Ever since our childhood walks with my late father, Gaythorne Plain on Crosby Ravensworth Fell has had a powerful fascination for me. It is part of the wild upland limestone moor landscape that will be newly designated as National Park land within the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 2016. I was told as a child that Gaythorne plain is haunted by a headless horseman, and I always felt that the ghost likely hailed from one of the two bronze age burial mounds that stand by the road to Great Asby. Though I never saw the phantom I cannot imagine a more suitable haunt for him than this wild moorland, especially when seen wreathed in Autumn mists or overhung with roiling storm cloud.
I have fond memories of walking across the moor and coming upon various points of interest, here the tail fins of a mortar bomb dating from military exercises, there an old twisted tree with a carrion crow’s nest built of bleached sticks and sheep bones. We had a brief face-to-face encounter with a weasel hunting in the limestone pavement once. That was amazing. While that tree may no longer be standing, there are more interesting sites on the plain that are very much older and more durable. They date from the dawn of human time in these limestone uplands and predate any written history of the area.
There is much to enjoy in the way of fine open views of the moor, grazed by sheep and Highland Cattle and frequented by Larks in the Summer. The cattle aren’t just eye-candy, they are there to graze down the longer, golden grass as part of an upland management stewardship plan, see Westmorland Gazette article. You can enjoy the grass fed beef from Bankhead Beef. How about bird watching? You might see and hear moorland birds such as Curlews, Red Grouse, Snipe, Ravens and Plovers and there are a number of very interesting archaeological sites that I will describe here. These sites are truly remarkable and are worth visiting at any time of year. Dress appropriately for your own safety and watch where you put your feet as the ground is wild and uneven, and keep dogs under control at all times as this is a wildlife and livestock area. At lambing time in March and April dogs must be on leads. Avoid cattle with calves if you have a dog. If you encounter the cattle and they take exception to your dog, let go of the leash. The cattle will likely chase the dog, not you, and you might then retreat safely while your dog out-runs the cattle.
The Gaythorne Cupstone lies in low sward to the northeast of the second of the Gaythorne Cottages, not the Tilery. Please observe the country code and all courtesies here because people live here. There are many cup and ring marked stones throughout the old Britannic Kingdom of Brigantia and they are all special in their ways. This cup-marked stone is remarkable for being an example of carved granite. There is also a cupmarked stone nearby in Iron Hill South Cairn Circle near Oddendale, but that is of softer limestone and the Gaythorne Cupstone is very much harder and has more cups. Nobody knows the purpose of the stone to my knowledge. One theory is that each cup represents a child born to a family and the carving was undertaken perhaps as a ritual before birth to free the soul from the rock. Another theory is that the cup mark signals the proximity of clean potable water. There is a stream head down hill from the Cupstone. but it is hard to know why they would have felt the need to carve six cups on the stone. The last cup in the series is the shallowest and strikes me as possibly less complete. I don’t know for sure of course, but I have a gut-feeling that this stone has not been moved since its carving. It may have lain here for 5000 years or so and is another of Cumbria’s treasures that have been ‘hiding in plain sight’ known and forgotten by successive generations! The mighty Copt Stone in Great Langdale with its cups and rings, in the Lake District National Park was only ‘re-discovered’ in the 1990’s.
As you return toward the Asby road there are some other free-standing stones, one of which is marked with a faint narrow ring. Gordon Bowness told me that this point was likely marked as the boundary of Parishes, Gaythorne (Manor of Levens), Great Asby, Orton and Crosby Ravensworth. That in itself makes this a special site, but the next place I’ll describe is very unusual indeed. Unique to my knowledge.
Gaythorne Cairn Circle can be found by turning right at the cattle grid on the road to Great Asby and walking roughly southwards along the path with the dry stone wall on your left. After a short while you’ll see Hollins Tump burial mound over this wall, keep on going until you see another stone wall run adjacent into this one at 90 degrees. At this juncture turn sharply right and strike out over the moor until you come upon the low-lying, paved stone circle of Carboniferous Sandstone that is Gaythorne Cairn Circle.
A bird’s eye view of the site would somewhat resemble a helicopter landing pad. The queer thing about this site is that it has the following features:
It’s paved, it’s got four stone ‘legs’ or fins and a roughly 50 ft long, straight, single avenue of rocks that may well have been aligned with Fiend’s Fell to the North and Gamelands to the south. It isn’t easy to see the alignment at the site because rising ground masks the distant view. The rock itself that has been used to make the structure is not limestone, but a reddish brown sandstone, much weathered. I haven’t seen such legs or fins, or an avenue as features in any other stone circle. Some friends of mine, including an antiquary with a special interest in ancient stone circles, mounds and other monuments also believe the site to be unique in the area. One suggested that it might possibly have been a house and the legs and avenue might have been sheltering walls for livestock.
Follow the avenue of stones and you’ll see the ground rise before you. Prepare your camera for possible encounters with Snipe or Grouse as you ascend. At the top of the ridge you’ll see some depressions possibly filled with water and see heather. Look about for little piles of Grouse faeces, proof that this is the hard-fought ground of a lek. You’ll have excellent views of the Pennines and Eden Valley in front of you and looking behind will see the moor join with limestone pavements created in shallow tropical seas 334 million years ago.
There are various good options for refreshment in the local area. There is The Butchers Arms community pub in Crosby Ravensworth which prides itself on locally sourced food, The Greyhound pub in Great Asby, The Orton café or The George Pub in Orton, and you have options to get picnic supplies from the charming Orton Village Post Office and shop, or Tebay’s Westmorland Services or Appleby’s excellent bakery. So no matter which way you are coming or going, you won’t lack for vittles if you need them.
There are also nice places to stay nearby with Farm-stay Bed and Breakfasts where you can get to see how the countryside works and holiday cottages too of various sizes and price brackets.
This article was created from memory, free of charge and not for personal gain, in celebration of this area’s inclusion within the Yorkshire Dales National Park in 2016. It is factual to the best of my belief and may be updated over time. Many thanks to my photographic subjects and all who have facilitated it.