Albion, ancient sites, Art, Don and Wen

Rooted in the land – The long way home

Kilburn White Horse by Andy Beecroft for geograph.org (CCL)
Kilburn White Horse by Andy Beecroft for geograph.org (CCL)

I am not entirely sure whether it was simply an opportunistic trip… as we were already so far north… or whether it was designed to ensure I didn’t cry as I left the moors. The one time we had been going even further north was the only time I’ve managed to stay dry eyed. I usually drive away through a blur of tears and for some unknown and illogical reason, this time had felt like a longer farewell. Whatever was going on, it worked and I was able to point the car northwards and still see the road… more or less…

We had booked into the New Inn at Cropton for a night, not far from Pickering and the North York moors. First, however, we had to get there… and a road closure conveniently forced us to take the backroads. This suited me fine… we avoided the towns and were able to drive through some glorious Yorkshire dales. The plan was to get an early start back the following morning after finally seeing the carved stones at Middleton church… a collection of the most amazing Viking and Anglian crosses. We have tried before and failed… this time we were more hopeful. Surely a church that advertises itself as being open daily wouldn’t be closed twice in a row!

It was tea-time and we were hungry. For the past couple of days we had been talking about fish and chips… but it was Sunday. We had been up on the moors since before dawn, with just a brief return for breakfast and no lunch, but there was no chance of a fish shop being open on a Sunday. Not even the pubs were open at this time on the roads we had travelled! Except, curiously enough, the White Horse fish shop and restaurant in Thirsk which we spotted as we drove through the town… right before I pulled in and parked. Fish, chips, mushy peas, bread and butter and a large pot of tea… It doesn’t get much better than that when you are ravenous.

It fortified us for the last leg of the drive. We passed the enormous Kilburn White Horse on the Hambledon Hills. At some 314 feet long and 228 feet high, it is the largest such hill figure in Britain. It is still only a baby historically though, being cut in 1857 by Thomas Taylor. On a clear day it can be seen from almost 30 miles away. I wasn’t looking… I was busy. The road here climbs from the Vale to the crest of the hills and it doesn’t waste any effort of being gentle. From Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe, a village with the longest place name in England, the notorious Sutton Bank climbs around 500ft in approximately three quarters of a mile… with a hairpin bend thrown in for good measure and very little between a car and the drop down the bank. It is one of the steepest trunk roads in the country. I have driven it in ice and snow… on the odd occasions it hasn’t been closed… but it has to be said that the biggest threat comes from other drivers and the heavy goods vehicles that crawl up at a snail’s pace.

There is a lot of history here, ancient to modern. The most recent is the perhaps the Sutton Bank Body, found in the nettles; killed in suspicious circumstances and still unidentified after many years, she is buried in an unnamed grave in Malton. Hers will not be the only story of life and death these hills have held, as this is the site of a massive hillfort dating back two and a half thousand years. For me, it marks the threshold between the valley and the high places and the last stretch of the journey.

Next morning, we were foiled again at the church in Middleton. The door was locked, no sign of a keyholder and little hope given by the lone woman walking beyond the gate. Once more we could simply admire the Norman tower, with its blocked doorway and 8thC cross head set into the masonry. It had been a long way to come for nothing… so we had to find something. As the rain began we made a decision. We would try the church at Helmsley… maybe that would prove to be open? We could only hope…

Nick Birds SE Ilkley 2015 uffington avebury cropton Helmsley 004

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