Written by Maureen Robinson
There’s a strong craft heritage woven into the very fabric of the North York Moors. We marvel at medieval stonemasons, Elizabethan glass-makers and Victorian jet jewellers. However, no local artisan is more famous than Robert Thompson, a key figure in the 1920s revival of traditional craftsmanship. He is often referred to as the ‘Mouseman’, because he carved his trademark mouse on every piece of oak furniture – church pews; pub tables; chair legs; door frames; gates; fireplaces and sideboards. You’ll discover his charming symbol in buildings right across the moors and beyond. The tradition continues at the Kilburn workshop and visitor centre.
A great day out includes a glorious drive to Kilburn – a charming village where Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson once lived. Explore the village itself; visit the Mouseman Visitor Centre; seek the ‘mice’ in the local church, and discover its history; enjoy refreshment at the inn, and view Kilburn’s famous white horse you’ll long remember!
Our route, from the A170 towards Sutton Bank, passed the Yorkshire Gliding Club, before following a steeply-winding descent into the valley. Kilburn nestles 600ft below Roulston Scar, which bears the white horse. It’s a picturesque village with a stream trickling by wayside gardens crossed by little bridges. There’s a hall begun in Tudor days; a green with a mounting stone; The Forresters Arms Inn; and St Mary’s Church. A charming old timbered house is the Mouseman’s Cottage. This 16th century cottage was Robert Thompson’s home and design studio. It now houses the main furniture showroom, design department office and sales reception area.
The highlight is the Mouseman Visitor Centre. Robert Thompson was born in Kilburn in 1876, the son of John – the local joiner and wheelwright. He taught himself to use tools of medieval craftsmen, and by 1919 determined to bring back the spirit of craftsmanship in English oak. The now famous mouse symbol, hand-carved on every item, has an uncertain history. Maybe being “as poor as church mice” was the start, but it has continued as a mark of quality and dedication to craftsmanship ever since.
Robert Thompson founded the company in its present form. It is now continued into the third generation. Extensive refurbishment has taken place. This cottage now houses three 1930s room sets furnished entirely with Robert Thompson’s own personal furniture – many personally made.
The Kilburn Room (original blacksmith’s shop) houses the story of Kilburn village and the white horse, with John Hodgson’s original drawings. The Shoeing Room (originally where the blacksmith fitted “shoes” to horses being shod) is now the audio visual/lecture room. A must!
Downstairs, the old joiner’s shop contains several examples of Robert’s early, pre-mouse work. Upstairs reveals the early 1900s when young Robert took over from his father as village joiner. Examine the display of tools Robert used in the workshop.
The adze was one tool he used to produce the ripple effect on tabletops.
Browse the gift shop with a wide range of small articles, and an extensive selection of cards and gifts.
The T Cafe with terraced, alfresco dining area, serves homemade lunches and afternoon teas. Stroll through the gardens on the hillside behind the visitor centre. Take a seat and enjoy superb views of Kilburn village; the white horse; St Mary’s Church and countryside.
Leaving the centre, observe the piles of oak wood left to mature outdoors in the natural elements for at least three years.
Then, maybe call at the Forresters Arms to quench your thirst. You can’t miss the mounting stone on the green, and a seat commemorating the coronation of King George VI and Elizabeth.
Enter the churchyard of St Mary’s Church. The Norman doorway entered, has three orders of rich zigzag and original capitals, but the shafts are new. Can you find more plain Norman arches?
Robert Thompson’s ‘mouse’ is in Kilburn church too. Look on the traceried pulpit; on the desk in the sanctuary, and again on the lectern (along with a crocodile)! Discover very rare gravestones. One shows a pastoral staff and is maybe of an abbott of Byland. Another, carved with a cross, a round target, and a hammer may also be 13th century.
From the 14th century came the aisle pews, and a bell, now silent, on the floor near the organ.
A must-do whilst in the area is to walk along the path at the top of the white horse to witness “the best view in Yorkshire”.
This famous landmark celebrated 150 years in 2007. It was the idea of Thomas Taylor, a native of Kilburn. He wanted a horse cut out on Roulston Scar to rival those in southern England. He enlisted the help of John Hodgson, a local schoolmaster. However, unlike the South Downs there’s no chalk on the proposed hillside above Kilburn.
The horse had to be cut on a steep slope with a grey limey sandstone base. In 1857, thirty men helped carve out the figure. Sadly the elements eroded and damaged the surface. Constant effort helped maintain the icon. The ‘horse’ is 314ft long and 228ft high. The horse’s eye is said to accommodate 20 people. It wears a ‘coat’ of lime weighing six tons. The white horse lives on today due to the hard work of the Kilburn White Horse Association. This voluntary group is responsible for the costly preservation of the horse.
Please send any donation to: The Hon Treasurer, Kilburn White Horse Association, Croft Court, Kilburn, York YO61 4AH.
NB Dogs welcome at the Mouseman Centre. Contact (01437) 869102 for further information.