How this tree stump inspired a new book on the North Yorkshire Moors

Counting the rings on a tree stump provided the inspiration for a new book on the North York Moors. Roger Ratcliffe reports on The History Tree.

The stump left after the historic tree was felled in 2007. PIC: Albert Elliot

There are no written accounts of a day in the early 1800s when a frail copper beech sapling was planted near the front door of Danby Lodge, a large shooting lodge then owned by John Dawnay, the 5th Viscount Downe. In contrast, though, the day in 2007 that the much-loved tree it became was unceremoniously felled is still painfully recalled by many. A “truly awful sound” echoed around the Esk Valley, according to one account. “Incessantly it rasped through the morning air: chainsaws! In just a few hours, two hundred years of life, formed from the air, rain, soil and sunshine through the passage of time, a magnificent copper beech tree was no more, reduced to a tangle of severed branches, twigs and slices of trunk spread across the ground.”

By then, the shooting lodge had become the pride of the North York Moors National Park, which acquired the building in 1976 and transformed it into a popular information hub called the Moors Centre. Sadly, though, the copper beech’s condition had seriously deteriorated – the species has a lifespan of around 200 years, unlike oaks which live for many centuries – and the tree was considered a danger not just to visitors but to the building itself.

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Gone the copper beech may have been but the tree had at least germinated an idea, a project called The History Tree to chronicle significant events which had taken place in and around the national park during the tree’s lifespan. And the fruit of that project is a new book produced by the North Yorkshire Moors Association.

The book’s editor, Dr Janet Cochrane, says that when the tree was felled the rings were counted to establish its age. “Dendrochronology is a pretty precise art, and they reckoned the copper beech was planted about 1800 through matching it with a national database which records things like droughts and years of high rainfall.”

Some of the book’s 40 chapters chronicle remarkable stories and characters that have become synonymous with the North York Moors and nearby coastline, such as the building in 1836 of the Whitby and Pickering Railway which is still in use today; the visit of Bram Stoker to Whitby in 1890 that inspired him to use the town as the backdrop for Dracula; the painting of the landmark Kilburn White Horse in 1857; the first conifer plantations established by the Forestry Commission in 1921; and the career of world-famous photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe.

Other chapters deal with events which have been forgotten or largely ignored over the years. It is not widely known, for instance, that the poet William Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson in the parish church at Brompton-by-Sawdon, near Scarborough, in October 1802. “There’s this story of them going up and down Sutton Bank by coach, which in those days must have been an astonishing feat for the horses. Such a steep hill is bad enough today, never mind 200 years ago,” says Dr Cochrane.

One of the more bizarre stories concerns the so-called Maharajah of Mulgrave. In 1843, at the age of five, Duleep Singh was crowned King of the Punjab and head of the Sikh nation. Immensely rich he might have been, but when Britain annexed the Punjab in 1849 he lost everything, including the magnificent Koh-i-Noor, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world, which was given to Queen Victoria and is still part of the British crown jewels. To compensate, he was paid an annual allowance of £40,000 and exiled to Britain.

At the age of 20, the young Maharajah rented the Mulgrave Estate, near Whitby, where he settled into life as an English country squire and became a regular sight hunting and hawking on local moors, dressed in full Sikh regalia and accompanied by an extensive entourage. He kept a boat at Sandsend, and went fishing using the ancient Chinese method of trained cormorants tethered on long leads with rings fitted round their necks to stop them swallowing their catches.

According to The History Tree, though, the legend that he built the road between Whitby and Sandsend specifically to accommodate his elephants, because he did not like them having to use the beach, is simply a local myth.

Dr Cochrane’s pick of the most fascinating chapters concerns a chance find in a network of limestone caves near Kirkbymoorside in 1821. Hidden away in the secluded valley of Kirkdale, it was found to contain one of the most significant discoveries of the 19th century.

Workmen quarrying the limestone cliff exposed the cave’s entrance and in the network behind it they uncovered animal bones and teeth. Further excavations of thick blue clay on the cave’s floor revealed a treasure trove of remains from hippopotamus, elephant and rhinoceros. Many bones were identified as hyena, giving the cave its name of Hyenas’ Den.

Another chapter touches on the story of Caedmon’s Cross and the story that the man now known as the Father of English Verse was a herdsman living at Whitby Abbey in the 7th century. The Abbess Hilda believed Caedmon had been given a divine gift to turn the scriptures into song, and in 1898 a cross was erected in his name outside the ruined abbey.

The book concludes with chapters about the placing of the Millennium Stone on Danby High Moor in May 2000, adding to the numerous ancient standing stones, crosses and memorials for which the North York Moors are famous.

“The book has given us all these amazing insights about things we may have seen or have a vague recollection of hearing about, like the first successful manned aeroplane flight at Brompton Dale, near Scarborough, in 1853 and first shooting down of a German aircraft on English soil at Bannial Flatt Farm,” says Dr Cochrane. “There’s lots of other things we could have included, such as the listening station on Fylingdales Moor and an old children’s hospital at Kirkbymoorside, but perhaps we’ll keep these for a second volume.”

The History Tree, edited by Janet Cochrane, is published by the North Yorkshire Moors Association.