For a brief few weeks the moors are a sea of purple heather which is now at its best. Seen from Highcliff Gate, Sleddale Farm appears an island of lush green pasture. The name means a wide flat valley and was probably a meadow of summer pasture before being given to the priory to be developed as a monastic cote or grange. The valley is a favourite for bird watching which over the years Osprey, Marsh and Hen Harriers, Common and Rough-legged Buzzards, Goshawk, Sparrowhawk, Peregrine, Merlin, Kestrel and Red Kite have all been spotted.
An green island in a sea of heather. Sleddale Beck is a tributary of the River Esk.
I have posted a photo of this iron age settlement before. On an overcast winter’s morning with patches of snow on the ground. The overgrown heather smothered any hope of making sense of the earthworks. Today in bright sunshine I cycled past and was surprised to see that the heather has recently been cut back so that the ditches and hut circles can clearly be made out although perhaps not so obvious on a two dimensional photograph. There are five circles and interpretation of this one in particular is helped by an exposed section of sandstone foundation blocks. Can I see an entrance? My phenomenological mind runs wild. Women grinding wheat using a quern stone. Children playing. Beyond the site along the ridge the ancient oak woodlands have been cleared. Cattle graze, crops are tended, Down in the valley Sleddale is wet and boggy, still dominated by tree cover.
Well worth a visit before the heather grows tall again.
High on Wayworth Moor overlooking the quiet valley of Sleddale is a stone circle, dating from the Neolithic Age. Ritualistic monuments, are few and far between on the North York Moors. Barrows, burial mounds, abound but monuments built purely for ceremonial purposes are rare. There is a henge on Harland Moor to the south on the Tabular Hills and of course there are several others in the Vale of York notably Thornborough. The stone circle at Sleddale is by contrast very modest and would have been built when the moors were still covered by forest. Perhaps a meeting place for several extended families. It comprises about 16 stones, the highest just 600mm high. Not quite circular, more oval, about 20m across. Some excavation has taken place but no finds were found. Being so low lying the circle is difficult to photograph. This is where a drone would come in handy.
Sleddale Beck is a tributary of the River Esk and joins the North Sea at Whitby. The farm is surrounded on all sides by moorland and is given over almost entirely to livestock production. A study of the map (see here) reveals that the Public Footpath (green dashed line) that crosses Gisborough Moor on the far side of the far, inexplicably stops just before the farm (near the tall tree right of centre). There is no Right of Way past the farmhouse and up the track. This omission has always intrigued me.
For those readers outside of England who may be confused with all this a little bit of history might help. Historically you have had no right to go on to any land without the permission of the landowner who often resorted to force if they were adamant they didn’t want trespassers there. Protests against landowners of vast shooting estates allowing no public access culminated in the mass trepass movements in the 1930s. War interrupted the protests but eventually in 1949 an Act of Parliament was passed requiring local County Councils to produce a “Definitive Map” showing all highways, footpaths and bridleways where access had traditionally existed. Rights of Way were finally explicitly enshrined in law.
So in the early 1950s the County Councils were busy preparing their definitive maps. Armed with earlier editions of the Ordnance Survey maps, surveyors would visit farms and landowners to confirm that the footpaths shown were indeed used by the public and not private. Routes to a village, school, smithy, mill or well travelled by farmers, children or even the postman would be evidence of public usage.
The Act was not universally popular so it is not hard to imagine that some landowners were less than helpful. Some surveyors also would have been more conscientious or persuasive than others. So perhaps this might explain the quirk at Sleddale.
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.