The North Yorks Moors are, it must be said, completely covered in the traces of our prehistoric ancestors. Although obviously the traces in the lowlands have not fared anywhere near as well as those on the heights around Britain – particularly since the advent of agribusiness in the late 20th century – it seems also true to say that there was something special, for our ancestors, about the uplands – especially when certain high peaks could be seen for miles around, and monuments set with sightlines to those peaks. There are several such ‘sacred hills’ in the North Yorks moors (Roseberry Topping and Freebrough Hill especially), and you can see at least one of them from all the various neolithic monuments, from circles to cairns, and the Bronze Age barrows that followed them.
In a few days it is not possible to capture much of this heritage, only to attempt to take in a representative sample. My sample, additionally, included only those sites which I could access in an hour or so’s walk – there and back – so I certainly missed some sites which are deeper into the interior. Nonetheless, I think I managed to see some interesting monuments, including High Bridestones and the nearby Beacon Howe, Ramsdale Stone Circle, and the Brow Moor Monument and associated rock art features. I also stopped off at Whitby Abbey, Helmsley Castle, and on my way back home, The Twelve Apostles Stone Circle on Ilkley Moor.
High Bridestones is a much distressed monument, comprising a number of standing and recumbent stones, and it is frankly unclear whether this is a stone circle and/or a stone row, although I have seen it described as both online. To my eye, there were only the three stones, in a row, that were standing, but one seemed to have sufficient large recumbent stones nearby to potentially have been a circle. There are also – reputedly – the Low Bridestones nearby, but I couldn’t find them, unless, indeed, what I had found were High and Low Bridestones and they were closer together than it seems on the map. This was a tricky business, working out quite what I was looking at!
The nearby Beacon Howe, with a single stone standing at its summit and two at its foot, offered astounding views across the moors, and one wonders what (probably) Bronze Age chief lay buried here, overlooking the more ancient site of the Bridestones. The later Bronze Age monuments, celebrating as they seem to more individual burials, clearly mark a break from the seemingly more communal mortuary practices of the past, whilst at the same time gaining some of their sanctity through association with – by direct sightline – the older Neolithic monuments. This is perhaps at its clearest at Stonehenge, where a great number of individual Bronze Age burial mounds surround and overlook the older monuments. But it is also clear up here on the North Yorks Moors.
Further east, overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay and Ravenscarr, is Brow Moor, the focus of Smith and Walker’s book on Rock Art, and the Stoupe Brow Trail usefully takes one from a little carpark all around the moor visiting each mound and several of the earth-fast rock art stones. I was blessed with glorious sunshine for this walk and easily found the Brow Moor monument – carefully reburied since its excavation save for the single standing stone, and the single recumbent stone opposite, that were visible beforehand. This Neolithic mound with inward-facing rock art stones provides, according to Smith and Walker, a link to what they suggest may have been a trail from Millin Bay on the east coast of northern Ireland, via the Isle of Man, Morecombe Bay and the Aire Gap, to Flamborough Head and beyond to Scandinavia. The three-tiered cosmology of sky, earth, and underworld (familiar in ancient Peru and Australia, let alone Northern Europe) represented at sites along this trail through rock art, present a really interesting theory.
Ramsdale Stone Circle, on Fylingdales Moor, provided not only an easy walk from a little carpark by the road (welcome on the same day as the much longer around Brow Moor) but amazing views across to Brow Moor itself, and north towards what may indeed have been Roseberry Topping in the distance. Eerily, there were the remains of a sheep’s skull, broken into many pieces, strewn around one of these three standing stones, adding atmosphere to the place!
Whilst in the North Yorks Moors, of course, it would have been churlish not to visit, in addition to Rievaulx, and see first hand that classic view of Hammer horror movies: Whitby Abbey, where there is also an excellent little museum, and fine views over this little seaside town. The finest view though, is from the summit of Blue Bank at the very eastern edge of the moor, near Beacon Howe and the Bridestones, from where one can see the whole bay – and indeed the Abbey itself.
Being in Helmsley for the week – I couldn’t leave without a visit to its castle, and enjoyed the surprise of surviving 16th century wood panelling in the one remaining complete building of this medieval stronghold. I confess though it was quite satisfying to see how the great tower that was the visible symbol of Norman overlordship – looming over Helmsley’s market square – was felled by the Parliamentarians who destroyed this Royalist stronghold in 1644.
It remained but to delight – on the last night in Helmsley – in the truly brilliant gastronomy available at The Star Inn in Harome, 2 miles away, where much of what one is served is grown out the back. This was a really fantastic meal – truly fine dining with the freshest of ingredients!
Leaving my little one-bed self-catering cottage early on the last day, I took a detour on the road home to stop off on the edge of Ilkley Moor, for one last moorland walk up to the Twelve Apostles stone circle, a delightful (restored) circle of twelve small standing stones, with possibly the finest 360 panoramic vista of any circle I’ve ever seen – especially on what felt like the most glorious weather of the whole of 2012!
To view all the photos from this holiday visit Flickr