ALONG THE ESK VALLEY
To see the valley of the Esk in its richest garb, one must wait for a spell of fine autumn weather, when a prolonged ramble can be made along the riverside and up on the moorland heights above. For the dense woodlands, which are often merely pretty in midsummer, become astonishingly lovely as the foliage draping the steep hillsides takes on its gorgeous colours, and the gills and becks on the moors send down a plentiful supply of water to fill the dales with the music of rushing streams.
Climbing up the road towards Larpool, we take a last look at quaint old Whitby, spread out before us almost like those wonderful old prints of English towns they loved to publish in the eighteenth century. But although every feature is plainly visible—the church, the abbey, the two piers, the harbour, the old town and the new—the detail is all lost in that soft mellowness of a sunny autumn day. We find an enthusiastic photographer expending plates on this familiar view, which is sold all over the town; but we do not dare to suggest that the prints, however successful, will be painfully hackneyed, and we go on rejoicing that the questions of stops and exposures need not trouble us, for the world is ablaze with colour.
Beyond the great red viaduct, whose central piers are washed by the river far below, the road plunges into the golden shade of the woods near Cock Mill, and then comes out by the river's bank down below, with the little village of Ruswarp on the opposite shore. The railway goes over the Esk just below the dam, and does its very best to spoil every view of the great mill built in 1752 by Mr. Nathaniel Cholmley. However, from the road towards Sleights the huge building looks picturesque enough, with the river flowing smoothly over the broad dam fringed by the delicate faded greens and browns of the trees. The mill, with its massive roof and projecting eaves, suggests in a most remarkable fashion one of the huge gate-houses of the Chinese Imperial Palace at Peking.
The road follows close beside the winding river, and all the way to Sleights there are lovely glimpses of the shimmering waters, reflecting the overhanging masses of foliage. The golden yellow of a bush growing at the water's edge will be backed by masses of brown woods that here and there have retained suggestions of green, contrasted with the deep purple tones of their shadowy recesses. These lovely phases of Eskdale scenery are denied to the summer visitor, but there are few who would wish to have the riverside solitudes rudely broken into by the passing of boatloads of holiday-makers. Just before reaching Sleights Bridge we leave the tree-embowered road, and, going through a gate, find a stone-flagged pathway that climbs up the side of the valley with great deliberation, so that we are soon at a great height, with a magnificent sweep of landscape towards the south-west, and the keen air blowing freshly from the great table-land of Egton High Moor.
A little higher, and we are on the road in Aislaby village. The steep climb from the river and railway has kept off those modern influences which have made Sleights and Grosmont architecturally depressing, and thus we find a simple village on the edge of the heather, with picturesque stone cottages and pretty gardens, free from companionship with the painfully ugly modern stone house, with its thin slate roof. The big house of the village stands on the very edge of the descent, surrounded by high trees now swept bare of leaves.
The first time I visited Aislaby I reached the little hamlet when it was nearly dark. Sufficient light, however, remained in the west to show up the large house standing in the midst of the swaying branches. One dim light appeared in the blue-gray mass, and the dead leaves were blown fiercely by the strong gusts of wind. On the other side of the road stood an old gray house, whose appearance that gloomy evening well supported the statement that it was haunted. The classic front appeared behind an imposing gateway approached by a curious flat bridge across a circular pond which had a solid stone edging. The low parapets of the bridge were cut into a strange serpentine form. I gazed at the front of the house, backed by the dim outline of the moor beyond; but, though the place was silent enough, I could hear no strange sounds, and the windows remained black and impassive.
I left the village in the gathering gloom and was soon out on the heather. Away on the left, but scarcely discernible, was Swart Houe Cross, on Egton Low Moor, and straight in front lay the Skelder Inn. A light gleamed from one of the lower windows, and by it I guided my steps, being determined to partake of tea before turning my steps homeward. I stepped into the little parlour, with its sanded floor, and demanded 'fat rascals' and tea. The girl was not surprised at my request, for the hot turf cakes supplied at the inn are known to all the neighbourhood by this unusual name, although they are not particularly fat, and are so extremely palatable that one would gladly call them by a friendlier name.
But though the gloom of an autumn evening emphasizes the loneliness of the inn, it blots out the beautiful views which extend in every direction over dales and woodland, as well as the sea and moors. Whitby shows itself beyond the windmill as a big town dominated by a great rectangular building looking as much like a castle as an hotel, the abbey being less conspicuous from here than from most points of view. Northwards are the dense woods at Mulgrave, the coast as far as Kettleness, and the wide, almost limitless moors in the direction of Guisborough. The road to that ancient town goes straight up the hill past Swart Houe Cross, which forms the horizon in the picture reproduced as the frontispiece of this volume. Up on that high ground you can see right across the valley of the Esk in both directions. The course of the river itself is hidden by the shoulders of Egton Low Moor beneath us, but faint sounds of the shunting of trucks are carried up to the heights. Even when the deep valleys are warmest, and when their atmosphere is most suggestive of a hot-house, these moorland heights rejoice in a keen, dry air, which seems to drive away the slightest sense of fatigue, so easily felt on the lower levels, and to give in its place a vigour that laughs at distance. Up here, too, the whole world seems left to Nature, the levels of cultivation being almost out of sight, and anything under 800 feet seems low. Towards the end of August the heights are capped with purple, although the distant moors, however brilliant they may appear when close at hand, generally assume more delicate shades, fading into grays and blues on the horizon.
But however much the moors may attract us, we started out with the intention of seeing something of Eskdale. We will therefore take a turning out of the Guisborough road, and go down the hill to Egton village, where there is a church with some Norman pillars and arches preserved from the rebuilding craze that despoiled Yorkshire of half its ecclesiastical antiquities. Making our way along the riverside to Grosmont, we come to the enormous heaps above the pits of the now disused iron-mines. This was the birthplace of the Cleveland Ironworks, and Grosmont was at one time more famous than Middlesbrough. The first cargo of ironstone was sent from here in 1836, when the Pickering and Whitby Railway was opened. However interesting Grosmont may sound in books, it is a dull place; for the knowledge that the name was originally Grandimont, from the small priory founded about 1200, and named after the abbey in Normandy to which it was attached, does not excite much interest when there is nothing to see but a farmhouse on the site, and the modern place consists of a railway-junction, some deserted mines, and many examples of the modern Yorkshire house.
Everything that Nature can do to make amends for this uninteresting spot is lavishly squandered upon the valley, for wherever man has left things alone there are heavy canopies of foliage, and mossy boulders among the rushing streams; and if you will but take the trouble to climb up to the heather, even the mines are dwarfed into insignificance. We will go up the steep road to the top of Sleights Moor. It is a long stiff climb of nearly 900 feet, but the view is one of the very finest in this country, where wide expanses soon become commonplace. We are sufficiently high to look right across Fylingdales Moor to the sea beyond, a soft haze of pearly blue over the hard, rugged outline of the ling. Away towards the north, too, the landscape for many miles is limited only by the same horizon of sea, so that we seem to be looking at a section of a very large scale contour map of England. Below us on the western side runs the Mirk Esk, draining the heights upon which we stand as well as Egton High Moor and Wheeldale Moor. The confluence with the Esk at Grosmont is lost in a haze of smoke and a confusion of roofs and railway-lines; and the course of the larger river in the direction of Glaisdale is also hidden behind the steep slopes of Egton High Moor. Towards the south we gaze over a vast desolation, crossed by the coach-road to York as it rises and falls over the swells of the heather. The queer isolated cone of Blakey Topping and the summit of Gallows Dyke, close to Saltersgate, appear above the distant ridges.
The route of the great Roman road from the South to Dunsley Bay can also be seen from these heights. It passes straight through Cawthorn Camp, on the ridge to the west of the village of Newton, and then runs along within a few yards of the by-road from Picketing to Egton. It crosses Wheeldale Beck, and skirts the ancient dyke round July or Julian Park, at one time a hunting-seat of the great De Mauley family. The road is about 12 feet wide, and is now deep in heather; but it is slightly raised above the general level of the ground, and can therefore be followed fairly easily where it has not been taken up to build walls for enclosures. Of greater antiquity, but much more easily discovered, are the bride stones close at hand on Sleights Moor. Several of the stones have fallen, but three of them are still standing erect, the tallest being 7 feet high. It is not easy to discover any particular form from the standing and recumbent stones, for they neither make a circle nor do they seem to be directed to any particular point of the compass; but it is quite possible that these monoliths were put up by Early Man as a means of recording the seasons, in somewhat the same manner as Stonehenge is an example of the orientated temple of Neolithic times.
If we go down into the valley beneath us by a road bearing south-west, we shall find ourselves at Beck Hole, where there is a pretty group of stone cottages, backed by some tall firs. The Eller Beck is crossed by a stone bridge close to its confluence with the Mirk Esk. Above the bridge, a footpath among the huge boulders winds its way by the side of the rushing beck to Thomasin Foss, where the little river falls in two or three broad silver bands into a considerable pool. Great masses of overhanging rock, shaded by a leafy roof, shut in the brimming waters.
It is not difficult to find the way from Beck Hole to the Roman camp on the hillside towards Egton Bridge. The Roman road from Cawthorn goes right through it, but beyond this it is not easy to trace, although fragments have been discovered as far as Aislaby, all pointing to Dunsley or Sandsend Bay. Round the shoulder of the hill we come down again to the deeply-wooded valley of the Esk. No river can be seen, but when we enter the shade of the trees the sound of many waters fills the air. What was once a thick green roof is now thin and yellow, and under our feet is a yielding carpet of soft brown and orange leaves. Rare and luxuriant mosses grow at the foot of the trees, on dead wood, and on the damp stones, and everywhere the rich woodland scent of decay meets the nostrils. In the midst of all these evidences of rampant natural conditions we come to Glaisdale End, where a graceful stone bridge of a single arch stands over the rushing stream. The initials of the builder and the date appear on the eastern side of what is now known as the Beggar's Bridge. It was formerly called Firris Bridge, after the builder, but the popular interest in the story of its origin seems to have killed the old name. If you ask anyone in Whitby to mention some of the sights of the neighbourhood, he will probably head his list with the Beggar's Bridge, but why this is so I cannot imagine. The woods are very beautiful, but this is a country full of the loveliest dales, and the presence of this single-arched bridge does not seem sufficient to have attracted so much popularity. I can only attribute it to the love interest associated with the beggar. He was, we may imagine, the Alderman Thomas Firris who, as a penniless youth, came to bid farewell to his betrothed, who lived somewhere on the opposite side of the river. Finding the stream impassable, he is said to have determined that if he came back from his travels as a rich man he would put up a bridge on the spot he had been prevented from crossing. It is not a very remarkable story, even if it be true, but it has given the bridge a fame scarcely proportionate to its merits.