Fortyyearsinamoorlandparish: Reflections On Searching For Folklore In North Yorkshire

"The hierarchy within history has notably led to gatekeeping, and WHOSE stories get to be told"
June 8, 2023

“Forty years in a Moorland Parish.” Forty years is a long time to have spent anywhere, and I have been nearly forty-five years in this parish; and during the whole of that time it is not simply that I have been learning something more yearly about the place or its people, or its characteristics, but that, for long spaces together sometimes, I have been almost (like Cato) quotidie addiscens

- J.C. Atkinson. 1891, Forty Years in a Moorland Parish: Reminiscences and Researches in Danby East Cleveland.

Still from 1950 amateur travelogue across the North York Moors. Courtesy of The British Film Archive

At some point in 2021, amid a lockdown malaise, a phenomenon erupted on social media. The sudden trend for British folklore, and the more eerie elements of the British Countryside.

It had been stirring. My first confrontation came in Spring 2020 when the world was at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Human contact was limited, and during vast amounts of time doom-scrolling the term, “Cottagecore” began to crop up in discourse online. Outside the natural world was going about its usual business, but as people stayed inside, a pining for a pastoral life through ‘an aesthetic that celebrates simple living, particularly in the countryside' began. This escapism was nothing new. During the industrial revolution, The Victorians sought to remind the burgeoning Middle Classes of the solace of the countryside in contrast to polluted cities. This “rural ideal” was seen as a simpler way of life rooted in nostalgia for the past.

Postcardof The White Horse, Kilburn, North Yorkshire. Produced by Stevens & Co.Photographers, Thirsk. Date unknown.

This turbulent period of Covid led to me being re-rooted from London and back home to the East Cleveland Hills. During this limbo of on and off lockdowns, (via vast amounts of time on Instagram) I became aware of several accounts publishing photographs and archival images of the weird and wonderful wanderings of the British Countryside. Being from rural North Yorkshire I was hooked! Studying for a postgraduate degree in Curating Collections and Heritage, and critical of historical narratives, it all seemed incredibly fascinating. However, something bugged me. Partly, it all felt like a bit of a boys club and then, it struck me how southern-centric what I was viewing was. Wanting to see landscapes of the familiar North Yorks Moors, and spurred on by debates in the heritage sector, I sought to democratise the customs and traditions of North Yorkshire.

The hierarchy within history has notably led to gatekeeping, and WHOSE stories get to be told. Yet, rather than just place scenery from a secondary school DoE Expedition through an Instagram filter, I began traversing archival sources. Reading local history books at Skelton Library, and incorporating amateur moving image recordings, photography, and painting into a visual archive, and Fortyyearsinamoorlandparish was born. The title of the project is the title of the 1891 book by Reverend John Christopher Atkinson. Thinking of himself as an antiquarian/historian, Forty Years in a Moorland Parish: Reminiscences and Researches in Danby East Cleveland, was Atkinson’s record of the folklore, traditions, and geography of the civil parish of Danby where he was the clergyman for forty-five years.

Image of hagstones held in the collection at Ryedale Folk Museum, Hutton-le-Hole, North Yorkshire. Taken from Witches in Old North Yorkshire by Mary Williams, 1987, Hutton Press Limited.

Although an eclectic body of customs recollections was shared with J.C. Atkinson, he was merely recording by hand the intangible. It is the individuals who shared this folklore with him for whom we should be thankful. Lore such as, finding a rowan tree that had never been seen before and cutting its twigs with a household knife for protective powers. Much like Atkinson, whilst undertaking this project I too am quotidie addiscens, (learning everyday). One of my favourite stories so far came from a trip to Whitby Museum. Legend says that St. Hilda, the first Abbess of the monastery of Whitby, chased a plague of snakes out of the town. They fell into the North Sea and turned to stone, hence the high presence of ammonites on the North Yorkshire Coast!

I hope Fortyyearsinamoorlandparish posts leave others inspired and curious to find out more about North Yorkshire’s (or their own region’s) folklore and customs. Furthermore, I want to reassure budding researchers that although I feel a little out of my depth at times delving into the field of folk, it’s people like the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s president Eliza Carty who should inspire us. Eliza grew up in Robin hood’s Bay and at the age of 13 joined the all-male Longsword team, the Goathland Plough Stots. Head of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, her punk attitude demonstrates that these are stories, traditions, and landscapes for everyone to be a part of. Folk Customs are living histories, ever evolving and ready to be rewritten.