The high pass over the North York Moors is seventeen miles long and crosses the ‘roof of the world’ in the heart of the national park. You’d think twice about going there once the autumn has given way to winter. Local photos show the many times that groups of people have been stranded on the long line of its peak. In one case, in December 2010, a group of seven (two customers and five staff) were snowed in for eight days at the nearby Lion Inn that straddles the highest point on the road – a route known simply and famously as Blakey Ridge.
We were arriving at this elevated meeting point – in my case, an hour early – to begin the Sunday morning of the Silent Eye’s Keys of Heaven workshop. The plan was to gather an hour later at the very top of the pass; at the Lion Inn, an historic place of refuge, and the centre of local history going back thousands of years. But, in order to create a dramatic extra experience for the group, I had something else to do, first.
You’d have to take great care if you were planning to take a group there on a weekend in early December. But, if the forecast was good, you might take the risk and gain the sheer exhilaration of being in one of the most wild and remote places you could imagine.
The local weather forecast – clear of snow and ice for our Sunday – doesn’t always show the likely winds…winds that are not an issue, twenty miles away in Whitby, but here on the roof of the world…
This was my second visit to Blakey Ridge. Bernie and I had visited during our recce trip in October. The weather, then, had been cold, wet and dreary, so we didn’t linger. We had to get across the moors and down to Lastingham to check out the final location… and to find a missing sacred well! We had only a few hours to finish our planning trip and get back to Kendal in time to collect our cat from the local cattery…
Now, I was back; and back in time to do what we hadn’t had time to do on the previous visit: to find and photograph Young Ralph’s Cross…
The first step is easy: you can’t miss the junction for the Westerdale road that descends into the Farndale valley to the right of Blakey Ridge. It’s marked by a nine-foot stone cross, set into a sturdy platform – the first of the ‘Ralph Crosses’ – Young Ralph’s Cross. The location of this is important, for it marks the start of a walk that will get you to the more mysterious ‘Old Ralph’s Cross’ – whose location, according to the guidebooks, is not visible from the roadway.
The age of Young Ralph’s Cross is uncertain; but it likely marks the site of a much older Anglo-Saxon wooden cross from the medieval period. The presence of the older cross is referred to in folklore as ‘The Roda Cross’, meaning Rude (primitive) Cross. Folklore tells that the older, wooden cross was carved with a large ‘R’.
Whatever the origin, it is certain that Young Ralph’s Cross is an important way-marker on this ancient ‘high’ way. Sitting in the warm cabin of the car, reviewing my notes, I wondered why anyone would expose themselves to the elements in this way – on foot, or if they were wealthy – on horseback. Surely the valleys below would have been more sheltered?
My question would shortly be answered in a very graphic way…
The legends surrounding Young Ralph’s Cross are even more interesting. The most common folk-tale tells of a local farmer – one Ralph from Danby – who found there the dead body of a penniless traveller who had starved to death on his journey – only a mile from the Lion Inn – a centuries old Friar’s Inn, which, had he possessed a few pennies, could have offered him at least a meal.
Farmer Ralph had the cross made, then carved a hollow into its top. Wealthy travellers, on horseback and mindful of their own need for good fortune, would be encouraged to place a few coins there. The coins would be accessible to any poor travellers who could ‘shin up’ the cross, enabling them to buy a hot meal at the nearby inn.
Farmer Ralph vowed that the tragic death of the unknown traveller would never be repeated… and his ‘good work’ seems to have carried its own spell, though damage to the cross over the past half-century might indicate that visitors have been over zealous in their attempts to scale the nine-foot stone centrepiece…
Somewhere beyond Young Ralph’s Cross lies another, older one. To find Old Ralph’s Cross you have to take a compass bearing from its brother and cross what may have once been a side path, but is now more difficult.
Time to begin, I thought, noting that the car was moving slightly in the wind… As soon as I opened the driver’s door, I realised why the car had felt so buffeted during the half hour journey from Runswick Bay. The large door, acting like a sail, swung open in the fierce wind and I was dragged from the cabin and onto the muddy rocks of the lay-by, my arms and at least one leg in the carriageway of the road.
Shaken but undeterred (must turn that one into a one-liner…) I wiped myself clean of freezing, muddy water and crossed the road; there to take the photos of Young Ralph. I took a bearing on my phone’s compass app and set off across the moor.. with a great deal of trepidation.
The guidebook instructions for locating Old Ralph’s Cross advise walking in summer and with good boots. It was December, but I did have my long wellington-style boots, which were protective and waterproof. As the above photo shows, there are no paths; only joined-up gaps in the heather and bracken.
In simple terms, at least in December, it’s a bog… And I had at least two hundred metres of the stuff to traverse.
The first time one of my boots slid, mid-calf, into the mud, I thought about abandoning the quest. I turned to look back at the car – now quite distant, and the icy winds tore into me again. I reasoned that I had less distance to travel than I had come… and, slowly and noisily wrenching my boot free, carried on… mentally marking the spot and praying it was the worst such location.
And, it was then that I understood the significance of the ridge – the path, now the road… By definition, the ridge had to be made of hard material – stone. Water runs downwards from this, so the valleys below would not be as sure a path in the worst of the weather, but the ridge would alway be there. In my mind, I could see generations of travellers gripping their garments around them and trudging along this track through the day – or even night – to reach the safety of the Inn, a mile ahead.
Shortly after, my resolve to continue through the bog was rewarded by the first sight of the cross in the near-distance. The local landscape had changed – there was a new energy here… as there often is in places that are designated as ‘magical’ in some way. With growing confidence and a sense of elation, I crossed the final few metres through the bracken to stand before Old Ralph’s Cross.
Old Ralph’s Cross is located on Ledging Hill – the highest point on Blakey Ridge. It dates from at least AD1200 and is probably a hundred years older than that. One of the previous owners of the land, Charles Duncombe, had holdings that spanned the 40,000 acre Helmsley Estate on which Old Ralph stood. He had his initials carved onto the north face of the cross in 1708. On the top of the cross – more accessible than Young Ralph’s Cross, is another depression for coins to be left for travellers.
Testing my weight, and being as gentle as possible with the ancient stone, I pulled myself onto the plinth and smiled to see a few coins already there. Dangling in the freezing wind. but smiling, I pulled a silver coin from my pocket and placed it into the ‘bowl’. I wanted the ‘ferryman’ to oversee my safe return across the watery bog to the safety of the car.
No-one knows the origin of Old Ralph’s Cross. The symbolism of the cross is pre-Christian, but the majority of ancient stone crosses date from a period when Christianity was becoming the dominant religion. In the case of this former part of the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, there were even two forms of Christianity; one of which – what we know now as Celtic Christianity – was much closer to the ‘nature-following’ paths that would now be considered pagan or druidic.
Generally, ancient crosses would supplant whatever ‘landscape marker’ was there before. These would include market crosses, village crosses, wayside and boundary markers.
A short distance from Old Ralph’s Cross I found a more recent memorial (below) – probably pagan. The beautiful flowers, newly placed, felt very symbolic of the joy of getting here…
The words I had drawn from the bag at our Friday meeting came back to me:
Flattery – Pride – Humility – Will
As the workshop’s author, I knew their significance, but there was a special resonance in this wild place. Sometimes we have to surrender to a greater will to achieve a purpose for a group. In so doing, we make the internal journey towards inner reality signified by the partial ‘path’ of the four words above.
I had hoped to bring the group here after coffee at the Lion Inn – and hence my need to find the path. I realised now that this was impossible. The dangers were too great and we could, literally, die of exposure here… We had enough before us in the local history of the Lion Inn and its historic environs (see next post) and the wonders of Lastingham on this final morning… and at least I had my photographs to share over the forthcoming coffee..
Departing, I walked around Old Ralph’s Cross one last time. It had been a very special meeting. I located the car on the horizon of the moor… lined up the two… and said a small prayer.
Fifteen minutes later, grateful but frozen, I made it back to the car without sinking into the bog, again. I sat with the engine running and thought about the sheer intensity of the experience…
We were insulated travellers on this moor. Our cars remove us from the anguish and the ‘being’ of crossing its forbidding paths. What we gain in time is lost in the depth of experience – any walker will tell you this. Are we really equipped to understand the past of a landscape this dramatic?
The journey here was intended to be symbolic of that taken by Bishop (later Saint) Cedd as he walked across this moor to establish his church in the lovely valley at Lastingham. A little hardship had done me no harm at all… and, as I pulled the car back onto the old road and towards the Lion Inn, I gave thanks to whatever ‘spirits’ had guided my feet in that treacherous place.
Ahead of me, my Companions of the Keys of Heaven weekend would be gathering by a warm fire for coffee and biscuits to begin our final day.
To be continued…
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.