he knew well my ‘traveller’s guide’ (Ingleby & Hart’s book) and pointed me to his father’s name in the section on Peat cutting.  Imagine, to find that man in that vale when one of my main aims was to explore the tradition of peat cutting as well as visit Welshwaller’s eponymous valley !

Despite there being only one other vehicle in the field when I arrived, and they were well away from me, some Nederland folk in a rather sumptuous mobile camper van, soon the familiar whirr of a VW ‘splitty’ was heard.  And of course they decided ten yards from me was the place to set up !  I was not particularly bothered as my ‘home’ was facing the field wall and the valley thus they were, in effect, behind me.  Unfortunately they had a rather nice awning on my side of their van and I could hear every word, fart, and worst of all, a ship’s horn of a nose blow !  He clearly had some mucous issue … She on the other hand clearly had one of those ‘leaky women’ issues that seems to beset ladies of a certain mature age and thus, every couple of hours, through each night, she heedlessly slid back the very loud and distinctive side door, slid it closed with the required amount of force and ‘bang’, unzipped and re-zipped the dozen or so three metre long zips that allowed her to walk off across the field – with the brightest flashlight I ever saw – to the ablutions.  After a longish while my tent was awash with light as she aimed the beam back in the general direction of her bedroom, which just happened to be in a straight line to mine.  Then, unzipping and re-zipping, sliding back the door and having a chat with the two dogs, sliding and slamming the door, she had a little chat to hubby.  Then but a few hours later, still dark and whilst I had finally got down into ‘omega’, a repeat performance.

I breakfasted, as always, on porridge…  You can’t beat sitting out in the morning sun cooking your own grub and making a nice cup of real coffee in a rather clever little mug- come-press I acquired in South Carolina.  I had decided to wander to the west and set off in the direction of Great Ayton.  It really is the most amazing landscape, vast open spaces atop green dales and isolated farmsteads.  Walls, of course, are everywhere and it was interesting to match the building style with known periods of building.  Much of the ‘head dyke’ building is quite late, erected as the enclosure of upland commons and large open fields of the small townships took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  There are patches of much older walling, medieval in places, but the common landscape is a post medieval one.

'Single' dry stone wall above Glaisdale in the North York Moors.

Dry stone wall built as a ‘single’ and deliberately left ‘open’ so as to allow air to blow through and sheep to sense it is unstable – hence deter them from jumping, or so the thinking goes !

After an hour of ‘poodling’ up and down over the northern edge of the moors I descended to the small town of Great Ayton (with Captain Cook’s monument standing proud on the hillside) and onwards to Stokesley.  I had heard that a great country fair takes place in September but alas it was the following weekend.  From there it was south down the main road towards Helmsley and the next ‘must see’ element in that part of the country.

It is impossible to be a student of landscape, its origins and patterns, boundaries and buildings, without coming across the great ‘houses’ of the medieval orders of monastic settlements.  There were several ‘brotherhoods’ which built great abbeys but perhaps the Cistecians were the greatest and the remains of one of their monasteries was my next port of call.

Riveaux Abbey, North Yorkshire.

The great church of Riveaux Abbey, magnificent in its dereliction.

The ‘shock and awe’ element of Cistercian abbeys is always present, especially when encountering  one for the first time.  In part it is the size but in the main it is the utter astonishment of turning a corner in an isolated valley, often along a narrow single track lane, to come face to face with an enormous stone edifice.  So it was with Riveaux, massive, out of proportion to its environs but beautiful in its dereliction.  Many of the great houses are in a very poor state today, some are nothing but a pile of stone or one or two standing archways, not so this abbey.  Yes, it is derelict, but the grandeur of it is not diminished.  It is easy to understand what each section was and the English Heritage graphics and ‘audio tour’ are excellent.  We seem very far behind in Wales with our interpretation of such monuments.

I wandered around the acres of buildings admiring the engineering, the stone carvings, the’spirituality of the place’ – not easy in some areas due to the fact that it was an English Heritage ‘free’ weekend and thus the place was full of families with hundreds of screaming under 10s racing around the place.  There was also the rather surreal presence of a large film crew hauling miles of thick cables and wheeling dozens of large black boxes into every nook and cranny making ready for the next great period drama no doubt. The many men were clearly all from the outer perimeter of east London and their accents were so out of place in that cloister of “ere lass” and “t’were lad”.  If you find yourself ‘up north’ head for this majestic place.  Of course the remoteness of Yorkshire and its plethora of isolated fertile valleys made it an ideal land for the Cistercians and there are several other excellent abbeys all within a day’s tour, Fountains being perhaps the greatest but Bolton and Whitby are worthy of your time and money.  I briefly called at Whitby Abbey on my way back to Pocklington, deciding to take the coastal route back and see the sites of the seaside towns of Scarborough and Bridlington – I was soon disabused of that notion !  A hot Sunday afternoon at the end of summer is NOT the time to go to such places !

Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire

Whitby Abbey stands on the headland above the town and looks out over the north sea. I caught it on a bright sunny day, it must be a bleak setting when the ‘north wind doth blow’ and rain falls from low cloud.

I am getting ahead of myself – back to the moors !  Leaving Riveaux was a difficult decision but I had another target I wanted to find in the southern sector of the North York Moors and time was racing on.

In the small picturesque village of Hutton-le-Hole is the Rydedale Folklife museum, an excellent place to find out about the life of the moors in generations gone.  I was particularly interested to visit as it had been an important element in Ingilby and Hart’s book.  The buildings have been brought down from various Dales and represent typical hill farm and village steads.  Naturally I was on the look out for the tools and equipment peculiar to the area but also to see the vernacular architecture of the region.  Even though it was a very busy Saturday afternoon with many visitors – aided and abetted by the fact it was an English Heritage Free Weekend !- it was no problem wandering around un-interrupted.


I spent about three hours looking at the array of exhibits and really enjoyed the Iron Age roundhouse and several of the more unusual outbuildings.  Of course I could include dozens of photos of the tools and equipment I saw …. but I’ll save you that yawn !

Well, maybe just a few !

Ryedale Folk Museum Roundhouse

Round-house at Ryedale. A very good representation of a Celtic roundhouse built as part of the Iron Village and farming scene.

Horse-gin house at Ryedale museum

House for horse-gin, a mechanical gearing system for driving barn machinery which is powered by a horse walking around and around a circle turning a vertical shaft which, through a bevelled gear, is transferred into horizontal motion into the barn.


Tyring plate for fitting the metal outer ring, or tyre, to a wooden cart wheel. There were hundreds if not thousands a hundred years ago but try finding one now ! They mostly went off to the scrap yard due to their immense thickness and quality.

I wandered over the moors and dales covering most of the area I think.  It really is a unique place and well worth the effort to get there.  My quiet campsite was just the place to enjoy the sunny evenings and was well situated to get me up onto the flat open moor.  One aspect of the cultural heritage I was particularly keen to investigate was the cutting of turf and peat.  I say “and” because up there they distinguish between both and use both unlike in other regions where the words are often interchangeable.  I was astonished to find that the annual cutting still took place and although I was too late to see it – normally a June or July activity  with the turves being brought from the moor after drying-out sometime in August –  I was keen to visit the faces.  Luckily my host (whose father is actually mentioned in ‘the book’ in relation to peat cutting) was able to explain to me exactly where to go and so, on my last morning, I sallied forth.

Peat cutting in North Yorkshire

Peat cutting faces on the North York Moors.

I had about a half mile trek from the road across an old track and I could soon see, in the distance, the black lines that marked the freshly cut face of the bank.  What had become apparent to me from my reading and from talking with my host was that the method of cutting differed to that commonly used in Wales (and most other places where peat was cut for winter fuel).  My tools, my old photographs and the oral history I have gathered all indicate a method of standing on top of the bank and slicing down into the face with the various spades and long handled knives.  Up there however the opposite approach was utilised whereby the cutter stood on the boggy ground at the bottom of the bank and cut into it from the front.  Another effort-saving element here was that the bricks of peat were merely dropped onto the ground not heaved up onto the top of the bank.  Because of the difference the tools varied slightly and I was thrilled to later find an example of the distinctive cutting skane in an antique shop outside Whitby.

The cutting face of a peat bank

Looking into the ‘box’ shows how the face has been cut back each year over a long period of time. The face is about 30mtrs in length and 1.5 mtrs high.

Whilst the fuel is the same and the hand tools are family heirlooms there have been some changes in the ancient practice.  Instead of hand barrows and sledges to cart the peat off the moor, the commoners have adapted all manner of contraptions to save time and effort and of course the ubiquitous quad bike and the four wheel drive tractor has revolutionised that toilsome element.  I did however, see a number of ‘Heath Robinson’ relics lying discarded near the face.  Clearly some of the alternative methods of transport have been less successful than others !

Discarded peat cart on the moor

A modern contraption used – briefly it seems – to carry peat off the moor. It utilises an old motorbike wheel and some shaped timber handles to make a wheel-barrow. The wider tyre would have been easier to push across the boggy ground, alas it eventually fell apart and was left for the bog to claim it. Naughty naughty Mr !

I gathered a few discarded bricks of peat to take home with me- it is useful to display them along with my peat cutting tools as fewer and fewer folk know what it is !  As I headed back across the boggy ground I encountered one of the many drains that have been cut to take away the water from the face and hence leave it a little drier than it would otherwise have been.  Although I had spotted many such deep cuts on my way in and carefully watched where I trod, I clearly got a little distracted on the way back, excited no doubt to be carrying my souvenirs !  Suddenly my left leg plunged down into  a deep rut which was up to my thigh and the pitch forward made me topple headlong into the mire.  I extracted myself with some difficulty and with the realisation that had I got stuck or broken a bone or even just twisted my ankle, that would probably have been my burial place.  A ‘body in the bog’ to be discovered, hopefully in a few years rather than a thousand !  Of course there was no mobile signal and it made me realise just what an isolated inhospitable place that vast moor could be, thankfully it was a bright sunny day and by the time I had walked back to my car my trousers had dried – they were light brown so the added camouflage of dark brown, peat stained water, merely added to the country look…

Leaving the high moor I headed eastwards, already the sea was visible and I wanted to get to Whitby by early afternoon.  By accident more than intent. I suddenly came upon some sort of northern Mecca; dozens if not hundreds, of cars lined the road and grass verges and  flocks of folk wandered around the little village.  I knew not what it was all about but I was told later that Goathland is now world famous as the film set for a TV series, Heartbeat.  It seems very strange to me that the unreality of TV transforms a quiet village, already full of beauty and charm as a village, into some sort of pagan worshipping ground.  It was the same in Oxford where Christchurch, amongst other buildings,  has become more famous as the venue for Harry Potter than as the marvellous historic building it is.  None so queer as folk …

What a fabulous trip I had to the North York Moors; I’m not altogether sure I’ll completely cross it off my ‘bucket list’ just yet.  Maybe the need to return will come over me in a few years.  Meantime Welshwaller is back on the restoration of the Pocklington canal and I’ll bring you that story shortly.


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