The ancient stone-built town of Pickering is to a great extent the gateway to the moors of Northeastern Yorkshire, for it stands at the foot of that formerly inaccessible gorge known as Newton Dale, and is the meeting-place of the four great roads running north, south, east, and west, as well as of railways going in the same directions. And this view of the little town is by no means original, for the strategic importance of the position was recognised at least as long ago as the days of the early Edwards, when the castle was built to command the approach to Newton Dale and to be a menace to the whole of the Vale of Pickering.
The old-time traveller from York to Whitby saw practically nothing of Newton Dale, for the great coach-road bore him towards the east, and then, on climbing the steep hill up to Lockton Low Moor, he went almost due north as far as Sleights. But to-day everyone passes right through the gloomy canyon, for the railway now follows the windings of Pickering Beck, and nursemaids and children on their way to the seaside may gaze at the frowning cliffs which seventy years ago were only known to travellers and a few shepherds. But although this great change has been brought about by railway enterprise, the gorge is still uninhabited, and has lost little of its grandeur; for when the puny train, with its accompanying white cloud, has disappeared round one of the great bluffs, there is nothing left but the two pairs of shining rails, laid for long distances almost on the floor of the ravine. But though there are steep gradients to be climbed, and the engine labours heavily, there is scarcely sufficient time to get any idea of the astonishing scenery from the windows of the train, and you can see nothing of the huge expanses of moorland stretching away from the precipices on either side. So that we, who would learn something of this region, must make the journey on foot; for a bicycle would be an encumbrance when crossing the heather, and there are many places where a horse would be a source of danger. The sides of the valley are closely wooded for the first seven or eight miles north of Pickering, but the surrounding country gradually loses its cultivation, at first gorse and bracken, and then heather, taking the place of the green pastures.
At the village of Newton, perched on high ground far above the dale, we come to the limit of civilization. The sun is nearly setting. The cottages are scattered along the wide roadway and the strip of grass, broken by two large ponds, which just now reflect the pale evening sky. Straight in front, across the green, some ancient barns are thrown up against the golden sunset, and the long perspective of white road, the geese, and some whitewashed gables, stand out from the deepening tones of the grass and trees. A footpath by the inn leads through some dewy meadows to the woods, above Levisham Station in the valley below. At first there are glimpses of the lofty moors on the opposite side of the dale, where the sides of the bluffs are still glowing in the sunset light; but soon the pathway plunges steeply into a close wood, where the foxes are barking, and where the intense darkness is only emphasized by the momentary illumination given by lightning, which now and then flickers in the direction of Lockton Moor. At last the friendly little oil-lamps on the platform at Levisham Station appear just below, and soon the railway is crossed and we are mounting the steep road on the opposite side of the valley. What is left of the waning light shows the rough track over the heather to High Horcum. The huge shoulders of the moors are now majestically indistinct, and towards the west the browns, purples, and greens are all merged in one unfathomable blackness. The tremendous silence and the desolation become almost oppressive, but overhead the familiar arrangement of the constellations gives a sense of companionship not to be slighted. In something less than an hour a light glows in the distance, and, although the darkness is now complete, there is no further need to trouble ourselves with the thought of spending the night on the heather. The point of light develops into a lighted window, and we are soon stamping our feet on the hard, smooth road in front of the Saltersgate Inn. The door opens straight into a large stone-flagged room. Everything is redolent of coaching days, for the cheery glow of the fire shows a spotlessly clean floor, old high-backed settles, a gun hooked to one of the beams overhead, quaint chairs and oak stools, and a fox's mask and brush. A gamekeeper is warming himself at the fire, for the evening is chilly, and the firelight falls on his box-cloth gaiters and heavy boots, as we begin to talk of the loneliness and the dangers of the moors, and of the snowstorms in winter, that almost bury the low cottages and blot out all but the boldest landmarks. Soon we are discussing the superstitions which still survive among the simple country-folk, and the dark and lonely wilds we have just left make this a subject of great fascination.
Although we have heard it before, we hear over again with intense interest the story of the witch who brought constant ill-luck to a family in these parts. Their pigs were never free from some form of illness, their cows died, their horses lamed themselves, and even the milk was so far under the spell that on churning-days the butter refused to come unless helped by a crooked sixpence. One day, when as usual they had been churning in vain, instead of resorting to the sixpence, the farmer secreted himself in an outbuilding, and, gun in hand, watched the garden from a small opening. As it was growing dusk he saw a hare coming cautiously through the hedge. He fired instantly, the hare rolled over, dead, and almost as quickly the butter came. That same night they heard that the old woman, whom they had long suspected of bewitching them, had suddenly died at the same time as the hare, and henceforward the farmer and his family prospered.
In the light of morning the isolation of the inn is more apparent than at night. A compact group of stable buildings and barns stands on the opposite side of the road, and there are two or three lonely-looking cottages, but everywhere else the world is purple and brown with ling and heather. The morning sun has just climbed high enough to send a flood of light down the steep hill at the back of the barns, and we can hear the hum of the bees in the heather. In the direction of Levisham is Gallows Dyke, the great purple bluff we passed in the darkness, and a few yards off the road makes a sharp double bend to get up Saltersgate Brow, the hill that overlooks the enormous circular bowl of Horcum Hole, where Levisham Beck rises. The farmer whose buildings can be seen down below contrives to paint the bottom of the bowl a bright green, but the ling comes hungrily down on all sides, with evident longings to absorb the scanty cultivation. The Dwarf Cornel, a little mountain-plant which flowers in July, is found in this 'hole.' A few patches have been discovered in the locality, but elsewhere it is not known south of the Cheviots.
Away to the north the road crosses the desolate country like a pale-green ribbon. It passes over Lockton High Moor, climbs to 700 feet at Tom Cross Rigg, and then disappears into the valley of Eller Beck, on Goathland Moor, coming into view again as it climbs steadily up to Sleights Moor, nearly 1,000 feet above the sea. An enormous stretch of moorland spreads itself out towards the west. Near at hand is the precipitous gorge of Upper Newton Dale, backed by Pickering Moor, and beyond are the heights of Northdale Rigg and Rosedale Common, with the blue outlines of Ralph Cross and Danby Head right on the horizon.
The smooth, well-built road, with short grass filling the crevices between the stones, urges us to follow its straight course northwards; but the sternest and most remarkable portion of Upper Newton Dale lies to the left, across the deep heather, and we are tempted aside to reach the lip of the sinuous gorge nearly a mile away to the west, where the railway runs along the marshy and boulder-strewn bottom of a natural cutting 500 feet deep. The cliffs drop down quite perpendicularly for 200 feet, and the remaining distance to the bed of the stream is a rough slope, quite bare in places, and in others densely grown over with trees; but on every side the fortress-like scarps are as stern and bare as any that face the ocean. Looking north or south the gorge seems completely shut in. There is much the same effect when steaming through the Kyles of Bute, for there the ship seems to be going full speed for the shore of an entirely enclosed sea, and here, saving for the tell-tale railway, there seems no way out of the abyss without scaling the perpendicular walls. The rocks are at their finest at Killingnoble Scar, where they take the form of a semicircle on the west side of the railway. The scar was for a very long period famous for the breed of hawks, which were specially watched by the Goathland men for the use of James I., and the hawks were not displaced from their eyrie even by the incursion of the railway into the glen, and only recently became extinct.
Newton Dale Well, at the foot of the scar, used to attract the country people for miles round, to the fair held there on Midsummer Day, when strange ceremonies were performed in order to insure the beneficent influence of the waters. The custom survived until the beginning of last century, but now it is not easy to even find the position of the well. Very few people living in Whitby or Pickering had any idea of the grandeur of the scenery of Newton Dale when the first official journey was made by railway between the two towns. This was in 1836, but the coaches were drawn by horses on the levels and up the inclines, for it was before the days of the steam-locomotive.
However, the opening of the line caused great enthusiasm and local excitement, necessitating the services of numbers of policemen to keep the people off the rails. When the separate coaches had been hauled to the highest part of the dale, the horses were detached, and the vehicles were joined up with connecting bars. Then the train was allowed to rush through the pass at what was considered the dangerous speed of twenty miles an hour. For the benefit of those who enjoyed the great pace, the driver allowed the train to go at thirty miles an hour, and then, to show his complete control over the carriages, he applied the brakes and came to a standstill on the steep gradient. But for the existence of the long, narrow ravine right through the heart of these lofty moors, we may reasonably doubt whether Whitby would ever have been joined with York other than by way of the coast-line to Scarborough.
We can cross the line near Eller Beck, and, going over Goathland Moor, explore the wooded sides of Wheeldale Beck and its waterfalls. Mallyan's Spout is the most imposing, having a drop of about 76 feet. The village of Goathland has thrown out skirmishers towards the heather in the form of an ancient-looking but quite modern church, with a low central tower, and a little hotel, stone-built and fitting well into its surroundings. The rest of the village is scattered round a large triangular green, and extends down to the railway, where there is a station named after the village.
The rolling masses of Sleights Moor rise up steeply towards the east, and from the coach-road to Whitby that we deserted at the Saltersgate Inn there is an enormous panorama over Eskdale, Whitby, and the sea.