Wandering in land of the divine Hag

It all started a few years ago when I was studying a map drawn by Robert Knox. Knox’s map was published in 1849 and titled; A map of the country round Scarborough, in the North & East Ridings of Yorkshire : from actual trigonometrical survey with topographical geological and antiquarian descriptions / by Robert Knox, of Scarborough formerly marine surveyor to the East India Company, on the Bengal establishment. 

1849 Knox Map

What caught my eye was a stone at a junction of a number of tracks on Sneaton Low Moor called Old Wife’s Stone. This stone doesn’t feature on any subsequent maps and I couldn’t find reference to it in the modern literature. A few years ago I went looking for the stone and found nothing. My thoughts turned to it recently when it was announced that Sirius Minerals had been given permission to sink a mine at Sneaton. I knew that the road where the stone had been located would be used as an access road to the mine site and therefore, over time, could potentially be widened to take the heavy vehicles accessing the site. I decided to have another look for the stone before any improvement work took place.

As on my previous visits, the only stones I could find were a couple of upright stones that had probably once served as gateposts and a stone carved with a ‘C’ and an ‘X’ marking the boundary of the Cholmley estate, this boundary was also the Medieval boundary of the Whitby Abbey lands. Having found nothing, I decided to head out onto the moor and follow the track south along Shooting House Rigg.

Even in summer the moor here is boggy and is not particularly popular with walkers. Picking my way through the stands of low, gnarly pines I was visited by at least a dozen large, curious, iridescent dragonflies, none would stay still enough to be photographed. Standing in this low wood in a bog surrounded by these beautiful insects with the sea-fret blowing across the moor was a magical other-worldly experience.

One returning to the path, I noticed dozens of chirruping Stonechats perched upon the stone wall, as I approached they would fly on a few yards ahead of me, announcing my presence on the moor.

Boardwalk

A boardwalk has recently been built to help walkers cross a particularly boggy section, the bleached timber contrasted against the red grass gives the structure a sculptural feel, it also makes a very satisfying sound as you walk across it.

Decoy

The moor on this northern section was used as a bombing decoy site during WWII, these sites were known as QL Sites. The site  was comprised of rows of lights to give the impression of buildings and factories when seen from the air by enemy bombers . Amongst the QL sites were also Starfish Decoy Sites which simulated bomb damage by setting fires and producing smoke.  The remains of these sites can be seen on the ground as a series of low trenches, they are best appreciated on aerial photographs such as the one above.

Heading south I came to an empty stone socket, this is all that remains of John Cross, a Medieval moorland cross. The last time I was here there was a stone marked with the Cholmley ‘C’ stuffed clumsily into the base. This stone is now laying nearby. I also noticed another stone with a worked section that would fit into the socket and wondered if this could be the remains of the original cross. A few mason-cut stones poked through the turf indicating the location of the pedestal marked on the first OS map of the area, published in 1853.

1853 OS Map

I followed the path down to one of my favourite places on the North York Moors, The Cross Ridge Earthworks and the standing stones known as The Old Wife’s Neck.

1895 OS Map

In Archaeological terms the earthwork is classed as a Prehistoric Cross Ridge Boundary comprising an impressive series of three parallel banks and ditches running across a spur of land for almost a kilometer. To the west of the dykes is a large cairnfield, old maps also show cairnfields to the north and south of the dykes, much of which was probably destroyed by the multiple trackways across the moor coupled with clearances by the War Department  during WWII when the moor was used as a military training ground.

Update. Recent work by Archaeologist, Blaise Vyner, and his team, has suggested that there may have been far fewer cairns in this area and that the original OS surveyors may have been mistaken.

The site has a personal significance to me, it contains a pair of standing stones one of which is the Old Wife’s Neck. I consider this anthropomorphic megalith represents the Divine Hag of the North York Moors, The Old Wife, who is also known in the north of our islands as Carlin and Cailleach, a primal, supernatural being. I have written about the Old Wife/Cailleach elsewhere so I’ll not bore you with any more of my ranting here.

After spending a little time with The Old Wife I walked down to the wide deep valley of Biller Howe Dale Slack. The slack is a remnant from the last Ice Age, when it was formed by water overflowing from an ice dammed lake in the upper Iburndale valley.

Frank Elgee reported that hundreds of flint arrowheads were found in Biller Howe Dale and uses this as evidence for prehistoric warfare. I have followed up on Elgee’s source (The Gentleman’s Magazine 1857 ii 445-7) and there is no mention of the flint finds, the reference is actually to an article on the great Yorkshire antiquities forger Flint Jack.  During my visit I did find evidence of warfare in one of the erosion scars. Unfortunately it was modern warfare, remnants from when this part of the moor was used as a training ground during the preparations for the D-Day landings in 1944.

A handful of bullets

Sources

Maps maps.nls.uk

Aerial Photography zoom.earth

Cross-Ridge Boundaries on Fylingdales Moor: John Cross Rigg & Latter Gate Hills. Blaise Vyner. Prehistoric Yorkshire 58, 2021.

Postscript

On further researching the Old Wife’s Stone I found this passage in Robert Knox’s book Descriptions, geological, topographical and antiquarian in Eastern Yorkshire, between the rivers Humber and Tees.

Hannah Hagget

The Old Wife

Carlin Howe

Carling Howe YN [Kerlinghou 12 Guisb], Carlinghow YW [Kerlinghowe 1307 Wakef]. ‘The hill of the old woman or hag.’ Second el. OScand haugr ‘hill’. The first is ON kerling, OSw kaerling ‘old woman (Scotch carline ‘woman, hag, witch). Very likely the hill was one where witches were supposed to gather.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names. 4th edition. Eilert Ekwall