The Time-Traveller’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Time-Traveller’s Tale

Destruction and Revelation on Fylingdales Moor

by Roger Pickles

They say fire cleanses. It certainly destroys, but on occasion it can also reveal. In September 2003 a wildfire, probably started by a carelessly discarded cigarette, swept across a large area of Fylingdales Moor between the Scarborough-Whitby road and the coast. It raged for several days and threatened several homes before being brought under control, but fortunately no one was injured. At first it was thought that the moor had been permanently damaged – the effects of a similar moor fire in 1976 elsewhere on the moors are still visible today – but prompt and energetic work by the landowner, English Nature and the North York Moors National Park led to unbelievably rapid regeneration, and today visitors would scarcely know the fire had happened.

The devastation also provided the opportunity for a detailed archaeological survey over several months, with surprising results. Before the fire some 150 archaeological remains were known to exist in the area, but after the survey this number had increased to over 2,000, revealing the uses of the moor over some 7,000 years.

The most recent remains were of World War II military training – tank tracks, foxholes, and spent (usually!) ammunition, and of holiday-makers in the early twentieth century who had dropped small numbers of coins and more significant numbers of empty ‘Scarborough Brewery’ beer bottles. Reaching back 250 years, however, were signs of North Yorkshire’s first heavy industry; the manufacture of alum (an essential mordant for the textile industries) from the shale of the coastal cliffs. The only visible traces today are the overgrown quarries, one of which at Stoupe Brow was touched by the fire. On the moor above were discovered a number of interconnecting water channels and 6 small reservoirs to provide the water for the alum-making process.

The use of the moor as common land was for several centuries controlled by the Fylingdales Court Leet, a manorial court run largely by the tenants and one of only a handful of such courts still in existence today. The Court Leet organised the number of animals allowed to graze, the collection of whins (gorse) for kindling, stone for building, and turf and peat for fuel. Of these medieval uses of the moor little physical evidence has survived, but a number of burial mounds, small field boundaries, cairns formed from stones cleared from cultivated ground, and even possible marks of ploughing prove that the area was well used as early as the Bronze Age.

However, some of the most intriguing remains go back even further and the oldest finds include over 200 earthfast stones with carvings dating from the late New Stone Age to the early Bronze Age (3,200 – 1,500 BC). Unlike the Old Stone Age cave art found elsewhere in Europe, which features naturalistic animals and hunters, these carvings are abstract and apparently symbolic – though unfortunately we don’t know of what! They are found in a number of places in the United Kingdom, with a special concentration in Northumberland, and often appear in clusters near watercourses, viewpoints or burial monuments. The North York Moors have over 330 known examples, two-thirds of them around Fylingdales Moor.

Rock Art
Rock Art

Many of these stones have simple ‘cup-and-ring’ markings ‘pecked’ into the surface but one is unique with a complex geometrical design which has been variously interpreted as a picture, a map, or a symbolic map of the journey from this world to the next.

A 3 km ‘archaeological trail’ has been created to take in a selection of these sites and is described in the £5.75 book Fylingdales, Wildfire and Archaeology by Blaise Vyner (obtainable from bookshops or Whitby Museum, A replica of the geometric stone can be seen in the Museum.

‘Rock Art’ features in:

  • British Prehistoric Rock Art by Stan Beckinsall (Tempus Publishing)
  • Prehistoric Rock Art in the North York Moors by Paul Brown & G Chappell (Tempus Publishing)
  • Rock Art and Ritual : Interpreting Prehistoric Landscapes of N York Moors by B Smith & A Walker (Tempus Publishing)

Roger Pickles is former Curator of Whitby Museum and followed the archaeological discoveries with fascination.