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
In 1857 Sarah Jemmison was 25yrs old, she worked for a farmer called William Pearson at his farm near Egton. Sarah had an illegitimate baby who she named Joseph. She left Joseph in the care of a Mrs Marley who lived in Sleights. Sarah was unable to keep up the payments so Mrs Marley returned the baby to Sarah. The baby was wearing a white shirt with a slit in the sleeve
Farmer Pearson wasn’t happy about having to feed Sarah’s baby so Sarah took her baby over to Moorsholm saying that she was going to leave the baby with Mrs Wilson, the baby’s father’s sister. The baby was never seen again.
Three days later a shepherd, Mr Green, was working on the moor side of Freebrough Hill when his dog brought him the remains of a decayed human leg. On investigation a babies skull and a white child’s shirt matching Joseph’s was found. The skull showed signs of trauma indicating that the baby had been decapitated after death.
Sarah was arrested and taken to York Assizes where she was found guilty of the murder of her illegitimate child or ‘murder of a bastard’. She was sentenced to death which was commuted to penal servitude for life, after a plea for mercy.
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