Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Roseberry Topping (NZ579126)

When it comes to ranking the North-East’s many landmarks, Cleveland’s Roseberry Topping would surely make everybody’s Top Ten.  Even before the dramatic geological slip of a century ago which gave it its lopsided look, the hill was a prominent and popular feature of the landscape.  Forming an isolated limb of the area of the North York Moors known as the Cleveland Hills, Roseberry Topping has been admired – and sometimes revered – for centuries.

Whilst a mere molehill alongside its Swiss look-alike, the Matterhorn, the pride of Cleveland looks a good deal loftier than its 1,049 feet (320m).  It is not even the highest fell of the Moors, though it may as well be, such is its fame.  Quite apart from its shape, its composition is not difficult to discern, at least for the trained eye.  Formed from sandstone laid down in the Jurassic period (165-208 million years ago) it is actually one of the youngest hills of its kind in the country.  Whilst all around has been ground down by the glacial flows of successive ice ages and blown away by the weather, the harder sandstone (gritstone) cap has held firm to leave us with the prominence we see today.  Beneath the bare, graffiti-carved peak, there lie layers of alum rock (at its base), ironstone, then strata of fossil-ridden clays and shales before its hardy peak.  Until a little before the outbreak of the First World War, though, the shape of the hill looked a good deal more formal.  But a combination, probably, of the mining activity of man and a geological fault brought half the fellside tumbling down one noisy summer night.  A decade later another mini-slide occurred, and the terrain is still thought to be a little ‘tender’ today.

If, now, Roseberry Topping sticks out, quite literally, like a sore thumb, then its former, more conical form, drew at least as much attention from all who cast their eyes upon her previously.  Most especially, perhaps, in ancient times.  A Bronze Age hoard was found hidden on its slopes in the nineteenth century (now in Sheffield City Museum), and it was certainly occupied in the Iron Age – as is evidenced by the faint remains of huts and enclosures from the period, dated, via pottery shards and pollen, to around 110BC. 

The name itself has a complex derivation.  It comes at least partly from the Viking period, whose people seem to have taken a particular liking to the fell.  To find the very root of ‘Roseberry’ we have to begin with the Old Norse Óðin’s boerg (Odin’s rock or crag – Odin being the chief god of Norse paganism).  The name then passed through a myriad of corruptions before finally settling for some time on ‘Ouseberry’.  The initial ‘R’ was picked up, it is said, from the ‘r’ of the word ‘under’ in the old village name of Newton-under-Ouseberry’ (now Newton-under-Roseberry).  Even the word ‘Topping’ comes from the Old Norse word toppen, meaning ‘hill’.  It was common for the Vikings to make offerings to the greatest of their gods at prominent high hills, which thereafter often picked up the godly moniker.  Other theories regarding the name exist, one suggesting that it may in part derive from the ancient word ross (meaning heath or common), combined with bury (or burh, meaning a fortified place) – but these arguments are rather thin.

It is likely that even as early as the Viking Age Roseberry Topping was used for navigational purposes by seafarers.  And among both sailors and farmers alike the following rhyme became popular for predicting a storm:

When Roseberry Topping wears a cap,
Let Cleveland then beware of a clap!

Among the many hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of folk who have traversed its slopes and conquered its modest summit, the most renowned must surely be the explorer Captain James Cook.  Born a few miles to the north in a cottage at Marton (now a suburb of Middlesbrough) in 1728, he moved to a farm near Great Ayton in 1736.  Aireyholme Farm, in the shadow of Roseberry Topping, remained his home for nine years, where he attended the village school at Ayton before moving on to help his father run the farm from 1741.  He would spend his spare time wandering the fells around his home, with the summit of Roseberry Topping itself little more than half an hour’s brisk scramble.  It is generally believed that it was these rambles which engendered in the young lad the spirit of adventure which would one day take him to the other side of the world.  When he was 16 he moved to Staithes on the Yorkshire coast, and thereafter onto Whitby, where his great career of exploration would begin to flourish.

In the late Victorian era the Roseberry Ironstone Company opened mines on the southern side of the hill and worked the seams there for a few short years.  The Tees Furnace Company revisited the site a little later, whose activity was superseded by that of Burton & Sons during 1906-1926 – employing around 200 men at one point.

For many years, too, the hill formed part of a private gaming estate – the fine old shooting box / shelter can still be visited on its south-western approaches.  Now, however, Roseberry Topping forms part of the North York Moors National Park, is looked after by the National Trust and is visited daily in sizeable numbers by the general public.  Additionally, a spur of the popular long-distance walk, the Cleveland Way, runs to the summit.  To add to its list of ‘titles’ the hill has also been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is listed as being of national importance in the Geological Conservation Review.  Of major interest in this regard are the aforementioned fossils, and lots of them – over seventy species in all (both plant and animal), suggesting a saltmarsh-like habitat during the Jurassic period.

With the passage of time several of the hill’s features have disappeared.  A hermitage was once to be found near the summit, and what was described as a “small smith’s forge” hewn out of the rock seems no longer to be evident.  St.Winifred’s (or Wilfred’s) Needle, a small cleft in the rocks – again near the summit – has also disappeared amidst the mining activity of the recent past.

Springs and wells have featured prominently in the myths and legends surrounding Roseberry Topping.  The ‘Cold Well’ marked on the present-day OS map a few hundred metres to the south of the summit is probably the very same watery feature once known as St.Oswald’s Well, whose waters were once thought to be able to predict the fate of a seriously sick person by the casting in of an article of their clothing.  If it sank they were doomed, if it floated they would live.  In earlier accounts of the well it was thought to have curative effects on diseases of the eye.  William Camden, in his celebrated Britannia, however, places this magical damp spot near the summit itself, where a spring once flowed from a huge rock – and there is a myth to go with this, spring, too, it being the spot where a former prince of Northumbria was supposed to have drowned.

The hill can be approached from several directions by foot, the most common trails being from Newton-under-Roseberry to the west-by-north-west, the car park beyond Gribdale Terrace to the south-east, or Great Ayton to the south-west.  All walks are admirable at all times of the year and relatively straightforward.  The 360° views are excellent reward for minimum effort, and there are plenty of diversions to be enjoyed – the most notable of all, perhaps, being Captain Cook’s Monument on Easby Moor to the south-by-south-east.  There is, too, a great diversity of countryside and townscapes all about.  Great Ayton, Guisborough and the great sprawl of industrial Teesside dominate to the north and west (with a hint of North Sea, too), whilst miles of unbroken moorland lie to the south and east.  Woods and plantations dot the landscape, and quarry and mine workings – for ironstone, whinstone, alum and jet – have left their not too intrusive marks on the lower flanks of the fell.

The multitude of smaller diversions all help to add to the area’s undoubted charm.  The moorland all about provide much of interest to the budding naturalist, and whilst strolling Great Ayton Moor to the east one may be tempted to take in those ancient enclosures, cairns and field systems shown on the large scale OS map.  And the memory of Captain Cook, of course, casts a large shadow over the vicinity of Roseberry Topping.  Aireyholme Farm nestles snugly to the south of the summit, his monument sits across the gentle folds a little further in the distance, and the pretty village of Great Ayton thrives on its connections with the man’s childhood.  Here the visitor will find the ‘Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum’, a statue of a young James Cook, a memorial built on the site of Cook’s father’s house, and All Saints Parish Church where many of the Cook family are buried.

For a bit of everything at such close proximity to civilisation, Roseberry Topping is truly one of the region’s finest tourist attractions.

[This article first appeared in Aspects of North-East History, Volume 2, available at www.lulu.com/spotlight/historymick ]


  1. Such extensive and fascinating research. I wholly enjoyed reading this and it has set me off in search of further information still. Wonderful

  2. I've been walking up Roseberry several times a week having recently gone self-employed - I don't think I'll ever get bored of the place.
    It's fascinating to learn about the history, thank you for taking the time to put-together this article.

  3. Can you tell me what are the remnants of railing/posts from at the summit please? We have always wondered. Kind regards. James

    1. Not sure, James. Can anyone help us out on this point?