I AM wary of the North York Moors because they are more than a little bit sinister. They are wild and empty, peppered with the scratchings of forgotten people, laced with legends, and punctuated with the stumps of ancient crosses and boundary stones. There is a dark, Gothic atmosphere, which is intensified by the proximity of Whitby and its Bram Stoker connection. Wolves still inhabit the wilder corners and hags dwell in tumbled cottages, so some people say. It’s a marvellous place for a moor walk, but not necessarily a place in which to wander alone . . .
Kildale is a village with a name to suit the mood and the weather – both of which are cold and glowering on this bleak December morning. I leave the van parked beneath bare trees in the station car park and march along the main street, conscious I’m being watched by unseen people from behind garden walls and hedges. Even the crows seem muted. Dogs refuse to bark. It’s the sort of moorland hamlet that should have a pub called The Murdered Man – but it hasn’t.
On the edge of the village I pass an old shepherd leaning against the trunk of a dead tree. He’s playing a sombre tune on a fiddle and a lamb’s head pokes from the pocket of his ragged coat.
“Pardon sir, but are you an outsider?” he says as I approach. I nod meekly. His fiddle complains and the lamb bleats.
“Then mark my words, sir. Don’t tek thissel on tat moors when the wind’s in the west – for thee shall perish.”
I’d like to say I made that bit up but I didn’t. I toss the man a silvery coin and head up a lane towards the moors. Unfortunately, the wind’s in the west, so I’m sure to perish. Perhaps I should have stayed at home and watched daytime television.
This is, after all, a place where hikers have perished in the past – and in mysterious circumstances. Who could ever forget that iconic film An American Werewolf in London, and the gory scenes that unfold among these moors? And yes – before any film buffs scroll down to the comment box – I am aware it was filmed in Wales, but the story takes place in these very hills. And there’s no smoke without fire. That’s a fact. (Click images for high-res versions)
In freezing wind I follow the route of the Cleveland Way long-distance footpath up Kildale Moor and onto Battersby Moor. These hills do bleak in a big way, to the point where they abuse the privilege. Nothing exists on Battersby Moor except heather, mud, grouse and the ghosts of highway robbers. Besides the grouse, I am the only living thing up here.
On the wind I hear the distant blasting of shotguns. It’s immediately obvious that the grouse-shooting fraternity has turned out in force to cheer us up in these times of enforced austerity. Chancellor George Osborne promised only this week that another five years of government cuts, hard decisions and unavoidable pain lie before us. So it’s heartening to learn that the grouse-shooters are carrying on as normal. Should the cuts bite and they run out of cartridges, we could always have a whip-round or close a couple more NHS walk-in centres.
If you detect a note of cynicism it’s because I’ve accepted we are officially living in a cynical world. Not only are the wealthy soldiering on as normal amid the austerity, but the royals are taking a break from pheasant-shooting and deer-stalking to champion the cause of the endangered species. And to cap it all, I’ve just listened to a guy on the telly arguing that torture is a good thing for Britain and we should have more of it. But I think it applies only to non-white, non-Christian people – so that’s all right.
I take a track known as the Ingleby Coal Road. This leads across the bleakest of moors and passes a couple of large boulders pocked with interesting holes and hollows. I can’t find any reference to these boulders on the internet, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say they are associated with devil worship and bigamy. Anything goes in this country, especially in shooting circles. Even torture has its place in certain London postcodes.
At the very head of Baysdale, in a sheltered hollow called Armouth Wath – a pleasant place to picnic on a summer’s afternoon – I turn north across Stockdale Moor and head into yet more relentless miles of heather and mud. Grouse cluck and scuttle across the track, unruffled by the distant bursts of gunfire. I have no sympathy for them, because if the rich didn’t have birds to slaughter then they’d start shooting other things, and that might include European migrants, families on benefit and possibly the rest of us.
I descend into Baysdale but avoid its ruined abbey – which is bound to be haunted. Since leaving Kildale I have not met a single person. I don’t meet anyone in Baysdale either, despite passing a farm, crossing the valley bottom through pastureland and climbing the northern slopes. It’s an eerie place on a dull day in December. No wonder Bram Stoker’s most famous creation – Dracula – sought sanctuary in this strange but beautiful countryside. Which reminds me. I need to be back at the van before darkness falls.
In the neighbouring valley, Leven Vale, I pass the ruins of Warren Moor Ironstone Mine. The chimney stands in silence as the sun sinks behind bleak hawthorns. I pass another silent farm as the shadows lengthen.
Then, on the outskirts of Kildale, I pass a row of silent cottages. Kildale itself is steeped in silence. No lights flicker. No curtains twitch. No birds sing. Not even the wind murmurs in bare branches.
Back in the station car park, as darkness creeps from the woods to envelop the landscape, I spy the old shepherd with his fiddle and lamb. “Ha,” I say. “I didn’t perish on the moors after all.”
“No sir,” he replies, placing a cold hand on my shoulder. “And to celebrate the gentleman’s good fortune, I’ll tek thi for a pint in The Murdered Man.”
KILDALE’S a nice place really. And the walk is pleasant and offers wide views across Teesside and the North York Moors. There are lots of ghosts in the area but they are not malevolent. As the saying goes: you have nothing to fear from the dead – it’s the living bastards you have to watch out for.