One the best known wayside crosses on the North York Moors. This squat stone stands at the head of Rosedale on Danby Moor and also marks the boundary of the parishes of Rosedale, Danby and Westerdale. It’s traditionally whitewashed hence it’s alternative name of White Cross. Legends abound how it has acquired its rather quaint but not politically correct name of Fat Betty. Some say Betty was the mother superior of the nuns at Rosedale Abbey who got lost lost on the moors whilst trying to meet up with her equivalent from Baysdale Abbey.
Esklets, the source of the River Esk, at the confluence of three streams. Perhaps once the most remotest farmstead in the whole of the North York Moors. But the last farmer left in the 1960s and the farmhouse demolished. The rubble slowly becoming lost in the undergrowth. Just a few broken roof tiles and shards of pottery mark the spot. Except for a modern shooters’ track no road penetrates this far up the dale. The field system is surrounded by Open Access Land. An island in a sea of heather.
Esk means water; lets refer to the three tributaries. The name Esklets is first mentioned in a late 12th century charter as one of the parcels of land granted in Westerdale by Bernard de Balliol to Rievaulx Abbey. It is supposed because of the remoteness of the dale to the mother church at Rievaulx that an oratory was built there presumably at the site where the old farmhouse once stood.
Last week I went to a talk about medieval Westerdale by Carol M Wilson, a resident of the village and author of Westerdale: The Origins and Development of a Medieval Settlement. It was fascinating and has given me the inspiration to do more wanderings over that way.
And what better place to start than to head for a small valley which medieval name, Wulverdalebec, translates as the “stream through the wolves’ valley”. Especially as it was Open Access Land and I had no dog with me.
A secondary incentive was that Ms Wilson describes a cross on a rock in the valley that was found a few years ago when years of moss was washed off during a storm. There is a photograph in her book and although there is no way to date the cross, the suggestion is that the valley was used as a route off the moors into the main valley below.
The modern name for Wulverdalebec is Wood Dale down which flows Clough Gill. The first mention of it is in a 12th century document in which Bernard de Balliol (of Barnard Castle fame) granted land in Westerdale to the monks of Rievaulx Abbey including the right to snare wolves.
I often wonder what the moors were like in ages past. It is said that by the time the Romans left the limits were more or less established to what we see now. But the dominance of heather did not come about until the mid 19th century when management by regular burning started leading to a decrease in species diversity. I imagine a mixture of heathers, grasses and dwarf shrubs such as bilberry and cloudberry. The monks would have exploited the moors for sheepwalks preventing regeneration of trees except in the steep gills which the sheep avoided. No doubt because of the wolves.
I found the gill where a modern landrover track crosses and started to follow it downstream. It was deep with sandstone crags both sides and full of tumbled rocks, cascades and fallen oaks. Not an easy descent but not atypical of the many small wooded gills that run off the high moors. If there is such a thing as a natural wood I can imagine this gill to be it. I disturbed an owl but there was evidence of gamekeeper activity. Several animal traps set on conveniently placed logs across the beck.
I am afraid I can not see how this could ever have been a viable route off the moors into the valley below? If I was navigating off the high moors then the obvious way would be to go down the spur and keep well away from the deep wooded gills. As far as man is concerned it’s the line of least resistance. My route on to the moors had followed a distinct holloway from Top End to the top of gill. This would have been created by centuries of sledging peat off the moors. A gentle descent.
I failed to find the cross photographed in the book but did find another along with some letters and a date ‘1924’.
The village of Westerdale takes its name from the upper reaches of the River Esk which for some reason lost in history is not referred to as Eskdale, that name seeming to start at Castleton. Its a quiet village, with a population of just 149 at the last count in 25 houses. It wasn’t always so. At one time it had two inns, The Horseshoe and The Crown, two shoemakers, two blacksmiths, a wheelwright and a grammar school. Of course in living memory it also had a youth hostel at Westerdale Hall but that is now too a private residence.
Perhaps the most interesting residents were the Knights Templar, a military monastic order established in the 12th century to protect pilgrims en route to Holy places. Sort of mediaeval bodyguards. One theory claims that the Knights Templar are the direct ancestors of modern freemasons. But of course that’ll be a secret.
In the 16th century the Knights Templar lands were handed over to the Knights Hospitallers. This order was founded originally to provide care for sick, poor or injured pilgrims going to the Holy Land. There is archaeological evidence to suggest that their main site was at Westerdale Hall but that building dates from the 1840s when it was built as a shooting lodge for the Feversham Estate. The Knights Hospitallers were otherwise known as the Order of St John and are still in existence today, better known as the St. John Ambulance Brigade.
Spanning the River Esk at Westerdale this mediaeval bridge provided access from Guisborough and Baysdale in the north to the Royal Forest of Pickering which covered a large area of the modern North York Moors. It dates from the 13c. The name means hunter’s steep path, presumably after the sunken lane up to the village which the modern road follows. The bridge parapet was restored in 1874 by Octavius Duncombe, son of the first Baron Feversham of Helmsley.
The modern road fords the river a little upstream which perhaps has contributed to the bridge’s survival.