A treasure on our doorstep

Heather in bloom on the North Yorkshire Moors
Heather in bloom on the North Yorkshire Moors

Today the North York Moors are a great tourist attraction, especially in August when the heather’s in full bloom. Yet our affection for a wild place like this is relatively recent.

Up until the mid-1800s, no stranger went onto moorland for pleasure. It was all mist and bogs and the roads were terrible. Anyway, who’d want to visit a wasteland haunted by boggarts, willie-wisps and that demon dog, the barguest?

The moors were certainly a hard place. But generations of people managed to live there by making the most of what they had. And what they had mostly was heather.

The majority of the heather on the moor is ling, a dry, wiry plant with tiny leaves and tiny flowers. It thrives in the thin, acid soil and given enough time — around 15 years — it can reach three or four feet high.

This unpromising plant is really very versatile. The moor folk cut ling in flower and used it to roof their dwellings, placing it roots uppermost. It was tough to work with and made the inside rather dark, but ling was durable, lightweight, and free.

Animals rested on ling bedding and people did too. With a hide or blanket thrown on top, a pile became a mattress. Ling stalks kindled the peat fire. Heather stems were twisted into rope, woven into mats and baskets, and bound into besoms to sweep the floor.

Pegs and nails were whittled from heather roots hardened by fire. Whole plants were laid under gravel to form a drainage layer. Heather flowers yielded dye and with some help from the bees, delicious heather honey. Something to light the way? A tough old plant with a long stem made a good torch.

Today the moors are maintained as a patchwork of tall, old plants and short, young heather. This is mainly to suit a game bird, the red grouse, though other plants and animals also benefit. A familiar sight beside moorland roads is the blackface sheep, the only other animal adapted to eat heather.

The North York Moors visitor centres at Sutton Bank and Danby in the Esk Valley are open from 9.30am to 5.30pm this month; both have exhibition areas and tearooms. The heather is at its best now, so this is the perfect time for a visit.

Weather watching

The end of the month draws nearer and with it comes another bank holiday. Dare we hope for a fine weekend? Watch the weather on August 24, St Bartholomew’s Day. When St Swithin’s prophesy has been fulfilled, St Bart promises to dry things up.

A fine Bartlemy’s Day is said to foretell a “prosperous autumn.” Also, “St Bartholomew brings the cold dew.” And as the patron saint of beekeepers, his feast day marks the start of the main honey harvest.

An old Bartholomew-linked custom takes place at West Witton, near Leyburn, on
the Saturday following the saint’s day. Various events, including a fell race, are followed by the tradition of Burning Bartle, a scary, larger-than-life effigy with flashing eyes. According to local legend, Bartle was a pig thief who was chased through West Witton and killed by outraged villagers. But nobody really knows how this custom began.