Wading through a murky past

Anthony Gray at Sutton Bank, pointing to Lake Gormire

My discussions over recent weeks about myths and ghost stories connected with our part of the world have prompted a number of people to come forward with really interesting recollections. Spooky stories and mysteries certainly get the imagination going, don’t they!

I was contacted by Anthony Gray from London. He is the son of our childhood family doctor, and often visits his home county, buying the local paper when he’s here. It gave me a lovely confidence boost when he said that the columns were a ‘highlight’ for him! Thank you Anthony!

He remarked on a number of the topics covered in the columns, but in particular was tickled by my use of the word ‘bottomless’ to describe Lake Gormire near Sutton Bank. According to my dad, this tarn-like body of water is remarkable because it has no rivers or streams running in or out of it. It is a natural lake, rich in wildlife, and is thought to have been formed in glacial times. However, the mystery of its origins has given rise to some interesting tales, including one that says it conceals a whole village complete with church spire. Another, as I mentioned, declares it is bottomless.

Well, if you enjoy legends and want to preserve the eerie reputation that shrouds the lake, then you’d better stop reading here. However, if you want to find out if either of these stories bear any truth, then read on, because Anthony Gray knows the answer, and he has shared it with me.

Anthony was educated at Ampleforth College, and joined the school’s Sub Aqua Club, learning the skills to pass his British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) qualification. Most of their training was in an indoor pool, but to get the full qualification, they had to undertake several open water dives in freshwater lakes or in the sea.

Their tutor organised their first open water dive in Lake Gormire on a rather shivery February day in 1972 mainly, according to Anthony, ‘to see if the wetsuits worked’, but also to see if Gormire is indeed bottomless.

The tutor drove them up a farm track to get as close to the lake as possible, and they then had to change into their wetsuits in the freezing cold, don tanks, fins, gloves and masks, and then waddle over to the water’s edge. It was so cold that they had to break the ice before wading in (my teeth are chattering at the thought!).

According to Anthony, “The bottom was very, very muddy and soft, so we walked about 15 yards out but were still only waist deep!” Eventually the tutor gave the signal to dive down, which Anthony did. He goes on, “But the visibility was appalling because we had stirred it up walking out and the water was shallow. I don’t think we got more than ten feet down before sinking into the ‘organic matter’ not far below the surface!

“So I can state that Lake Gormire is not bottomless! Cold in February, but not bottomless! There may be a clue in part of the name being ‘mire’ –  it certainly smelt as though it was full of ‘mire’ because our wetsuits took a lot of cleaning to get rid of the smell!”

So this tale disproves that the lake is bottomless, and proves that there is no hidden village or church spire, and as such, dispels some of Gormire’s trademark mystery. But despite that, our region is still rich in folklore and myths, many of which originate from centuries ago, and yet persist to the present day. My dad gives one reason as to why ghostly tales came about in his column from 8th March 1980.

‘At night, in a dark, lonely house, all manner of unexplained sounds and movements could be interpreted into something fearful and horrible. There is little wonder youngsters grew up terrified of unknown creatures.’

In his message to me, Anthony Gray also asked about the spot known as Tom Smith’s Cross. Those familiar with the A170 between Helmsley and Sutton Bank probably know that at the turning for Wass and Ampleforth, it is called Tom Smith’s Cross. According to Dad, Tom Smith was a highwayman who was ‘gibbeted’ at that location. But who was Tom Smith? And why was he so renowned as to have a junction named after him?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 6th and the Gazette & Herald on 4th March 2020

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