Esk Valley News Quarterly – Folklore, Witchcraft, Traditions

I bought a copy of this publication yesterday, it’s wonderful, I’d highly recommend it.

I bought my copy from the excellent Book Corner in Saltburn. Its available as a printed book or digital format, the printed version is selling out quickly so you may have to hunt down a copy. Further details can be found here.

Witches and Fairies

Ingratitude is worse than witchcraft.

Never talk of witches on a Friday.

Friday is the witches’ sabbath.

Witches are most apt to confess on a Friday.

Fairies comb goats’ beards every Friday.

To hug one as the devil hugs a witch.

A favourite cry of the fairies, waters locked! waters locked!!

Wednesday is the fairies’ sabbath.

A witch is afraid of her own blood.

A witch cannot weep.

To be fairy struck (paralysis).

A hairy man’s a geary man, but a hairy wife’s a witch.

You’re like a witch, you say your prayers backwards.

You’re half a witch (cunning).

Turn your cloaks for fairy folks are in old oaks.

On the Grit


Are a stage

for the performance of heaven.

The audience is incidental.

A chess-world of top-heavy Kings and Queens

Circling in stilted majesty

tremble the bog-cotton

Under the sweep of their robes.

Ted Hughes

Pretty much at the top of my post-lockdown visit list was a trip to visit Jenny Twigg and her Daughter Tibb and the Sypeland Crags in Upper Nidderdale. Following a minor navigational blunder, nothing new for me, I met up with Mr. Chappell and Mr. Vasey and we set off across Fountains Earth Moor.

Travel almost anywhere in the Pennines and their foothills, you’ll see crags and cliffs defining the upper slopes of the Pennine Dales and hilltops. These outcrops are generally composed of either sandstones or limestone. Millstone Grit is a generic term for a number of Pennine sandstones. Both the sandstones and the limestone were deposited over 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous Period.

At first, with some spread of warm shallow seas, limestone formed, the Carboniferous or Mountain Limestone that was to be built into some of the most solid and respectable piles in England, buttresses of its pride and self confidence. The work of silting up these Carboniferous seas was completed by deposits brought from the northern continent of Atlantis, then hot, mountainous and swept by monsoons. A large river with tributaries drawn from territories stretching from the north of Scotland to Norway poured out its coarse sediments across north-eastern England. So were Norwegian pebbles brought to Yorkshire and held in the Millstone Grits that were laid down as the deltas of this northern river.

Jacquetta Hawkes.

The Pennine limestones are massive and dense and form great scars where they outcrop along the scarp edges of the hills. Limestone can be weathered chemically, the weakly acidic rains and rivers of the uplands gradually dissolves the limestone to form the deep gorges and caves and the iconic limestone pavements of the Karst landscapes of the Pennine Uplands.

When Millstone Grits outcrop on the scarp edges they tend to form crags and cliffs. These sandstones are resistant to chemical weathering so are eroded by wind and ice. the weather is able to erode the weaker beds within the sandstones and sculpt the rocks into strange shapes. There are many of these sculpted outcrops along the Pennine edges and tops, almost all were formed during the last Ice Age, the most well known being Brimham Rocks which is now owned by the National Trust and has been a popular tourist attraction for many generations.

Sypeland Crags are little known and somewhat off the tourist beat and track, this was evident by the lack of ancient or modern graffitti on the rocks. The rock type here is the Lower Brimham Grit, a course grained sandstone. There are only 3 named rocks on the moor, Jenny Twigg and her Daughter Tibb and a massive boulder called Tib’s tent.

The origin of the Twigg and Tibb names is not known and there are very few literary references to the stones. I first read about them in Guy Ragland Phillips book, Brigantia – A Mysteriography. Phillips quotes a passage from William Grainges 1863 book, Nidderdale. a large group of naked rocks, some of them of enormous bulk, called Sypeland Crags; they are of the course millstone grit, like those of Brimham, the grotesque grandeur of which they imitate, though on a smaller scale. Two of them a short distance from the main group are tall upright pillers and at a distance have the appearance of giantesses in broad bonnets, from which resemblance they have recieved the names of Jenny Twigg and her Daughter Tibb,

William Grainge

The folklore of the area says that Jenny Twigg and Tibb were the keepers of a drovers inn on the side of Dead Man’s Hill. They are said to have robbed and murdered three drovers and buried their decapitated bodies. When the bodies of the men were discovered Jenny and Tibb were found guilty of murder and hanged. Another tale says that they were witches who were turned to stone, a familiar tale at number of megalithic sites. The tale of the witches being turned to stone is very similar to tales in Scandinavian folklore where are number of large rock features are thought to have been giant trolls, of both sexes, who were instantly petrified when the suns rays fell upon them.

Ragland Phillips book doesn’t mention the murders and there appears to be no official records of the trial and execution of the women. He does mention the summit of Dead Man’s Hill, telling us that three headless bodies were found at a point where three tracks diverge into Wharfedale, Coverdale and Nidderdale. He goes on to say that it is also the point where three walls meet at a ‘peculiar’ structure known as Jenny’s Gate. It strikes me that the burial of three headless bodies at the point where three important tracks meet, if true, sounds more ritualistic than anything else.

Jenny Twigg has a hole running through the stone, the hole is large enough to pass your arm through. In some parts of our islands there was a tradition that any oath or vow sworn, including marriage, and shook upon through a holed stone, was ‘sealed in stone’ and never to be broken

There are a number of beautiful weather-sculpted rocks along the edge of the crags.

Some of the rocks have been undercut by the elements, one has been walled-in to form a rock shelter. Others have small pools of peat-stained water at their base and on the top surface of one large rock there are a number of large basins, the most I’ve ever seen.

Pereidolia – The Kiss

Tibbs Tent and light snow

This is a grouse moor, the butts are well kept, there is a maintained shooting house and there is grit left out for the birds, over the course of our day we only saw one grouse on the moor. We left for home watching squalls drifting over the distant Vale of York.


Sypelands – Sibberlands 1609

Nidd – British river name. Root Nei – to be brilliant. Nedd/Neath – Wales, Nita – Germany, Nidar – Scandanavia


Moors. Remains of Elmet – Ted Hughes 1979

A Land – Jacquetta Hawkes 1978

Brigantia, A Mysteriography – Guy Ragland Phillips 1976

Map Image reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland 

The Consise Oxford Dictionary of Place Names – Eilert Ekwall. 1974 edition

on blackamoor by Martyn Hudson

My friend Martyn Hudson has published a very special book called, on blackamoor. Martyn has an intimate knowledge of the moors, but more that that he has a deep love of the place, something which is very evident in his writing, as he takes us on a very personal journey through its unique landscape and history.

If you have any interest at all in the North York Moors or the history and folklore of a landscape, I would encourage you to read this beautiful book. Copies can be purchased here

martyns book

martyns book back

Watch Martyn talking about the Moors for the recent Discover Middlesbrough History Month here


A Charm


An ancient charm to counter witchcraft as told by Joseph Ford of Castleton. The charm was undertaken at the Old Bleach Mill in the Esk Valley. The owner believed that a witch had cast a spell upon his cattle.

The Charm

The heart must be taken out of one of the cursed beasts and brought into the house. It was then pierced with nine new pins and the same number of new nails and new needles. These were all embedded in the heart which was then to be over a slow fire made of elder, rowan or ash wood. Great care had to be taken to ensure that the doors were all securely bolted and barred and the windows covered up with thick bed quilts to ensure that no light could be seen from the outside. Extra care had to be taken that no one witnessed the mysterious proceedings.

The heart, hanging from a hook over the fire would then be left to slowly shrivel and contract until the dead hour of night drew near. The lighting and tending of the fire had to be gauged so that the burnt and blackened heart would be shrivelled up and ready to burst into flames and fall to ashes just as the clock struck the midnight hour. At this crucial moment the leader of the weird proceedings had to begin the the final act by reading aloud two verses of a particular psalm from the scriptures. That was the deed done, if undertaken correctly, the curse would be lifted and the cattle would return to health.

Ford also tells us that if you are passing the house of a reputed witch, To shield yourself from her evil spells you should hold your thumb in the palm of your right hand.

Screenshot 2020-05-02 at 13.14.19

Source – Some Reminiscences and Folk Lore of Danby Parish & District. 1953

Map Image – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Jeannie Biggersdale


This is the story of Jeannie who lived in a cave called Hob’s Cave in a small valley called Biggersdale in Mulgrave woods near Sandsend.


The folktales of Jeannie call her a fairy with a notoriously bad temper, given the name of her cave and her intense dislike of being disturbed I’d suggest that she was probably a hob or a witch. Misfortunes suffered by the local farmers were blamed on Jeannie, so who can blame her for her desire to lead a solitary life. The locals were quite happy to let Jeannie live in seclusion, fearing the consequences of angering her.

That was until one local lad, John Roe, convinced himself that Jeannie was a beautiful fairy and a good person who just needed someone to love and marry to cure her foul temper. One evening, after working on the farm, John mounted his horse and rode into Mulgrave woods to try and find Jeannie.

No one knew the exact location of Jeannie’s cave so John began to search the woods. Not far from the old ruined castle John came across the narrow ravine of Biggersdale, he dismounted from his horse and started to scramble his way along it.

He eventually came across a large cave with the remnants of a fire and other signs of habitation outside of it. John approached the cave mouth when all of a sudden a hairy, fearsome, shrieking creature with a long wand in her hand bolted out from the cave. John, scared out his wits, ran for his life with the Jeannie in swift pursuit. He climbed out of the ravine, onto his horse and bolted through the woods with Jeannie hot on his heels.


As John galloped through the woods, Jeannie began gaining on him. John remembered that his Grandmother had told him that evil spirits couldn’t cross running water so John headed for a low cliff, which would allow his horse to leap across the ravine of the Mickleby Beck to safety. As they approached the beck, Jeannie was upon them, scratching and clawing the horse’s hindquarters trying to dismount John. John spurred his horse on and as they leapt across the ravine, Jeannie stuck the horse with her wand killing the poor animal instantly. The horse fell into the beck and John was thrown to the safety of the opposite bank.

John picked himself up and saw Jeannie was shrieking at him from the opposite bank of the beck. He ran and ran until he reached the safety of his farm. Out of breath and traumatised he was unable to speak until the next day. Since that time no one else has ever dared to look for Jeannie or her cave, deep in Mulgrave woods.

Map Image – Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

Illustration – John Faed’s illustration for the poem Tam o’Shanter. Copyright Ayrshire Museums and Galleries

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



Witchcraft & The Humane Fishermen of Staithes


fishermenStaithes had a very practical way of dealing with their local witches. If a coble or fishing smack had a run of bad luck, the fishermen took it for granted that a local witch was responsible. The owners of the unlucky boats gathered together at midnight, killed a pigeon, took out its heart, stuck the heart full of pins and burned it over a charcoal fire.

When the heart had been reduced to ashes, they all waited to see who would come to the door. Whoever it was, would be the witch who had ill-wished their boats. She would have been drawn to the house by the power of the spell they had cast.

When she arrived, instead of setting about her they gave her a small gift to gain her good will. Then, when the boats had better luck, it showed that the witch had appreciated their gift. Not many Yorkshire folk tackled their witches in such a humane way.

Source – Witches in Old North Yorkshire. Mary Williams. 1987