The Smell of Water Part 3: Danby Rigg


Crossing the muddy, cattle-churned field from the Hutton Road, there are various earthworks visible in the low winter sun. This was once the site of a Medieval leper hospital overlain by a nineteenth century tramway, built to transport ironstone from the local mines.

I follow the path uphill, the woodland sits in the winter shadow of the escarpment. I stumble up the steep, muddy track to the lichen-splattered, table-top outcrop, the Hanging Stone.

Many visitors have left their mark on the outcrop.

Out of the shadows, walking from Ryston Nab along Ryston Bank, warmed by the low winter sun. A line of prehistoric barrows follows the scarp edge, the ancestors watch over Bousdale. An intake wall, now in ruins, has been built across the barrows, the tumbled wall stones contain fossils. There were once other cairns here, marked on the early maps, erased by the forester’s plough.

I leave the footpath and follow a line of boundary stones across Hutton and Newton Moors. The stones follow a low ridge and have been erected on top of prehistoric mounds. The mounds are most likely Bronze Age in date, all have been disturbed by excavation. The boundary stones date from the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries and mark the parish boundaries between Newton, Pinchinthorpe, Hutton Lowcross, Guisborough and Great Ayton.

Ryston: rhiw – Welsh ‘hill, ascent’

Roseberry Topping – Othensberg 1119

Sluttish Whitby, the Devil & the Old Witch

John Ray (1627-1705) was one of the pioneers of modern botany. A parson naturalist, he was the first to classify plants by species. He undertook a number of tours of Britain and Europe where he collected and described the local flora and topography.


The following passage, describing his visit to North East Yorkshire, is taken from Selected Remains of the Learned John Ray with his life. By William Derham published 1760.

We ascended the top of that noted hill, called Roseberry or Ounsberry Topping, the top whereof is like a sugar loaf and serves for a sea-mark. It may be seen at a great distance, viz. from Stanmore, which is in a right line above 20 Miles off. From hence we had a prospect of that pleasant and fruitful vale, part whereof is called Cleveland a country noted for a good breed of horses.

The ways here in winter time are very bad, and almost impassable, according to that proverbial Rhyme,

Cleveland in the Clay

Bring in two Soles, carry one away.

Near this hill we went to see a well celebrated for the cure of sore or dim eyes, and other diseases. Every one that washes in it, or receives benefit by it, ties a rag of linen or woollen on a shrub or bush near it, as an offering or acknowledgement.

The People of Gisburgh are civil, cleanly, and well-bred, contrary to the temper of the inhabitants of Whitby who, to us, seemed rude in behavior and sluttish.

In the way from Whitby to Gisburgh we passed by Freeburgh Hill which they told us was cast up by the Devil, at the entreaty of an old Witch, who desired it, that from thence she might espy her cow in the moor.

Image – National Portrait Gallery / Public domain


Roseberry Topping


Since high enthroned on Ida's fateful plain 
Sat Odin, when the Northmen hither roved 
They chose this throne-like hill for him they loved, 
Here o'er Valhalla should the great god reign; 
Hard by ran Mimir's fountain, whither, fain 
To know if Heimdals warning could be proved, 
When Asgard trembled and the earth was moved 
By Ragnarok, went Odin, but in vain. 
Fountain of sorrow, hill-top dark with fate. 
The cloud pavilions reared upon thine height, 
The stars that tremble o'er thee, speak of woe; 
Yet this of solace have we, that we know 
Neither the day we shall be desolate, 
Nor that dread hour when o'er us falls the night. 

Sonnets Round the Coast by Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley. Pub. 1887
thanks to Graeme Chappell

‘T’Hunt o’ Yatton Brigg

‘T’ Hunt o’ Yatton Brigg is a dialect poem by Richard Blakeborough which was published in 1896. The poem is too long to reproduce here but it tells the tale of the Old Witch and John Simpson.

John Simpson was in love with a girl from Great Ayton called Mary Mudd, unfortunately Mary loved a man named Tom Smith. John Simpson’s love soon turned to hate of the pair and he asked the local witch, Old Nanny, to work an evil spell on Tom and Mary.

After some arguing Old Nanny agreed , telling him to go to the churchyard and gather certain things, these are not specified in the tale. Once this was done she gave him instruction what to do with the things that he had collected. She then instructed him to wash in the old well and leave her besom (broom) by its side.


John carried out Old Nanny’s instructions but broke faith and ignored Nanny’s final injunctions, thinking that the Old Hag would not know. He then set out for home.  He soon discovered that he was mistaken and was visited by a number of demons followed by three hags who knocked him down and flew him to the top of Roseberry Topping.


Once on the top of the peak the hags bound the besom to John’s legs and told him to hurry away as fast as he could because they were going to hunt him with all the unearthly things suchlike could call to their aid.


After a terrifying chase John remembered that the witch had told him that he would be safe from harm as long as he had a foothold on Ayton Bridge (Yatton Brigg). John ran for the bridge but with just a few yards to go was tripped by the besom and fell into the beck. The hags dragged him out of the water and bit and scratched him until he was half dead. The hags finally left him as dawn broke and the tale ends.



Holy Stones are those artificial formations connected with the oracular ceremonies of past ages, and it is recorded that one of these uprights called the Needle, stood in the vicinity of the west pier at Whitby, through the eye of which rickety children were drawn in order to strengthen them; a custom practiced in some parts to this day. Lovers also pledged themselves by joining hands through the hole, especially in the case of young mariners bound on their voyage.

A Glossary of Words used in the Neighbourhood of Whitby. F K Robinson 1876

From an account in a M.S. in the Cottonian Library (Julius F.C. fo. 455) the date of which is variously given as 1550 and 1610, it seems that there had been formerly a hermitage on the top, but at that time there remained only a ” small smith’s forge cut out of the rock and called Willifryd’s needle” (later called the cobbler’s shop) There was a Wilfrid’s needle in Ripon Minster where trial was made of a woman’s chastity, the identity of names may or may not imply identity of use. According to Ord the grotto had been destroyed by quarrymen before his time and no trace of it existed on my earliest visit now well on to 60 years ago.

Cleveland Naturalists’ Field Club Record of Proceedings 1920 – 1925

On advancing a little farther, the main valley is discovered extending towards the west and the railway, sweeping rapidly round the foot of a bold and lofty projection on the right, crowned by a large mass of rock, called from a perforation visible near its point, the Needle’s Eye, brings the traveller in full view of the middle division of Newton Dale, extending for about a mile before him, and of which the general character is peculiar, and singularly picturesque.

Illustrations of the Scenery on the Line of the Whitby and Pickering Railway.  Henry Belcher. 1836

Update. Graeme Chappell kindly sent me this link to a picture and description to the Needle’e Eye in Newtondale


Sculpture & Photograph – Andy Goldsworthy

When Roseberry Topping wears a cap..

When Roseberrye Toppinge wears a cappe,

Let Cleveland then beware a Clappe.


When Roseberry Topping wears a hat,

Morden [Morton] Carrs will suffer for that


When Eston-Knab puts on a cloake,

And Roseberrye a cappe,

Then all the folks on Cleaveland’s clay,

Ken there will be a clappe.


Cleveland in the clay,

Take two boots in and one away.


Blakey Topping

There are three primary characters that feature in the local folklore regarding the creation North York Moors landscape, Wade the Giant, his wife Bell and the Devil or Ould Scratch. In the case of Blakey Topping there are two main folk tales that explain the creation of the hill.

The first tale is that Blakey Topping was created by Wade the Giant. Wade and his wife Bell had a falling out, Wade became angry and Bell ran off over the moors. In his rage Wade, scooped up handfuls of earth and threw them across the moors at Bell. Blakey Topping, Roseberry Topping and Freebrough Hill were the result. The place where he scooped the earth from is now the Hole of Horcum

Blakey Map

The second tale concerns an unnamed witch who made a pact with the devil that involved surrendering her soul. When the devil met the witch to claim his prize, she changed her mind and flew off over the moors. The devil then scooped-up handfuls of earth and threw them at the witch. Those handfuls of earth are now Blakey Topping and Howden Hill. As with Wade, the place where he scooped the earth from created the Hole of Horcum, which is also known as the Devil’s Punchbowl, it is said that you can still see his finger marks on the sides of the great depression. The route the witch took to escape the devil is a track called The Old Wife’s Way.

There are three standing stones at the bottom of the hill, these have been interpreted as the remains of a stone circle or a stone avenue




DCF 1.0

More than an hour slipped away while I lounged and
loitered, making the round of the summit again and again, till
it seemed that the landscape had become familiar to me.
Then the solitude was broken by the arrival of strangers, who
came scrambling up the hill, encouraging one another, with
cheerful voices. They gained the rocks at last, panting ; two
families from Middlesborough, husbands, wives, boys and girls,
and a baby, with plenty to eat and drink in their baskets,
come from the murky town to pass the Sunday on the breezy
hill-top. How they enjoyed the pure air and the wide
prospect ; and how they wondered to find room for a camp-
meeting on a summit which, from their homes, looked as if it
were only a blunt point ! They told me that a trip to
Rosebury Topping was an especial recreation for the people of
Middlesborough — a town which, by the way, is built on a
swampy site, where the only redeeming feature is ready access
to a navigable river. I remember what it was before the
houses were built. A drearier spot could not be imagined :
one of those places which, as Punch says, ” you want never to
hear of, and hope never to see.”

” ‘Tis frightful to see how fast the graves do grow up in the
new cemetery,” said one of the women, whose glad surprise
at the contrast between her home and her holiday could hardly
express itself in words. ” It can’t be a healthy place to bring
up a family in. That’s where we live, is it — down there,
under all that smoke ? Ah ! if we could only come up here
every day ! ”

A Month in Yorkshire

Walter White