The North York Moors – forged by nature, shaped by generations. Come and explore our National Park – 554 square miles of secluded dales, magical moors, ancient woodland, historic sites and 26 miles of stunning coastline, all easily reached from York, Teesside and County Durham. Read about our work here, and then pay us a visit!
FRAGMENTS OF THE OLD IRONSTONE RAILWAY TRACK, FROM ROSEDALE EAST MINE TO OVEREND FARM.
NORTH YORK MOORS 10 SEPTEMBER 2020
[NB: ALL IMAGES ARE COPYRIGHT PROTECTED]
I first began to document local walks, using a sequence of 12 images, fairly early on in 2020; and it was idea that emerged from two different sources.
In 2019 I made a 12 image photo-piece to illustrate a poem by R S Thomas; extracting individual words, in sequence, from the poem, and linking them to 12 small, almost abstract, images. And in the previous winter I had photographed various collections of twigs on the freshly ‘snow-covered-towpath’ of my local canal.
So, when lock-down descended on us all in late March 2020, I suddenly found myself retracing local track-ways and paths, that were to become increasingly familiar. And in that repeated retracing, I became increasingly aware that there was another landscape beneath my feet; one that reflected, in many ways, the landscape around me, but that also carried a story and a beauty of its own.
And so the first work, in what was to become an on-going series of works, was born. ‘Still Traces:1’, used 12 images, with words, to document a walk from canal-bridge 56, quite near where I live in Marsden, to the banks of the infant river Colne, a little way up the valley.
But the year moved on; and by September, when the travel restrictions that had affected all of us began to relax, the faithful, old, converted-VW-van – imaginatively christened Van Rouge on account of the colour! – could once again be pointed at a semi-distant landscape for exploring.
Having been born in Leeds – and having been lucky enough to possess a bicycle at a time when roads could be enjoyably cycled on – the coast of Yorkshire was always a favourite destination. And as anyone who has cycled from almost anywhere to Whitby will testify – the North York Moors are quite difficult to ignore!
But if one looks beyond their obvious, and formidable, ‘physical presence’, they also represent an incredible diversity of both natural and human history; and it was my discovery – mainly through gazing intently at Ordnance Survey maps and wondering, it has to be said – of the now vanished industries that once flourished on the moors, that has triggered numerous visits to the area over the years; be it to the old limekilns above Rosedale, or the, slightly mind-boggling in scale, Ingleby Incline.
However, the track-bed of the old railway in Rosedale had always fascinated me – especially the distinct ‘horse-shoe’ loop at Rosedale Head – and so, one morning in September 2020, Van Rouge was fired into action and we headed for the moors.
After parking on Daleside Road, and climbing the track on the western edge of Swine Stye Hill, I think the first thing that will hit any first-time visitor to this section of track-bed is the sheer scale of the workings at the old East Mines – a cross between, for me at least, some ancient Egyptian monument, and a colossal mausoleum. But whatever one might make of it, the scale of the industrial operation that took place around the area is quite astonishing to contemplate.
The 12 images, and the words, are just one small ‘response’, to a truly magical landscape…
The photographs were taken in the sequence presented, starting just before East Mines and ending on the farm track leading back to Daleside Road – the only one that might cause ‘puzzlement’ I would guess being the rabbit: An image for which I can offer no explanation. That is was dead, and very recently, was obvious. But why it had died, remains a mystery.
‘Rosedale Head’ and other works in the ‘Another Landscape’ series can be found at:
For many years now the district about Staithes, though, more especially, at first, at Runswick and Hinderwell, has been the summer home of a few able and conscientious artists, who have discovered unconventional subjects for their brush, and by careful study, have greatly improved their powers of perception, their appreciation of the relative values of lights and colours…Like Whitby, the paintable bits about Staithes and Runswick are illimitable …
… there was a gay and fashionable little assemblage present, which viewed with evident interest the representative collection of works on the walls of the upper room of the building which, from its large window, looked upon the the as from the deck of a steamer …
…There can be but one opinion among the fraternity of the brush as to the value of an exhibition of this kind, for comparison and criticism are the very soul of improvement and are valuable guides to a complete success.”
Whitby Gazette – Friday 8 August 1902
The exhibition referred to was the second of a series of short lived annual exhibitions held by the Staithes Art Club between 1901 and 1907. During the 1880s/1890s and 1900s artists, both professional and amateur, both men and women, lived or regularly stayed in or around Staithes, which has lead to the idea of a ‘Staithes Group’ of artists.
Most of the artists counted in the Group originated elsewhere, many from other places in the north of England. The east coast of Yorkshire had been opened up by a new railway line. Artists came and went during the period, some were just starting out, some were already academicians e.g. Royal Scottish Academy, Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Watercolour Society.
Although many of the pictures displayed at the exhibitions were of Staithes and its environs and local people that wasn’t always the case, what was important was the artists themselves. For a period of their life they were associated with a Staithes Group because of where they lived or worked and whether they displayed their work at the Staithes Art Club annual exhibitions. It’s noticeable that it was a loose association not an artist colony or a Staithes ‘School’; indeed Laura Knight, one of the Staithes Group, gave the yearning for close companionship of other painters as one of the reasons she ended up leaving Staithes.
“Staithes Art Club – A Choice Exhibition
There appears to be no particular leader, or style … Their aims are similar, but their methods are very dissimilar. They each try to give the broad truths of nature, ignoring almost entirely anything which would detract from the first impressions.”
Whitby Gazette, Friday 18 August 1905
Most of the pictures were rural landscapes, picturesque people (mostly working people) and conventional horses. Most of it was ‘en plain air’ that is painted outside rather than in a studio. The art was naturalistic, romanticised and sometimes impressionistic (but not too much). There was a sense of little suggestion of bohemian lifestyles or contentious art from the Group, it was all rather respectable. The 1903 Annual Exhibition had patrons including Sir Charles M Palmer MP, a North East Shipbuilder who had a country estate at nearby Grinkle Park, Loftus. Another patron was the MP for Whitby – E W Beckett – although he turned out to be rather more of a free spirit.
The writers in the Whitby Gazette who attend the annual exhibitions approve of the pictures that are well modelled and well managed faithful renderings, of good composition which are peaceful, sweet, harmonious, delightful, pleasing, rich in quality, natural in colour, strong yet tender.
“Staithes Art Club
… The visitors to this small exhibition will be at once struck by the diversity of aim and methods of the artists represented. In this respect, the work is very instructive. We may refer to the manner and treatment of both oils and water colours. May of the exhibits are successful efforts to portray the charm of colour and subtlety of things seen in the open air. We have others in which the painter has apparently ignored the latter quality, depending on bold masses of colour and strong contrasts in light and shade. Then we come to work which almost leaves colour alone, but somehow conveys it, with a hint. In each method we find some merit and reason. It is well that art can be so varied, otherwise, once and for all, colour photography would settle the thing. It is the personal interpretation, after all, which matters – the seizing upon the salient points, to the exclusion or suppression of such minor ones as would, if too much emphasised, detract from the work. If we bear those things in mind, in viewing the exhibits, and try and understand the aim of the painter, we shall receive greater pleasure and instruction.”
Whitby Gazette, Friday 17 August 1906
It’s clear from the reporting in the Gazette that the venues used for the exhibitions were small. At first it was the Fisherman’s’ Institute in Staithes; then Andersons Gallery, Well Close Square, Skinner Street in Whitby; and then The Gallery, Waterloo Place, Flowergate in Whitby. The pictures exhibited were therefore also small, in one of the exhibition reports the writer suggests this means they could be usefully hung in an ordinary house. Most of the professional artists at least would have been attempting to make some kind of living.
It has been suggestion that this restriction in size as well as the small regional market for pictures were reasons for the falling away of the Staithes Group. It’s noticeable that the same time as the Staithes Art Club annual exhibitions are advertised in the Whitby Gazette each year there are more adverts for other art exhibitions. Art Clubs had become a popular concept in all sorts of provincial places.
A loose association is easily dissolved. William Gilbert Foster an original member of the Club died in 1907 and the Knights left Staithes in the same year. The last official annual exhibition of the Staithes Art Club was held in 1907. Joseph Richard Bagshawe suddenly died in 1909, he had been another founding member. Leandro Garrido also died in 1909.
However it didn’t mean everyone just left; it’s clear from paintings held at the Pannett Art Gallery in Whitby that Staithes Art Club artists were still painting locally in 1920. Around the same time the Fylingdales Group of Artists was founded in Robin Hood’s Bay to the south of Whitby. Nowadays the Fylingdales Group still exist and Staithes is still a focus for artists, there is even a Staithes Art School.
So why for that brief period were turn of the 20th century artists drawn to Staithes and the north east coast of Yorkshire – Laura Knight shared her reasons in an autobiography thirty years later.
“The roofs were red tiled or thatched, the walls made of brownish-yellow ironstone, and there and there was a white-washed cottage with green shutters. The wooden quay, called the e stretched right across the beach forming a poor protection against a nor’-easter. Two walls of cliff formed barriers on either side; the northern side reached out its rounded arm, along which the Beck ran into the sea from springs on the high moor. The excuse I offer for writing about Staithes at such length is its tremendous influence on work, life and power of endurance. It was there I found myself and what I might do. The life and place were what I had yearned for the freedom, the austerity, the savagery, the wildness. I love it passionately, overwhelmingly. I loved the cold and the northerly storms when no covering would protect you. I loved the strange race of people who lived there, whose stern almost forbidding exterior formed such contrast to the warmth and richness of their natures.”
Oil Paint and Grease Paint, Autobiography of Laura Knights, 1936
When Laura Knight describes why her and her husband left for Cornwall and the Newlyn ‘School’ in 1907 she describes being tired of wet and cold and lonely winters and tragedies (i.e. the drowning of boat men). But she’s still very sorry to go.
Below a is a non comprehensive list of artists associated with the Staithes Group and links to an example of their work from around the same time as the Group was active.
Clair Shields – Planning Officer (Policy and Building Conservation)
The traditional black and white ‘finger post’ signposts in the North York Moors have become a cherished part of our landscape. In order to maintain and conserve these cultural features for future generations to enjoy, at the end of last year Building Conservation officers at the National Park Authority asked parishes and residents to let us know about these signs so they could be mapped and recorded on our Geographic Information System (GIS). The idea was to gain a better understanding of where the signposts are and their current condition. Many signposts are obvious, such as at modern road junctions, however others can be more hidden such as where they are located on old roads which are less used today. Local people looking out for signs during daily exercise was a useful survey method during lockdowns.
At the same time we were able to refurbish a few of the signs most in need of restoration using a locally experienced contractor – this will help ensure the longevity of these iconic features. The long term aim is to restore them all.
There is a vast array of different practical purposes to the signs; some make reference to the old North Riding District (pre North Yorkshire County Council), others warn of steep inclines, point towards historic monuments like a roman road or indicate public route ways and distances. Officers are keen to conserve the variety of designs and styles.
Yew links to Christmas and Christianity and back beyond into the depths of time. Like other evergreens, branches of yew were brought into people’s houses at Christmas as decoration and also as bitter reminder of the Christian Passion.
Yew trees (Taxus baccata) are now strongly associated with churchyards. They are a connection to the old Norse and Celt beliefs that yew trees protected against bewitchment and death. Pagans celebrated the yew at the mid winter festival of Saturnalia, which later melted into Christmas. Many old churchyard yews may have been planted by church-builders, brought out of the woods and into a civilised setting. Or later on top of graves to ward off evil around the dead and provide branches to be carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. It became a tradition without a remembrance of its origins.
There are also a number of churchyard yews predating their churches, and even Christianity. Some trees alive today in Britain are truly ancient. The Fortingall Yew in Scotland is possibly between 2,000 and 3,000 years old – a myth tells of Pontius Pilate as the son of a Roman envoy, being born beneath and playing as a child within its branches. While the Ankerwycke Yew witnessed the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, as an already 1,000-year-old tree overlooking Runnymede meadows in Surrey.
The first few lines of ‘Lines on the Ancient Yew in Darley Church Yard’ (in Derbyshire)
By Samuel Barker
Thou art an interesting tree, The fact’s beyond dispute, Thy monster trunk and giant bows And intersecting roots, Rearing in solemn grandeur, Thy patriarchal head, Reigning in midnight dimness, O’er the regions of the dead.
The story of the yew tree is one of life, death, and resurrection. It was said by the noted forester and dendrologist Alan Mitchell, that “there is no theoretical end to this tree, no need for it to die”.
Yews reach such old age through an amazing ability to renew themselves and return from apparent decay. New shoots from the base can coalesce with the main trunk, while lowered branches can put down roots, and fallen trees remain alive as long as the smallest amount of root remains attached. Ancient trees can be split into several parts, and no longer look like one tree, but can go on surviving for many hundreds of years more.
Death lingers in these long-lived trees, with all parts of the plant containing highly poisonous taxine alkaloids. Yet at the same time these same highly poisonous chemicals provide modern day science with anti-cancer compounds. The yew tree can regenerate us, as well as itself.
Yorkshire has a strong but somewhat forgotten link to yew trees. The ancient Celtic name for the City of York is Eborakon, which can be translated to ‘the place where the yew trees grow’, or came from the name Eburos, meaning ‘yew man’. In the North York Moors, yew trees are common in churchyards, and can occasionally be encountered in the surrounding areas.
Deep in Cropton Forest is a very special place called High Leaf Howe. Its actually just a grassy clearing within the forest with a large mound, the ‘howe’, in one corner and a ruined house in another. Our archaeologists are probably more interested in the howe but for me it’s the ruin that is magical. I recall my grandma Ethel talking very fondly of her childhood at ‘Leaf Howe’ which was a small holding of about 20 acres on the edge of Wheeldale Moor where they grazed 20 sheep. They also had 3 cows and my grandma had hens which she sold the eggs from to help her parents pay the rent to Keldy Estate*. Her dad made besoms (brooms used in the steel works to clean the slag off the rolled steel when it was red hot) from the heather and her mother cleaned the school at Stape to make ends meet.
*The Forestry Commission acquired the freehold of the Keldy Estate in 1948 to incorporate into their Rosedale Forest holding, now named Cropton Forest.
Recently I was looking into the census data for Stape and made a remarkable discovery. Not only had my grandma been born at High Leaf Howe but also her father Bertie in 1895 and his father George in 1851. Four generations of my direct descendants lived there. During the first lockdown I was looking through some old family photos and imagine my delight when I came across a small black and white photo which had the words ‘Leaf Howe’ penned on the back! Even better I could recognise that the girl outside the house was grandma and the shy head poking out of the door was her mother Ada.
I have taken my father and my two children to see the old homestead, and although my son was more interested in climbing a nearby tree at the time I’d like to think my two will see the significance of this special place in the future.
Trees give us so much – visually from a landscape perspective, environmentally by cleaning the air producing oxygen and storing carbon, and emotionally as spending time in a woodland is said to boost our immune system and have a restorative effect on our mental wellbeing. They have also had a leading role in our cultural heritage and seasonal festivals for thousands of years.
At this time of year there is one tree in particular that stands out in hedgerows and woodlands across the land – relishing the freezing temperatures, still in leaf and adorned with bright red berries, it’s the humble holly tree (Ilex aquilarium).
This species’ highly recognisable spiky, waxy leaves contain cells with anti-freeze properties and were historically used as winter forage for sheep, while the berries now continue to provide food and shelter for migrating fieldfares, blackbirds and thrushes. Pagan folklore has the Holly as the Winter King ruling over the cold winter months and providing food and shelter for wildlife during this crucial time, while the warmer half of the year is personified by his counterpart and adversary the Oak King; the two doing battle at the spring and autumn equinox to regain their crown. It is suggested that the origins of Father Christmas hail from the idea of the Holly King, traditionally dressed in evergreen.
The Romans gave boughs of holly to friends during the festival of Saturnalia – a celebration of Saturn and the winter solstice, later christianised to make Christmas. Christian mythology had it that holly sprang up under the footsteps of Christ, “the leaves’ spines representing the crown of thorns and the red berries the drops of his blood”. The name holly derives from “holy tree”; Jesus’ cross was said to have been made from holly wood. From medieval times holly was being used to decorate churches and people’s homes during the festival of Christmas, and it wasn’t until Victorian times that conifer trees started to take centre place thanks to Prince Albert.
We also have some fantastic veteran and ancient oak trees in the Ryevitalise area; indeed one of the largest collections of ancient oak trees in northern England. These arboricultural giants are home to one of the rarest mammals in the UK, the alcathoe bat. The presence of alcathoe bat was reaffirmed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) who were commissioned to carry out research into the distribution of bat populations as part of the development of the Ryevtialise scheme. The River Rye riparian corridors and adjoining hedgerows provide feeding super-highways for bat species. Ryevitalise will be expanding on this research through a citizen science project that will train up and empower the local community to monitor both the local bat and veteran tree populations to ensure they are valued and continue to thrive in our landscape.
If you would like to find out more about the Ryevitalise Landscape Partnership, upcoming volunteer opportunities and events please keep an eye on our website pages.
Agnes thought that it was round about this time of year when the nights were getting darker that the Fay woman came to the house. She knocked on the back door and asked for bread and cheese. She looked odd; something about her eyes, the sheen of her skin and how she mouthed her words. Anyway Agnes was busy, she had the milk to churn and the wool to card, and the baby was crying again – she didn’t mean to but she said no and shut the door sharply.
Now Agnes stood on the side of the stony hill looking down at her family’s farm, she had seen her children taken out in shrouds one by one. Then her grandchildren and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. She stood still with beetles and caterpillars in her hair. She’d long given up on being hopeful as the years grew up around her.
She stretched her spindly thorny fingers. Sometimes a blackbird or a thrush would come and sing to her, she would give them dark red berries in return. In May when the sun shone on the blossom there would be people talking and laughing nearby. But no one took her back and into their homes – it would be unlucky. Then each year the blossom would start to fade and release its cloying scent of death.
Agnes had always done what she should when it came to the Fay. She didn’t look them in the eye. She left them out the last of the beer of the year and the last apple on the tree. She wasn’t vain, she wasn’t cruel, she didn’t deserve this. It was just that one time – that one mistake.
Now and then a poor traveller looking for anything better would linger and if they had absolutely nothing they might nibble on the leaves because someone once told them they tasted like bread and cheese. Then Agnes would remember what had happened for her to end up here. She reached out to help but offered poor shelter from the batterings of life.
She dreamt lots of times of saying sorry and begging to be released but she rarely saw any Fay and when she did they would just wink at her and disappear back into the landscape.
In the frost she would cling on to lichen like clothing. In the cold and wind she would nash her teeth and wave her scraggy scrawny arms. There was no one left to remember her or wonder what happened to her. She’d long given up expecting someone would come with a saving axe or a rescuing saw.
Agnes stood skeletal with her feet rooted in the ground. Her skin knarled and knotted and her body tangled. She was stuck where she was on a side of a stony hill, turned into a Hawthorn Tree by a grumpy fairy…
In the last couple of Monuments for the Future inspired blogs, we’ve looked at the hillforts and barrows of the North York Moors. This time we’ll ponder another monument type which often springs to mind when we think of prehistoric archaeology visible in the landscape today: standing stones.
The North York Moors has an abundance of stones set upright in the ground for various reasons. Not all of these stones are prehistoric: indeed the Historic Environment Record records 161 individual stones across the park recorded as ‘standing stones’, of which 129 are of likely prehistoric origin. But there are a further 1459 monuments recorded as ‘boundary stones’ with a medieval or later explanation. The distinction between standing stone and boundary stone is not always completely clear, as we shall see below, but these figures do mean that erected stones of one sort or another account for approximately 8.5% of all recorded monuments in the North York Moors. Let’s not even think about the number of historic gateposts out there…
People started to erect standing stones across the country in the late Neolithic period (2500-3000 BC), and carried on doing so up to the end of the Bronze Age around 700 BC. Like much of prehistoric archaeology, it can be very hard to know what was going on and to impose definitions on these big lumps of rock. Sometimes multiple stones are used in conjunction to create circles (often referred to as henges) or other shapes, or long rows stretching hundreds of metres, and then others stand alone. But why were people doing this?
It’s a long running joke in archaeology that if we don’t understand the function of a feature then it must be part of a long forgotten ritual, but for many surviving prehistoric features it seems that that is the most likely explanation. Some stones are associated with other features, such as a large slab next to a bridleway over Danby Rigg which forms part of a cairn under which Victorian archaeologists found deposited urns. Others accompany barrows, pits or stone-lined chambers. The common theme so far is death and burial: were people using standing stones to mark the spots belonging to the dead? were they a commemoration, in the same way we use gravestones and memorials today? or perhaps the stone warned others not to get too close…
Whilst many stones may have been raised to honour the dead or perform ritual practices around, others may have had a more mundane but useful purpose. If you’ve been out and about on the moors you’ll know how disorientating they can be, especially in bad weather. The last thing you want to do is get lost and stumble into someone’s barrow, and so we think some stones might have been erected as way markers, as a familiar point in the landscape to meet at or to help get you home.
Over time, some stones gathered cup and ring marks, and people buried items around them. These stones might be crossing the gap between the sacred and the profane, a physical object people can relate to, but which represents far more than the sum of its parts.
I mentioned at the start that there is not a clear distinction between some standing stones and modern boundaries. Some continue to have a function today, having been re-used by people looking to make their mark. A great example is the Cammon Stone, which stands on the parish boundary between Bransdale and Farndale West. This was initially erected on the watershed by prehistoric inhabitants of the area, perhaps marking a territorial boundary or route. At some point in the post-medieval period letters were carved into it, proclaiming the land ownership to anyone who came past. Then in the 19th century someone wrote ‘Hallelujah’ on it, followed by the Ordnance Survey who inscribed a survey benchmark into the base! So over the years the Cammon Stone has served as a boundary symbol for different cultures, in multiple religious functions, and as part of the very modern practice of mapping.
Another stone which might represent different sacred uses is Low Cross, just north of Appleton-le-Moors. This curious piece of limestone, with a hole cut right through it, started life as a large prehistoric stone, but was transformed into a wayside cross by some enterprising mediaeval person. It probably served a very similar function in this role, reminding people of their religion and marking out a safe route. Since then it has fallen apart, a plaque seems to have come and gone, and it’s thought the hole might have been used to pay tolls, but it remains in place today as a lasting reminder of the people who once lived there. A 3D model of Low Cross today can be seen here – Low Cross standing stone by Nick Mason Archaeology on Sketchfab
All of this is why standing stones are so exciting to archaeologists – they stand in place today as physical emblems of the prehistoric, when so little else of those people remains. That’s why any examples which are in good condition are likely to be protected as Scheduled Monuments. All of those mentioned in the text here are Scheduled, and as solid as they may seem, sometimes they need some work to look after them. Unstable ground, visitor numbers, even cattle can cause a stone to become threatened. Work was recently carried out to reinstate one of the Newgate Foot stones which had fallen over. This project restored the collection of stones (which might be a small henge monument) closer to what they originally looked like. This is a more complex operation than it sounds, as the ground had to be carefully prepared and excavated to ensure that deposits which might give us valuable dating evidence were not being disturbed.
A similar operation was carried out on Wade’s Stone near Lythe, a monument with giant-related folklore ascribed to it.
If you’d like to see some archaeology and take in a breath of fresh air there are many popular walks around the North York Moors which pass close to prehistoric monuments as they run along the higher ground. As ever, you can always find out more about the fascinating past of the North York Moors using our interactive Historic Environment Record map, so why not find your closest monument and pay a visit. The Monuments for the Future project is always on the look-out for monuments at risk, so don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think a standing stone needs some attention. You can always volunteer with the National Park if you’d like to help with conserving our monuments.
Three men sat in the corner of the public house. They didn’t say much, they were waiting.
The other people around them were still talking about the hanging seven days earlier. The executed man had struggled for a long time when he dropped, the crowd had gone quiet by the time he went still. Most people had known him, he was always a bit odd, a bit menacing.
Sometime after midnight the three men went out into the dark and then kept walking till they got to the bridge. The moon was hidden by clouds, but they could hear where the gibbet was by the creaking and clanking, and they could smell it too. Not for the first time the smaller man, Esau Fawcett, regretted saying yes but it was too late now. The other two grasped his legs and lifted him up, he thought he would fall and he reached out at what was in front of him. He grasped the chained corpse of the gibbeted man. His eyes were sinking, his jaw was dropping, his skin was rotting. Esau managed to pull out his boning knife and reach for the caged right hand. It came away easily enough, and dropped onto the road.
There was no one to see the three men as they returned with their prize. Esau went home to his wife and his bed but he couldn’t sleep, he kept remembering how the hand had felt, so cold and clammy. On the agreed day they met up again, the older man had the hand. It had been cured like a ham, the smell was now of saltpetre. It looked grey and withered and had been dried hard. The long straight fingers looked like dead twigs. Esau wondered aloud whether it would actually work. The older man promised that it would, that they could rob the farmer’s house and no one would wake, because of the Hand of Glory.
Esau kept thinking of what he would do with the money as they approached the farmhouse. There was no signs of life but they had to be sure that everyone was definitely asleep. The older man struck a flint and lit the dry moss in a tinderbox. It crackled and glowed and he lowered the hand towards the flame. For a moment nothing happened, Esau hoped that there was someone still awake in the house and they’d just have to go home and go to bed … but then the middle finger caught alight. Esau scrambled through a small back window they forced open. The older man passed him the hand. Esau grasped it tightly holding the flame upwards.
In the dark of the house the ghastly candle provided little light, it flickered and hissed. Esau didn’t see the edge of the table or the jug of gale beer, it fell onto the flagstones with a loud crash. Esau froze – but nothing happened. No one came. From outside the other two urged him on so he went on into the larder, and found the money box. He made a lot more noise opening it up with his iron crow, but it didn’t matter, still no one came. The Hand of Glory had spellbound the household just like it was supposed to.
Outside and away from the farmstead they struggled to extinguish the flame until the older man remembered blood would work, and they found a recently disembowelled rabbit. Esau felt much better than he had for weeks as he went home in the early morning. He had the hand with him because the other two had to carry the money box away but they’d be sure to meet up soon to share out the spoils. He wasn’t afraid of the hand anymore, he thought of it as a tool not a piece of a person, and he put it under his bed for safe keeping in case he needed it again. He got into his bed beside his sleeping wife.
Sometime later he woke up. He felt a cold dry hand around his wrist. He noticed a growing smell of decay. He heard a metallic creaking. He didn’t want to but he couldn’t help opening his eyes. He looked straight into a face whose eyes were sunken, whose jaw had dropped, whose skin was rotten. ‘Give me back my hand’ it said.
As the mourners walked back to the village after Esau’s burial, none of them looked at the gibbet by the bridge and no one noticed the hanging blackened corpse had two hands again.
The idea of a Hand of Glory is found across Europe complete with different rules and traditions for what it could do and how to make it work. In Britain and Ireland stories from antiquarians are mixed up with reports of actual use. There is a hand kept in Whitby Museum, supposedly a Hand of Glory, it was apparently found in the wall of a cottage in Castleton.