Tank Road II

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.

Resources

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 contribution to the late quaternary ecological history of Cleveland, North-East Yorkshire by R.L. Jones

Historic England

Haredale

Out of lockdown I took a short trip up onto the moors.  The skies were grey and threatened a downpour but it had to be done. I chose Haredale, it’s close to home and one of those places that many people pass but few visit.

Haredale is a short valley running across the western edge of Moorsholm Moor from the top of Smeathorn Road down to the A171 Moors road. A small beck runs through the valley and crosses beneath the Moors road to become the Oven Close Beck which after a short run becomes the Swindale Beck then the Hagg Beck, which joins with the Liverton Beck to become the Kilton Beck and eventually finds the sea at Skinningrove.

I’ve been interested in this tiny dale for years as it’s on the margins of an area of quite intense prehistoric activity. Half a mile to the east of the valley there are burial mounds, enclosures and prehistoric rock art. At the head of the valley is a probable prehistoric trackway that follows a line of Bronze Age barrows across Stanghow Moor to Aysdale Gate.

Moorsholm moor

On the valley side is a glacial mound called Old Castle Hill. A row of at least 3 standing stones were erected on the low hill that juts out onto the dale and probably dates to the Bronze Age.

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Today there are only two stones left, both of which are laying flat in the heather.

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There are also a pair of small upright standing stones at the top of the valley.

tracksThe head of the valley is deeply scarred with long linear ditches, these were caused before the modern road was constructed. The ditches are multiple trackways formed by people and horses using a track until it became too deep or difficult to navigate, and then starting a new trackway parallel to the original. Over a period of a few hundred years, multiple trackways are formed. These features can be seen all over the moors.

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On arriving on the moor I walked down on the keepers track along the western edge of the valley towards the stone row. When I was last on the moors they were still in their winter coat of browns, there are now vivid green patches of bilberry spread across the valley, in a month or two the heather will begin to bloom and the bilberries will be ripe and sweet.

On the opposite side of the valley is a large erosion scar, when ever I’m around here I take a look to see what is washing out of the peat. I scrambled down to the valley floor. In my joy at being out on the moors again I neglected to pay attention to  where I was walking, what I thought was a small island in the middle of the beck was in fact a deep bog. My first leg went in to the top of my thigh, my second leg, just over the knee. A moment of panic, I’m stuck in a bog at the bottom of a valley with no one around, time to be calm, I lay across the surface and slowly levered my legs out of the mire.

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I sat on the bank for a few minutes checking that I’d not dropped anything into the bog, car keys, camera all present. I was sodden and mud-caked but happy, laughing at myself for making such a basic error.

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I had a mooch around the scar, at its head is a chalybeate (iron-rich) spring, the red waters of the spring contrast with the grey stoney clay, eroding-out from beneath the peat..

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..then the heavens opens, soaked from the feet up and now being drenched from the head down, I decided to give up and head back to the car.

This may all sound a bit grim but it isn’t. It’s days like these that make me feel truly alive and thankful to have such wonderful places to escape from the present awfulness of the world.

Postscript

On checking the North York Moors Historic Environment Record, the Stone Row and Standing Stones are listed as prehistoric but unlike nearby prehistoric monuments, show no statutory protection, which is a shame as they could so easily be lost.

A sad tale

Freebrough s

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.

Old Castle Hill

 I discovered one (a stone Row) in a small valley, Haredale, on the north Cleveland moors half-way between Commondale and Freeborough Hill. Here, on a huge natural mound known as Old Castle Hill which projects from the western side of the valley at an elevation of 800 feet, are five small upright stones in a line about 150 yards long. The row, which is not absolutely straight, runs west-north-west by east-south-east, the most westerly stone standing about fifty feet from the others which are close together. One the north slope of the mound are some pits which may be hut sites.

Frank Elgee

Early Man in North East Yorkshire. Pub. 1930

Elgee

About 10 years ago I went looking for Elgee’s stone row which I managed to find using a combination of his description and the above photo, sadly all that remained were two fallen stones.  I was in the area yesterday so decided to visit the site and check that the two remaining stones were still there. My memory was a little fuzzy regarding the location of the stones so I decided to start at the head of the valley and gradually work my way along the western edge. It wasn’t long before I came across two small upright stones sticking up through the heather.

Old Castle Hill wrong stones

I was pretty sure that these weren’t Elgee’s stones but it had been a while since I’d last seen them. This was my third moor of the day, the sun was beginning to sink and I was starting to think that a large mug of coffee would be a better option than tramping through knee high heather looking for a pair of small fallen stones. While I was trying to make my mind up as to what to do, I came across a small erosion scar in a drainage ditch, looking down I spotted a beautiful flint tool sitting on the sandy soil, deep joy.

Old Castle Hill Flint

Re-enthused by my tiny discovery I decided to carry on searching for the row. I remembered that the stones were on top of a mound that protruded into the valley but the low sun, long shadows and multiple shades of autumnal moorland golds &  browns made it rather difficult to pick-out the landscape features. As I scanned the valley for signs of the row my eye was drawn to a tree a little further north, the tree was situated midway up the valley side, bathed in the low afternoon sunlight it appeared  almost luminescent.

Old Castle Hill Tree

As I walked towards the beautiful tree I noticed a short promontory of land jutting out into the valley and could make out a small stone-sized gap in a burned patch of the heather. I walked down to investigate and there were Elgee’s stones, still in situ.

Old Castle Hill stones

Stone rows are intriguing, they often serve no obvious purpose and are quite rare on the North York Moors. When I first visited the stones I was hoping that the row was aligned to the top of Freeborough Hill, itself an area of ritual focus to our ancestors, but sadly the row was not aligned to the hilltop.

Some years ago I read a book by Ray Seaton called  The Reason for the Stone Circles of Cumbria. The book details Seaton’s investigations into finding an answer the question of why there are so many stone circles in Cumbria. Seaton surveyed the circles using conventional surveying techniques, he was also an enthusiastic dowser and produced a dowsing survey for each stone ring. I don’t have any strong opinions on dowsing, each to their own, dowsers have been used for centuries to find underground water sources and had they not been successful the practice would have died out long ago but when I hear talk of ‘energy or ley lines’ I tend to switch off.

The reason I mention Seatons’s book is that, along with the book, he produced an acetate detailing all of the major compass bearings for significant astronomical events in year 2000 BC. This is a very handy tool, when used with a map and compass it gives a field researcher a rough idea of the potential astronomical significance of an alignment. Nowadays, there is sophisticated software available to give you precise astronomical data for any given time but my opinion is that our ancestors were using their eyes and a couple of sticks to mark alignments so if an alignment is out by a couple of degrees, does it really matter?

Seaton

So what has all this to do with Elgee’s stone row? Well, given that the row that Elgee described was not an absolute straight line and given that there are only two stones left, both of which have fallen, the compass bearing of the alignment is approximately 120 degrees-300 degrees, Seaton’s acetate showed that this would align the two remaining stones to the setting Summer Solstice sun during the Bronze age. Perhaps I should return here for the solstice.

These stones are very small and would probably disappoint the casual visitor but If you are interested in prehistory or standing stones and want to visit one of the best Prehistoric stone rows in Britain you should call in at the Devils Arrows on the edge of Boroughbridge where you will find three huge wonderful stones, each standing over 18ft high in a field leading down to the river Ure.

devils arrows