Remembering Margaret Curtis Teacher and Archaeologist, born 7 June 1941; died 26 March 2022
Isle of Lewis
Remembering Margaret Curtis Teacher and Archaeologist, born 7 June 1941; died 26 March 2022
Isle of Lewis
A recent online conversation with a friend re-sparked my curiosity about the Tank Road. It’s an area that I’ve visited many times over the years, I’ve always felt that it was an important place but I’ve never fully got to grips with it. So I decided to walk it and try to pull together a description of the area.
I’ve always known it as the Tank Road or Old Tank Road, presumably it got this name from when it was used as a Tank training ground during WWII. The road itself is only 3.5km long, it runs between the main north-south roads to Castleton and Danby. From east to west, the road starts on the main north-south road to Danby and then crosses Gerrick Moor, Tomgate Moor and Middle heads where it meets the Castleton Road at White Cross on Three Howes Ridge.
On walking the road it becomes apparent that it was a busy route in the past, there is evidence of a number of sunken trackways, following the line of the road and joining the road from other routes, this becomes more obvious when you look at the LIDAR images of the area.
Regarding the origins of the road itself. There have been two excellent books written on the trackways of the North York Moors, Old Roads and Pannierways in North East Yorkshire by Raymond H. Hayes and Trods of the North York Moors by Christopher P. Evans. Hayes regards the route as possibly part of the Pannierman’s Causeway from Castleton to Staithes. Evans thinks it is part of a trod from Liverton Moor to Commondale. I suspect this route may have its origins in Prehistory.
Walking from east to west.
The road starts at the bend of the road that runs from the A171 to Danby where there is a small parking area. I definitely would not recommend trying to drive along the road. The road crosses a number water courses, the boggy areas have been filled with building rubble, it’s not unusual to find parts of cars on the side of the road.
The most prominent monument at the start of the road is a large Barrow, one of a group known as Robin Hood’s Butts. Danby Beacon can be seen in the distance in the image above .
The next group of monuments lie just south of the road comprising of a barrow and an embanked circular feature known as an Enclosed Urnfield. The enclosure and barrow date to the Bronze Age. The enclosure was a place where the cremated remains of the dead were placed, often in small pottery vessels. This type of monument is quite rare, they are generally only found in Northern England and Southern Scotland. Only 50 examples are known, 3 of which are within a few minutes walk of the Tank Road.
Photographing many of these prehistoric monuments is quite difficult, most of them are fairly low-lying features, covered in heather on a heather moor. The vegetation is quite low at the moment so this is probably the best time of the year to visit and once you get you eye in they are not to difficult to spot. I’ve included a few Open Access LIDAR images as they give a better idea of the form of the monuments.
To the north of the road is a large standing stone. The stone is unusual as it is ‘L’ shaped and its surface has fossil ripple marks on its surface. There are no obvious outcrops of stone on this part of the moor, but there is an outcrop with similar ripple marks on the western flanks of Siss Cross Hill just under 2km away. Perhaps this was the source of the stone.
In the top image, behind the standing stone, you can see the large burial mound of Herd Howe in the middle distance and beyond that Freebrough Hill. Just below Herd Howe is an enclosure that dates to the Iron Age. I have previously written an account of the enclosure, Herd Howe and the nearby Cross Dyke.
On my last two walks along the road I have seen quite a number of geese. I presume they are overwintering here. On my last visit this pair flew towards me honking, circled me and then headed back to Dimmingdale.
Leaving the road I followed a track south to have a look at Siss Cross. The cross is a crude unworked upright stone, it may be a replacement for the original cross. Running down the hill from the cross are a number of sunken trackways, perhaps the cross was a route-marker. Back in the 19th Century local Antiquarian J.C Atkinson discovered what he described as a flint tool making site just south of Siss Cross. He collected enough flint tools and debitage to fill ‘half a fair sized fishing basket’. The flint tools are thought to have been made by Mesolithic hunter gatherers. The site would have been a good place for a hunting camp, it is well drained and has a large viewshed, even on a muggy day I was able to look along the Esk Valley and make out the distinctive profile of the RAF site on Fylingdales Moor over 21km away.
I headed back to the Tank Road via the Trig point on the top of Siss Cross Hill. There is another Enclosed Urnfield with associated Barrows here. Unlike the previous enclosure this one is oval in shape and quite large 38x20m. Interestingly, the enclosure and the two associated barrows are aligned on the western-most Barrow of the Robin Hood’s Butts group. This alignment is also roughly the direction of the Midsummer sunrise and Midwinter sunset. The enclosure is also intervisible with the third Enclosed Urnfield on Moorsholm Rigg.
I walked back onto the road from Siss Hill and followed it down into Ewe Crag Slack. The slack is a former glacial drainage channel and is generally quite boggy. The keepers and the farmer struggle to keep the road passable down here, the place is a jumble of boulders, concrete posts and deep muddy ruts.
Ewe Crag Slack is a significant location in the study of prehistory on the moors as it was one of a number of places where Paleoenvironmental pollen cores were taken from the peat and the sediments below it. The data from Ewe Crag helped provide evidence that the people who lived here during the Mesolithic period may have been actively managing the land. The pollen cores showed evidence of forest destruction and subsequent soil erosion, this combined with charcoal deposits suggests that people may have been creating forest clearings much earlier that was previously thought.
I noticed this boulder by the side of the road. The boulder has been broken but you can see that it’s original form was rounded. The rock type looks like a fine grained igneous rock, basalt or andesite. I presume it is a glacial erratic. It’s curious because less than a kilometre away, at Dimmingdale, is a barrow that was excavated in the 19th Century by J.C. Atkinson, the same antiquarian who found the Siss Cross Flints. Atkinson wrote that the barrow contained ‘blocks of basalt from the Cleveland Dyke’. It is possible that the stones came from the Cleveland Dyke, the nearest potential outcrop that I’m aware of is at Scale Cross 4.2km away, where it was quarried in the modern era. I wonder if the barrow stones may have originated closer to home as glacial erratics washed-down to Dimmingdale when the ice began to melt. One for further research.
Walking the final section of the road to White Cross my camera battery died. The final 2 images were taken when wandering the road in 2017, they are a Danby-Moorsholm guidestone & White Cross.
Lidar Maps – Open Data Maps
Old Roads and Pannierways in North East Yorkshire by Raymond H. Hayes. 1988
Trods of the North York Moors by Christopher P. Evans. 2008
Early Man in North-East Yorkshire by Frank Elgee. 1930
Excavated Bronze Age Burial Mounds of North East Yorkshire by M.J.B Smith. 1994
Along The Esk. A Guide to the Mining Geology of the Esk Valley by Denis Goldring. 2006
A while ago I came across a reference to a couple of Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age barrows on the southern bank of the Tees close to Piercebridge. Lowland barrows are rare in the Tees valley so I was keen to find out more about this pair. On further investigation I noticed that there were three barrows, one north of the river and two south. Looking on the map I noticed that the three barrows formed an alignment that crossed the Tees at the point where the Romans had built a bridge. Projecting the alignment south leads to the Iron Age Oppidium of Stanwick.
According to Ray Seton’s Astronomical Significance chart, the barrows are also roughly aligned to the rising sun at the summer solstice 2000 BCE.
This map shows that the ancient crossing point was still being used as a ford in the nineteenth century
I checked through all of the sources but could not find a reference to this barrow alignment, so on a misty morning my friend Martyn and I set out to give the place a looking at.
The two barrows on Betty Watson’s Hill and a cup marked cobble stone with two possibly three cups. In North Yorkshire there is a definite association between cup marked stones and prehistoric funerary monuments.
I suggest that the barrows were not actually aligned on the river crossing but were aligned on a trackway or road that crossed the river at this point. The trackway and crossing point, if regularly used, would probably have been quite visible. There is plenty of evidence in the archaeological record to demonstrate a relationship between prehistoric monuments and trackways.
The Tees at Piercebridge and the remains of the Roman bridge. The bridge is built on a gravel bed which is rich in flint pebbles. Perhaps in prehistory this place was not only significant as a river crossing point but also as a source of raw materials.
This part of the River Tees also had a special significance to the Romans. A substantial amount of votive offerings have been recovered from this small section of the river, leading to the suggestion that there was some form of shrine here during the Roman period. The barrow alignment may suggest that this part of the river also carried a spiritual significance to the people who populated this area long before the arrival of the Romans.
Botton Cross overlooks the head of Danby Dale presumably on an old trackway from Eskdale to Rosedale. In his 1993 booklet, The Crosses of the North York Moors, Lewis Graham remarks that it may be of interest to lay hunters that Botton, Fat Betty and Old Ralph are in a perfect east-west line though Young Ralph is to the north.
The original word in Icelandic botn, and it is applied to the head of a bay, lake, dale or the like, the compound word dals-botn being a word of actual occurrence. Moreover, Vigfussen remarks that “Botn” is a local name still in Iceland.
JC Atkinson. Forty Years in a Moorland Parish. 1891
The North York Moors are not blessed with an abundance of large standing stones. This substantial stone is over two meters tall and seems to have been ignored by antiquarians and archaeologists alike, it has even disappeared from modern maps.
The stone sits in a circular depression and faces north/south. The land around it is quite marshy with a number of small streams running down from Glaisdale Rigg. Weathering on the top of the stone is evidence of its antiquity and there are large cup-like indentations on the stone which may be natural.