North York Moors

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Land of myths & legends

Hole of Horcum by Mike KiplingHole of Horcum by Mike Kipling

The North York Moors has a fascinating history, rich in ancient stories, folklore myths and legends. These precious tales are part of our local culture and are passed down from generation to generation. From boggles and giants to a lover’s promise, here’s five of our favourites connected to some of the National Park’s iconic landmarks.  

Walking with giants

For centuries a six-foot-tall stone has stood in a field near East Barnby. There’s little to distinguish it from the many other standing stones that crop up all over the North York Moors, except for its name: Wade’s Stone.

Even that doesn’t entirely set it apart. About 20 yards away from it is another standing stone which bears the same name. Together the two stones are said to mark the head and foot of the grave of a colourful but elusive figure in local folklore: Wade the giant.

Wade was a giant who lived on the North York Moors many years ago in a castle near Lythe with his giantess wife Bell. One of them built Old Mulgrave Castle and the other built Pickering Castle. They only had one hammer between them, so they had to fling it to each other, giving a warning shout as they did so.  

The pair led a quiet life and kept cattle. To help Bell bring the cows in for milking, Wade built a road over the moors. By the time it was finished it stretched all the way from Malton to the sea, crossing some of the highest, wildest parts of the moors. Known as Wade’s Causeway, you can see it to this day on Wheeldale Moor, running straight through the heather.  

Bell helped Wade by carrying loads of stones in her apron, but the weight was too much and her apron strings snapped, leaving piles of stones all over the moors which are still seen today.

One day, during a blazing row with Bell, Wade scooped up a huge handful of earth to throw at her, thus gouging out the Hole of Horcum, one of the most spectacular features in the North York Moors, a huge natural amphitheatre 400 feet deep and half a mile across. He missed, and the handful of earth fell to the ground to form the nearby outcropping Blakey Topping, in case you were wondering.  

It all makes for a spectacular 5-mile walk from Saltergate car park. Look out for the marks left by Wade’s fingers as he scooped out the earth but tread carefully – you don’t want to wake the giant.

A lover's promise

Legend has it that young lovers Tom Ferres, son of a poor sheep farmer, and Agnes Richardson, daughter of a wealthy Glaisdale landowner, were prevented from marrying because of Tom's poverty. Leaving to seek his fortune at sea, Tom tried in vain to cross the flooded river to meet with Agnes on the eve of his departure. He left without a farewell kiss. Tom promised that one day, when he was rich, he would build a bridge.

Having survived sea battles against the Spanish Armada, Tom became involved in piracy in the West Indies. He returned to England a wealthy man, married his beloved Agnes and true to his word had a bridge built in 1619 at that very spot to prevent future young lovers from being parted by the river.

You can still see Beggar's Bridge in Glaisdale today. The name Beggar may refer to Tom when he was poor or it may be a variation on the word for berry, meaning 'the bridge where the berries grow'. There’s history and romance in the air at the beautiful bridge and along ancient stone trods nearby on our 5-mile walk.

White Mare Crag

Above Lake Gormire, near Sutton Bank National Park Centre, is a steep cliff face called White Mare Crag. Long ago, the Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey had a fabulous white mare which was famed for its beauty as well as its speed. However, a local knight, Sir Harry de Scriven, was jealous of the Abbot and wanted to ride the white mare. He had his own horse, Nightwind, but he still longed to ride the Abbot’s fine horse.

One afternoon Sir Harry called in at an inn for food and drink, and there he spotted the Abbot in a corner near the fire. He joined the Abbot and they spent the rest of the afternoon drinking and eating too much.  

Then Sir Harry had an idea – he lied and told the Abbot that a local farmer was in desperate need to see him, but he’d forgotten to give him the message earlier. However, the Abbot was so drunk he didn’t think it was at all odd. Sir Harry suggested that the Abbot should take his horse, Nightwind, as a storm was brewing and the larger horse would be faster and stronger. Sir Harry offered to ride part of the way with the Abbot on the white mare – to keep him company. 

However, as they set off into the storm the ride soon became a race. Sir Harry had never lost a race before, but as the Abbot passed him on Nightwind, he thrashed the poor white mare to try and keep up. Unfortunately, he hadn’t considered the terrain, and as the cliff edge drew nearer he saw the Abbot laughing nearby – he had grown a pair of horns and a long forked tail. Sir Harry was so shocked, he couldn’t stop his horse and she galloped over the edge of the cliff and they plunged to their deaths.

And the Abbot? He and Nightwind plunged into Lake Gormire, sending up clouds of steam and leaving the water boiling and dark – as dark as it is today.  

On dark and stormy nights, the ghost of the white mare can still be seen falling over White Mare Crag onto the rocks below.

Young Ralph's Cross

Ralph was a guide for the nuns at the Cistercian Priory of Rosedale when they needed to journey across the moors. One cold, snowy day whilst out walking on the moors, he saw a hand sticking out of the snow. At once he stopped and dug down into the snow, to find the frozen dead body of a man. Ralph recognized the man as a travelling workman - he used to travel from farm to farm, looking for jobs to do. Unfortunately, this time the man had made the fatal mistake of stopping for a rest and falling asleep in the snow.  

Ralph was so upset about the death of this man that he erected a big cross, with an ‘R’ carved onto the front of it. Only a few miles further on was The Lion Inn, so if the workman had seen the cross he would have known he was near a place of shelter. Ralph made a hollow in the top of the cross so that rich people could leave money for poor people to take, so they could afford food or even a room at the inn.  

Young Ralph’s Cross, today the emblem of the National Park, can still be seen today located on the road between Castleton and The Lion Inn on Blakey Ridge. But be warned... if you’re rich and take the money, legend has it that you will meet a nasty end. A fog will descend and you’ll start walking, unable to stop until you walk off the edge of a cliff! At the bottom of the cliff lie many skeletons with little piles of money next to them.  

Beware the boggles

Hobgoblins, boggles, bogarts, hobs – call them what you will, they make their home in the caves and coves along the coast and around moorland areas, often inhabiting hob holes.

Some say they have healing powers, but these diminutive creatures are more often associated with mischief – hiding people’s possessions or turning milk sour are popular boggle tricks.  

Local folk used to believe that nearly every dale had its own hobgoblin. They were quite often attached to farmers and families and they would be very helpful with household chores and farm work. They worked extremely hard and fast and would expect no reward except for a daily jug of fresh cream, which was placed in the barn at night. Hobs always worked in secret but if they were upset or not rewarded they would become mischievous and bad tempered. They would get upset if people spied on them, gave them clothes as gifts or asked them to do tasks that weren’t necessary.

Long ago, one farmer and his family in Farndale were getting fed up of a mischievous hobgoblin’s tricks, like turning the milk sour. They became so infuriated that early one morning they packed all their belongings onto their wagon and set off to move to another farm. They hoped to sneak away before the hobgoblin woke up and noticed what they were doing.  

A few miles further on a friend called out, “Well, I see you’re flitting!” From inside a milk churn came the voice of the hobgoblin shouting, “Oh yes, we’re flitting!” Sadly the farmer and his family had to turn around and head back to their old farm - so there’s no escape from hobgoblins!

The atmospheric smugglers’ bolthole of Robin Hood’s Bay seems to be another particular goblin hotspot – how else to explain the rocky cove known as Boggle Hole, a mile along the shore from the village? The youth hostel here – housed in an historic mill set deep in the ravine – is a great place for a break by the beach, with fossil-hunting and rock-pooling right on the doorstep. Just make sure you keep an eye on your towel and shoes – it’s safest that way when there are boggles about.

Join a storytelling experience

Find out more about the mysterious hobs, and other local myths and legends by joining the Whitby Storyteller on one of her tours around Robin Hood’s Bay or Whitby.