With low cloud shrouding the North York Moors I had to dig into my bank of “bad weather” ideas. Earlier this year I recalled seeing a large new sandstone “PRIVATE NO ACCESS” sign which I thought a bit over the top. So I headed for Kempswithen, the site of a 18th-century agricultural experiment but now under intensive management for grouse shooting. But the stone had disappeared, or had my navigation let me down. A hardcore base suggests it could have been here. Instead, there was a new small sign:
Now, no bikes I can understand, no dogs too but no footpath! Technically it’s probably correct but this is Open Access Land over which we have the freedom to roam. Clearly, it is intended to intimidate walkers into keeping away.
On the way back I took in Percy Rigg over Kildale Moor and came across the missing sandstone “PRIVATE NO ACCESS” sign. Or its twin. Maybe I’m not going doolally after all. I just had to take a photo in case it moves again. Way over the top. The siting of this stone is actually on the boundary of Open Access Land which is to the right in the photo below. To its left is a small area of heather moorland which somehow escaped Open Access designation. An anomaly. Either way, the intention is clearly to discourage walkers from enjoying their freedom to roam. They’re a red rag to a bull to me.
A bitterly cold morning, clumst as they say in the North East, the heather white with hoar frost crystals and the sun straining to break through the low lying cloud. Hoar is an Old English word meaning showing signs of old age but the moors are magic on these mornings, eerily quit, paths and bogs solid to run over.
The stone is on the Ernaldsti, the ancient track south across the moors from Guisborough to Westerdale and it’s likely to be a guide stone rather than a boundary stone. But that’s just my feeling. Behind is Kempswithin Fields, a reference perhaps to the 18th century agricultural experiment to improve the moor to grow corn, wheat and barley, rising to Pike Howe at 294m asl.
Obvious on the stone is a bench mark cut by the Ordnance Survey to record the height above Ordnance Datum. Although no longer maintained the Ordnance Survey have published their complete listing of half a million bench marks which tells me this one was cut in 1953, is at NZ64750820 and is precisely 283.019m above sea level. Unless of course it’s slowly sinking into the peat under its own weight.
The moorland across the dale is Kempswithen, a ridge of land lying between Commondale and Baysdale. It was the scene of an ambitious agricultural experiment, the brain child, in 1773, of Sir Charles Turner, owner of the Kildale Estates. The snow nicely accentuates the network of ditches he had dug to drain the land.
In the late 18c landowners were keen to adopt new farming practices and to improve yields. After paring and burning the surface vegetation and ploughing the ashes back in, Turner brought in tons of lime at considerable expense to improve the moorland soil. Normally 800′ was considered the maximum height for the cultivation of crops on the North York Moors but Kempswithen rises to over 1000′. Much to the surprise of his contemporaries Sir Charles did successfully grow crops of corn, wheat and barley although success is perhaps the wrong word considering the expense of labour and materials incurred in the improvements.
Turner died in 1783 and the land was abandoned soon after following a slump in the cereal markets. Later the Victorian fashion for shooting meant that heather was encouraged resulting in the grouse moor we see today. Again the snow highlights the patchwork of heather resulting from the practice of burning off old growth to encourage new growth on which the grouse like to feed.
In all directions plumes of smoke can be seen on the moors on a good day at this time of the year. The gamekeepers are burning the heather.
Grouse feed on heather. Young shoots provide the best nutritional value but grouse require taller heather for nesting and cover. To provide a managed supply of young heather patches of heather are periodically burnt. This burning cycle, lasting between 7 and 25 years result in the familiar mosaic of colours on heather moorland. The Scots call this muirburn.
Heather can only be burnt by law between 1st October and 10th April when the heather is dry but the undying peat is wet. If done correctly the heather roots are undamaged by the fire and the seeds quickly germinates. But I guess any self sown trees and shrubs such as birch and rowan will be destroyed by the fire so maintaining the North York Moors iconic heather moorland.
I spotted this fire close to the Kildale to Westerdale road on a ridge of moorland called Kempswithen.