Amateur archaeologists are digging through centuries of history on a wooded ridge overlooking Ampleforth in North Yorkshire. Roger Ratcliffe joined them.
A cold, wet and blustery winter’s day seems an unlikely time to find volunteers – people who could quite easily have stayed at home in front of a fire.
But here they are, down on their hands and knees and gently scraping away the bare earth from a windswept hillside.
The reason? The archaeology bug has taken hold of them and their hunger for knowledge about this beautiful, though largely unsung, part of Yorkshire is undented by the bad weather.
The cheerful victims of the bug are members of the Yearsley Moor Archaeological Group.
This small team of local history enthusiasts have, for the past couple of years, been digging through archive records and excavating the evidence of 6,000 years of civilisation here, stretching from the Bronze Age to the Second World War.
Yearsley Moor is the long whaleback which forms the southern backdrop to Ampleforth Abbey.
As the name suggests, long ago it was covered by a swathe of heather, but in more recent times some of the landscape was planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission.
The moor’s layers of history are slowly being uncovered by the group under the guidance of something called the Lime and Ice Project.
This is a joint venture by the North York Moors National Park and the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“People joke that the name suggests we’re really just a club for gin drinkers,” smiles the project officer, Jennifer Smith.
“Everybody asks about the quirky name, so it has been successful in grabbing people’s interest.
“It’s really just a way of capturing the idea that we are studying a landscape that’s underlying geology is limestone and was shaped by glaciers during the Ice Age.”
The project’s brief, she says, is to involve local people and visitors in interpretation and conservation ventures in the southwest corner of the North York Moors and the northern part of the Howardian Hills.
It’s an area that has been somewhat neglected by outsiders in the past.
The Yearsley Moor Archaeological Group – one of 23 separate initiatives run by Lime and Ice with £500,000 of money from the Heritage Lottery Fund – has divided itself into pairs to look at different periods of history on the moor.
One of them concentrated on the excavation of a rabbit-hole riddled mound, about 50ft in diameter and less than two feet high, which was found in a thickly wooded area of the moor.
It is thought to be a Bronze Age barrow, the burial site of a chieftain.
Another fascinating discovery traced by group members is a series of bell pits, a primitive method of extracting coal.
Short vertical shafts were dug into the moor and then widened to form small chambers in the coal seams.
Chris Williams, one of the group, said in a recent video about the Yearsley group’s work: “Would I go onto the moor at night? Probably not, because it has been intimated that you can hear the miners still digging away in the pits, and one must imagine that some pits still retain the bodies of some of those miners.”
Much of what is seen on the ground today has been shaped by its use through medieval times as a deer park.
The group has even traced the actual licence for this, written in Latin and granted by Edward III in 1374, declaring that 1000 acres of land and woods were granted to Thomas de Etton of Gilling Castle.
The original boundaries can still be seen, although all that’s left is a well-pronounced bank with ditches on either side. The fence of oak paling which would have been top has long gone, but around 70 per cent of the bank has been traced by the Yearsley Group.
Gilling Castle and Yearsley Moor passed from the Ettons to the Fairfax family in 1489.
The group has found that the moor was landscaped as more decorative parkland, with a long sweeping drive through the trees from Gilling Castle to a grand temple-like summerhouse on the edge of the eastern escarpment.
It offered fine views over the moors to the north and the Vale of York to the south.
The temple, now demolished, was surrounded by a yew hedge which can still be seen today.
It is thought that the temple was similar in appearance to the well-known octagon tower at Fountains Abbey. Elizabeth Sanderson, who has been researching this part of Yearsley Moor’s history, says: “In this period Castle Howard was being gentrified, as was nearby Duncombe Park, so there’s a possibility that the great architect Sir John Vanbrugh was also involved with work here.”
The most recent archaeological excavations by members of the group have been on the north-facing brow of the moor, overlooking Ampleforth Abbey.
The team started off thinking that an overgrown ditch and bank suggested the presence of an Iron Age settlement.
But when they removed the vegetation and began to carefully trowel away the earth they realised that the it was something from a much later period.
Gigi Signorelli, who oversaw the dig here, says: “I think now we’ve managed to establish quite clearly that it’s not Iron Age, but a trackway from the medieval or late-medieval period.”
It was cobbled with large stones, and despite the fact that they had to work in driving rain, the group carefully removed the soil to reveal the course of the track, which may well have been used to give access from the moor to two large fish ponds below.
Yearsley Moor’s most recent history of significance is the siting there during World War Two of an Italian POW camp.
There’s a Nissen Hut and some other relics which the group will explore before it is supposed to complete its work at the end of July 2013, when the funding ceases.
Lime and Ice’s Jennifer Smith doubts that will be the end of the story for the Yearsley Group.
“They are so committed to the project,” she says, “so they’ll probably carry on with whatever resources they can find since they have tasted the excitement of making archaeological finds.”
To find out more about the Lime and Ice project and various volunteering opportunities contact. Jennifer Smith ( firstname.lastname@example.org) or Nick Lishman (email@example.com).Telephone: 01439 770657.
Uncovering the past
The Lime and Ice project creates opportunities for people to learn about, explore and enjoy the landscape heritage of the south-west corner of the North York Moors National Park and the northern part of the adjoining Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The project is part of the CAN DO Partnership’s aim to promote understanding and access with a range of activities including guided walks. In September 2009 a month-long archaeological excavation took place at Boltby Scar promontory fort.