Fox Haunting

North Yorkshire’s West Witton, home to the quasi-sacrificial ‘Burning Bartle’ ceremony every August 24, is certainly an atmospheric village, as Jan Reese recalls

In the late 1960s, when I was in my teens, I spent most of my holidays at a hotel in Wensleydale. My aunt, Renee Stansfield, was landlady of the Fox and Hounds in West Witton, North Yorkshire, for several years, and I would often spend the busy bank holidays helping out there. In our spare time, we would walk up Grassgill, the lane where the famous ‘Burning Bartle’ ceremony takes place, and along the so-called Roman road which runs parallel with the ridge of Penhill and the road in the valley, the A684 Leyburn – Hawes road.

Recently I found a copy of Ian Taylor’s The Giant of Penhill (Northern Lights, 1987). Taylor believes the slopes of Penhill (to the S of the village) reveal an ancient hill figure, forgotten in all but local folklore. As the subject is one many NE readers must be aware of, I would be very interested to know what information anyone else may have, and at the same time to pass on my own twopennyworth.

The Fox and Hounds adjoins another building, separately owned, and according to Mr. Taylor the two together were formerly known as Catteral Hall. He also mentions that it was reputedly a monastery, and speculates about a connection with the Knights Templar. When I used to stay there, there was an old newspaper article framed in the public bar, which also said that the Fox had originally been a monastery; I believe it suggested the entire building dated from the late 14th century, which would rule out the Templars, but most of the monasteries in the Dales are, I believe, Cistercian. It would be interesting to know if the article is still there – perhaps someone might give up an hour or two to check (purely in the interest of historical research, of course).

The locals used to say that there had once been a secret tunnel from the cellar of the Fox to the chantry just outside the village. I suspect most readers have floundered, like me, from one ‘new paradigm’ to another where tunnels, ley lines, ghost roads, etc., are concerned; but I have returned to a sneaking suspicion that maybe some of those tunnels really were tunnels – or, at least, I’d like to be offered a better alternative explanation than some of those current [1].

The cellars of the Fox are cut out of solid rock. The groundplan is trapezoidal, with the steps at the wide end. The smallest, opposite end is square, and in its centre is a small square section set a little further back, almost like a closed-off window. I was told this used to be the entrance to the tunnel. Maybe it was nothing of the sort; perhaps someone local would like to follow that one up? Years later, when I became aware that the chambers of a number of long barrows are trapezoidal, the similarity haunted me.

There’s a story that the monks who founded Fountains Abbey followed a vision of the Virgin Mary. I first saw Fountains as a child of about nine. I was struck by the beauty of the place; but that night, having returned about 130mls home, I had such a vivid dream I never forgot it. I was standing in the abbey grounds when I saw an intensely bright white light which gradually moved towards me – that was all, but fear woke me, and the atmosphere of that dream is still with me now when I recall it consciously.

On the top of Penhill, there’s a beacon from the Napoleonic wars, the next in line from Roseberry Topping on the North York Moors. Walking up there one day around 1968 or ’69 with my brother, we found a small tumulus not far from the beacon. It was on the S side of the ridge – we sat there a while to sunbathe, although it was March and there was snow on the other side of the ridge! When we looked closely at the tumulus, we found it had a cylindrical stone embedded in its top, a section of which was cut away to half-way through. It appeared to be inscribed with some kind of writing, which we didn’t think at the time was recent or recognisable.

The regulars at the Fox used to pull our legs about the pub’s being haunted, but the truth is it was one of the eeriest buildings I’ve ever slept in. Guests new to the place sometimes mentioned feeling the same when they stayed overnight. My aunt heard footsteps on the landing and stairs at night when she was alone in the building; and, having driven lorry-loads of dynamite around the country during the last war, she was not normally of a nervous disposition. The locals used to say, “Watch out for the monk!” at chucking-out time, and it was a cause of great mirth all round when a pleasant young habited monk called in for a couple of pints – judging by the way the beer went down, he was quite substantial.

If I remember right, there’s a small lane in the village leading directly across from the front of the Fox to the churchyard. One of my less delightful memories is of walking the dog through the churchyard at dusk and nearly dying of fright when a sheep started up from behind a gravestone next to me. The old dog never liked sleeping in the Fox, either; he couldn’t wait to get back in the car each time we left there.

I recollect reading in one of Paul Devereux’s books about earthlights being seen along the A684 just outside the village. An old man who used to live in West Witton told me of something odd that happened to him along that stretch of road. He was on his way home to the next village, Swinithwaite, where he lived at that time, when he stopped dead at the sight of his dog, wagging her tail at him in the middle of the road. He’d just said, “Hello, old girl, what are you doing here?” when she disappeared. On arriving home, the dog was there, and his wife swore she’d never been away. He insisted he was stone cold sober; and certainly normally was.

Maybe there’s something in the ley of the land (sorry) or perhaps it’s just the local brewery that’s responsible. And maybe owd Bartle should have pleaded diminished responsibility owing to the influence of the local ale.

Notes

[1] A schoolfriend of mine in the 1960s lived in a big, rambling Lincolnshire farmhouse, which had originally had cellars that had been filled in with concrete by the previous owner. Local legend had it that a tunnel had led from them to the church a couple of hundred yards away. When my friend’s father bulldozed the field at the back of the house to make tennis courts, a distinct dip was seen to run all the way to the churchyard. Nothing was proved, but I’d like to keep an open mind.

Published in NE96 (Winter 2003), pp.10-11

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