On the Grit

Moors

Are a stage

for the performance of heaven.

The audience is incidental.

A chess-world of top-heavy Kings and Queens

Circling in stilted majesty

tremble the bog-cotton

Under the sweep of their robes.

Ted Hughes

Pretty much at the top of my post-lockdown visit list was a trip to visit Jenny Twigg and her Daughter Tibb and the Sypeland Crags in Upper Nidderdale. Following a minor navigational blunder, nothing new for me, I met up with Mr. Chappell and Mr. Vasey and we set off across Fountains Earth Moor.

Travel almost anywhere in the Pennines and their foothills, you’ll see crags and cliffs defining the upper slopes of the Pennine Dales and hilltops. These outcrops are generally composed of either sandstones or limestone. Millstone Grit is a generic term for a number of Pennine sandstones. Both the sandstones and the limestone were deposited over 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period.

At first, with some spread of warm shallow seas, limestone formed, the Carboniferous or Mountain Limestone that was to be built into some of the most solid and respectable piles in England, buttresses of its pride and self confidence. The work of silting up these Carboniferous seas was completed by deposits brought from the northern continent of Atlantis, then hot, mountainous and swept by monsoons. A large river with tributaries drawn from territories stretching from the north of Scotland to Norway poured out its coarse sediments across north-eastern England. So were Norwegian pebbles brought to Yorkshire and held in the Millstone Grits that were laid down as the deltas of this northern river.

Jacquetta Hawkes.

The Pennine limestones are massive and dense and form great scars where they outcrop along the scarp edges of the hills. Limestone can be weathered chemically, the weakly acidic rains and rivers of the uplands gradually dissolves the limestone to form the deep gorges and caves and the iconic limestone pavements of the Karst landscapes of the Pennine Uplands.

When Millstone Grits outcrop on the scarp edges they tend to form crags and cliffs. These sandstones are resistant to chemical weathering so are eroded by wind and ice. the weather is able to erode the weaker beds within the sandstones and sculpt the rocks into strange shapes. There are many of these sculpted outcrops along the Pennine edges and tops, almost all were formed during the last Ice Age, the most well known being Brimham Rocks which is now owned by the National Trust and has been a popular tourist attraction for many generations.

Sypeland Crags are little known and somewhat off the tourist beat and track, this was evident by the lack of ancient or modern graffitti on the rocks. The rock type here is the Lower Brimham Grit, a course grained sandstone. There are only 3 named rocks on the moor, Jenny Twigg and her Daughter Tibb and a massive boulder called Tib’s tent.

The origin of the Twigg and Tibb names is not known and there are very few literary references to the stones. I first read about them in Guy Ragland Phillips book, Brigantia – A Mysteriography. Phillips quotes a passage from William Grainges 1863 book, Nidderdale.

..is a large group of naked rocks, some of them of enormous bulk, called Sypeland Crags; they are of the course millstone grit, like those of Brimham, the grotesque grandeur of which they imitate, though on a smaller scale. Two of them a short distance from the main group are tall upright pillers and at a distance have the appearance of giantesses in broad bonnets, from which resemblance they have recieved the names of Jenny Twigg and her Daughter Tibb,

William Grainge

The folklore of the area says that Jenny Twigg and Tibb were the keepers of a drovers inn on the side of Dead Man’s Hill. They are said to have robbed and murdered three drovers and buried their decapitated bodies. When the bodies of the men were discovered Jenny and Tibb were found guilty of murder and hanged. Another tale says that they were witches who were turned to stone, a familiar tale at number of megalithic sites. The tale of the witches being turned to stone is very similar to tales in Scandinavian folklore where are number of large rock features are thought to have been giant trolls, of both sexes, who were instantly petrified when the suns rays fell upon them.

Ragland Phillips book doesn’t mention the murders and there appears to be no official records of the trial and execution of the women. He does mention the summit of Dead Man’s Hill, telling us that three headless bodies were found at a point where three tracks diverge into Wharfedale, Coverdale and Nidderdale. He goes on to say that it is also the point where three walls meet at a ‘peculiar’ structure known as Jenny’s Gate. It strikes me that the burial of three headless bodies at the point where three important tracks meet, if true, sounds more ritualistic than anything else.

Jenny Twigg has a hole running through the stone, the hole is large enough to pass your arm through. In some parts of our islands there was a tradition that any oath or vow sworn, including marriage, and shook upon through a holed stone, was ‘sealed in stone’ and never to be broken

There are a number of beautiful weather-sculpted rocks along the edge of the crags.

Some of the rocks have been undercut by the elements, one has been walled-in to form a rock shelter. Others have small pools of peat-stained water at their base and on the top surface of one large rock there are a number of large basins, the most I’ve ever seen.

Pereidolia – The Kiss

Tibbs Tent and light snow

This is a grouse moor, the butts are well kept, there is a maintained shooting house and there is grit left out for the birds, over the course of our day we only saw one grouse on the moor. We left for home watching squalls over the distant Vale of York.

Etymology

Sypelands – Sibberlands 1609

Nidd – British river name. Root Nei – to be brilliant. Nedd/Neath – Wales, Nita – Germany, Nidar – Scandanavia

Sources

Moors. Remains of Elmet – Ted Hughes 1979

A Land – Jacquetta Hawkes 1978

Brigantia, A Mysteriography – Guy Ragland Phillips 1976

Map Image reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland 

The Consise Oxford Dictionary of Place Names – Eilert Ekwall. 1974 edition

8 thoughts on “On the Grit

  1. Thanks, as always. Absolutely beautiful photos of those rock and their living skins of lichen. And those brilliant lines of Hughes, the first couple of which always come time mind whenever I’m up on the North York Moors, but with the follow on that so obviously fits the Pennines better. A must-visit.

  2. Fantastic post, and gorgeous photos. I have heard the tale of the bodies on Dead Mans Hill – with a slight difference. The tale I heard (and I can’t remember the source) were that 3 tinkers on their way back from Keswick market, loaded with money after selling their wares. The perpetrators were the landlady and her daughter at a coaching house near Arkleside and they were caught when one of the tinkers’ dog wouldn’t leave the grave – thus causing suspicion. The landlady and daughter were hanged at Knaresborough and the tinkers are buried in Middlesmoor church – although as no one seems to know their names it is impossible to tell which graves are theirs. I don’t know if the tale has a grain of truth in it or not – it seems to be a bit persistent and the hill must have got it’s name from somewhere – so maybe. But as you say it could be a ritualistic burial. You have a brilliant blog, one of my favourites, and I have followed you for awhile.

    • Thanks very much I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve seen a few variations on the murder theme . Regarding the name of the hill, I was wondering whether the ‘Dead’ element could have originally been ‘Dod’. There are plenty of Dod hills in the north. Eckwald writes that Dod is ‘a rounded summit or eminence’, found in Northern and Scotch dialects.

      • That could be one explanation – old names are often changed and reconfigured over the years. I read somewhere that when the old map makers first reached these distant parts and asked locals what the object was, they were unable to understand the locals dialect and just wrote down what they thought! I doubt we will ever know – which is part of the fascination of it all 🙂

      • It is a fascinating subject..it can really tangle you up if you aren’t careful. It is a subject that’s beyond me 🙂

  3. Re: “minor navigational blunder” – what’s half a mile between friends!
    I did not know about the jenny’s gate on Deadman’s Hill, and its beginning to pique my interest, so i may go for a look.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s