Wandering in the shadow of the sacred hill

My friend Graeme Chappell and I decided to have a wander around Thompson’s Rigg. We followed the Old Wife’s Way from Horcum, dropping down along Newgate Brow into the valley below.

We crossed the fields to take a look at the standing stones at the foot of Blakey Topping. These stones have been interpreted as a possible ruined stone circle.

After spending some time at the stones we walked onto Thompson’s Rigg. The Rigg is only a mile long. Its flanks slope down into the valleys of the Grain Beck to the East and Crosscliff Beck to the west. The moor is surrounded on three sides by higher ground and gently slopes to the south, where it narrows to form a valley which eventually leads to Langdale End and Howden Hill, a hill very similar in appearance to Blakey Topping.

About a third of the way along the Rigg the trackways bends, at this point, running diagonally to the trackway, is a cross ridge boundary. The boundary is a banked structure that bisects the full width of the moor and is topped, in parts, with large stones. The official scheduling for the area states that, Although this boundary forms part of the post-medieval field boundary system in the area, it is considered to incorporate elements of an earlier construction which had origins in the prehistoric period, contemporary with the cairnfield. source

In his book Early Man in North East Yorkshire Frank Elgee wrote, A wall of upright stones crosses the Rigg between the farm and the barrows, he also includes the boundary on his map of the area

It is curious that despite the earthwork being mentioned in the official scheduling of the area and despite it defining the the northern limit of the cairnfield and barrows and its close resemblance to other moorland cross ridge boundaries, this significant structure does not appear in either Don Spratt’s 1993 or Blaise Vyner’s 1995 inventories of the cross ridge boundaries of the North York Moors.

South of the large boundary earthwork we started to encounter many cairns, most are in deep heather and difficult to define, at least one of this group appears to be a large ruined barrow.

We continued south, traipsing through the deep heather to a grassy area containing a beautiful Platform Cairn. Platform Cairns are rare on the North York Moors, they are defined as, A roughly circular monument featuring a low, more or less level platform of stones surrounded or retained by a low stone kerb. Some may feature a small central open area, thus resembling a ring cairn. Source.

There is a large stone and hollow in the middle of the cairn implying a possible ruined cist, it is evident that this cairn had been excavated in the past. Graeme reminded me that we were only seven miles from Pickering, once home to James Ruddock.

James Ruddock was a nineteenth century commercial barrow digger. Between 1849 and his death in 1859 he opened many of our moorland mounds in search of finds to sell to the gentleman collectors of his time. His main client was the antiquary Thomas Bateman, he also opened barrows for Samuel Anderson of Whitby.

Unfortunately Ruddock did not always keep precise notes regarding the locations of his diggings, many of his finds have ended up in our museums with vague labels such as, from a mound 6 miles north of Pickering.

Moving further south we encountered this lovely, fairly well-defined ring cairn.

On the south eastern flanks of the Rigg is a group of hollow ways, these are not considered to be prehistoric.

At the southern end of the Rigg is this orthostatic wall which contains many large stones, some of which appear to be buried into the ground. If the wall contained unburied stones it would be classed as a boulder wall. The walling is definitely not prehistoric but may contain stones from an earlier feature.

Not far from the walling is this three foot high standing stone, located within an area of low banks and cairns at the southern end of the Rigg.

Blakey Topping and Thompson’s Rigg are well worth a visit, There is a wealth of prehistoric remains to be seen within a relatively small area. The area is owned by the National Trust and is not managed for grouse so has a mixture of habitats, we saw plenty of birds including Skylarks, Snipes and what I think were a large flock of Fieldfares.

If you visit this lovely place, what you’ll undoubtably notice is that wherever you are on the moor, Blakey Topping is the dominant landscape feature. Graeme and I agreed that this beautiful hill probably had a deep significance to the original inhabitants of this area. A sacred hill? perhaps even a sacred landscape?

Resources

Early Man in North East Yorkshire. Frank Elgee. 1930

Orthostatic Field Walls on the North York Moors. D A Spratt. YAJ Vol. 60. 1988

Linear Earthworks of the Tabular Hills, Northeast Yorkshire. D A Spratt. 1989

Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire edited by D A Spratt. 1993

CBA Research Report 101: Moorland Monuments’ in The Brides Of Place: Cross-Ridge Boundaries Reviewed, B Vyner. 1995

OS Map – The National Library of Scotland

Postscript

To illustrate Graeme’s comments

Returning to Danby Rigg

Revisited 15/08/2020

Ainthorpe – Old Wife’s Stones Road – Ring Cairn with Standing Stone – Cairnfield – Round Barrow – Church Way (The Old Hell Road) – Enclosure 738 (Ring Cairn) –  Double Dykes

I returned to the Rigg a couple of days later with my friend Graham. The Rigg was shrouded in low cloud with visibility down to 20-30 metres. The lack of visibility gave the Rigg an otherworldly atmosphere, upright stones  looming in and out of the murk, the scarp edges of the Rigg dropping-off into an apparent void, the sound of sheep and the voices of a walking party echoing across the moor, amplified by the dense fog.

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Graham had not visited the Rigg before and I was keen to show him some of its archaeological features. What soon became apparent was that it is almost impossible to give a full account of such a complex site when you cannot reference the landscape that it sits in. The loss of the viewsheds from the monuments and trackways on the Rigg made it extremely difficult to explain their relationships with each other and with the greater landscape that they sit in. We settled for having a look at a few hoary old stones and enjoying the damp otherworldliness of the moor.

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One thing we did notice on the moor and have seen elsewhere this year, was the poor condition of much of the heather. The heather should be in full bloom at the moment carpeting the moorlands in purple. This year, much of the heather is not only without blossom but is also brown and withered. Apparently this is due to an infestation of Heather Beetles across the moors. More information can be found here  

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Wandering over Danby Rigg

Danby – Village of the Danes

Rigg – Ridge (OScand hryggr)

Little Fryup Dale – Crossley Side  – Old Wife’s Stones –  Enclosure 738 (Ring Cairn) – Rake Way – Double Dykes – Bakers Nab – Hanging Stone

If you have an interest in history Danby Rigg is a great place to visit. It was a busy place in the past,  the northern end of the Rigg is covered in prehistoric cairns, low walls, embanked pits, hut circles and dykes. There are also Medieval features including the Viking-Age Double Dykes, iron bloomeries and trackways. Many of these features are quite subtle, especially where the heather is long, but once you get your eye in you begin to spot them everywhere, trying to make sense of them is a different matter.

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The Rigg is also rich in folklore with the Old Wife’s Stones and a Corpse Road which leads from Fryup Dale across the Fairy Cross Plain to St Hilda’s Church in Danby Dale. The dales around the Rigg are littered with tales of Hobs, Spitits and Witches.

Many years ago, when I first started visiting the Rigg, I was overwhelmed by the amount of prehistoric remains that could be seen. Over the years I have learned to focus my visits on one or two features and try and work out their relationships to the landscape.

On this visit I decided to take a look at a natural feature called The Hanging Stone. On my way to the stone I thought I’d have a quick look at the Old Wife’s Stones and a large circular monument close to the Double Dykes. It was a blistering hot day with barely a breeze, following the Old Wife’s Stones road up the side of the Rigg, I realised that midday was probably not the best time to be doing this.

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On old OS maps the Old Wife’s Stones are shown as a pair of stones, today only one remains. It sits close to the Old Wife’s Stones Road at the base of the steep scarp and overlooks Little Fryup Dale, the Fairy Cross Plain and Round Hill. On the image above the road running off to the top left follows the route of the Church Road also known as The Old Hell Road, a late Medieval Corpse Road that runs over the Rigg from Fryup Dale to St. Hilda’s Church in Danby Dale.

ring

Just to the north of the Double Dykes is a large circular monument. The ring has a diameter of approximately 20 metres, it comprised of a low stone-built ring with a possible northern entrance.

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This site was interpreted in the past as a settlement site. It was originally excavated by Atkinson in 1863. It was excavated again in 1956 by W.H. Lamplough and W.P. Baker and then re-examined by A.F Harding and J. Ostoja-Zagorski in 1984.  Harding’s conclusion was that it was an Early Bronze Age, Ring Cairn, one of a number of similar monuments that run across the Rigg.

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Walking on to the Double Dykes, a number of fairly low upright stones can be seen along the earthwork.

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The Hanging Stone sits on the scarp edge of the Rigg overlooking Danby Dale. The rock itself is part of the Dogger Formation, a group of sandstones formed in shallow seas 170-174 million years ago. The stone is covered in graffiti, there are also a number of cup marks, one of which shows signs of being pecked. Given the amount of modern graffiti on the stone it is impossible to say whether the cup marks are prehistoric or modern.

Sources

Prehistoric and Early Medieval Activity on Danby Rigg, North Yorkshire. A.F. Harding with J Ostoja-Zagorski. Royal Archaeological Institute 151, 1994.

The Place Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire. A.H. Smith 1928

Maps reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Lealholm Moor

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I took a walk from Danby Beacon to Lealholm Moor to have a look at a Ring Cairn that I had recently read about.

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The wide track from the Beacon is made of slag, the slag would probably have been brought from the furnaces of Teesside during the early days of WWII when a large radar installation was built on the moors. Ironstone travelling from Rosedale and the Esk valley down to the furnaces of Teesside with iron-rich slag returning to the moors.

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A rainstorm blows into Great Fryup Dale from the high moors

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The storm tracks along the Esk valley, the sun briefly follows behind.

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At the side of the track a gorse bush has grown a hedge around its base, a prickly windbreak for itself and the moorland sheep

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On the rigg the thin moorland soils offer little, this is compounded by the regular burning and draining of the moors, ensuring that very little apart from heather and a few grasses can thrive. In times of increasing climate instability and the loss of native species, the management of grouse moors is coming under increasing pressure to change its ways.  Stanhope White once called the moors ‘a man made desert’.

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A moorland cross base and cradle, the remains of Stump Cross. The cross was located at the junction of 2 medieval trackways, Stonegate and Leavergate.

The cross base sits at the foot of Brown Rigg Howe, a Bronze Age Round Barrow located on a small hill. The barrow is intervisible with a number of other prehistoric monuments including mounds on the other side of the Esk Valley.

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On top of the barrow is a steel plate, a base plate of a military searchlight, used for guarding the nearby Radar station during WWII.

ironstone-axe-bladeThe Brown Rigg barrow was opened by Canon Atkinson of Danby, he found a cremation burial and a stone axe made of basalt. A number of stone axes have been found locally including one made from Ironstone, it is now in the Whitby Museum.

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Rabbits have made the mound their home, their paths revealed where the heather has been burned-off.

2I walk on to the next barrow, a gamekeeper cruises by in his large 4×4. The keepers work for the Baron of Danby, Viscount Downe owner of the Dawnay Estate. The Dawnay estate website states that the Barons ancestors came from Aunay in Normandy. I would like to think that a number of my ancestors lie beneath the earth and stone mounds of the moors.

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I arrive at the Ring Cairn. As with most surviving North Yorkshire moorland Ring Cairns there is very little to be seen, the 14 meter diameter ring can just be made out in the heather.

What draws me to these places is not necessarily the physical remains of the monuments but the opportunity to walk and observe their viewsheds, seeing how they sit in the landscape and speculate on their relationship with the many other prehistoric monuments of the area. Lines of mounds running across the moors and along the coast, marking the trackways and territories of the people of the Bronze Age.

MAP

intervisibility/alignment – monuments – invasion beacons – radar stations – trackways

axe – ironstone – scoria

 

A great article on the WWII radar site at Danby Beacon http://liminalwhitby.blogspot.com/2012/12/danby-beacon.html

Heather Burning Article Yorkshire Post March 2020