Wading through folklore

The Hole of Horcum, which legend says was created by the giant Wade who scooped out a handful of earth

My column about the Giant of Sessay a couple of weeks ago led to an interesting response from reader Janet Ratcliffe, who recognised the photograph accompanying the article.

She contacted me via my Countryman’s Daughter webpage (countrymansdaughter.com) and wrote that the picture ‘appeared to be taken from our garden across the medieval rigg and furrow, with sheep peacefully grazing and a typical moody sky.’

Janet explained that she has lived in Sessay for 21 years and for the past 15 has been researching various aspects of the village’s history. She has encountered several tales about the Sessay giant and believes the one I told was first written down in Vallis Eboracensis, a comprehensive history of the villages surrounding Easingwold, published by Thomas Gill in 1852. According to Gill, as was common in many rural areas, the legend had been passed down verbally through the generations.

Gill’s version connects the Dawnays of Cowick and the Darrells of Sessay, having Sir Guy Dawnay slaying the giant. However he does not mention Guy’s desire to marry Joan Darrell, as suggested in my version. Janet encountered more accounts which have the giant grinding up children’s bones to make his bread, capturing farm stock and eating young maidens. In one, Guy uses his cunning to lure the giant towards the mill so that the turning sails knock him dead, rather than the hero running him through with his sword

Gill’s story is later repeated by prolific walker and writer Edmund Bogg in his 1909 ‘Vale of Mowbray’ contribution to the Victoria County History, a national project started in 1899 to record the history of every county in England. It was named after Queen Victoria who was on the throne at the time of its inception and it is ongoing to this day.

Bogg claims to have spoken to an eyewitness who knew the whereabouts of the grave of the Sessay giant. He described it as being it shaped like a long mound in front of the miller’s house in neighbouring Dalton ‘which from time out of memory had borne the name of the Giant’s Grave. Some forty years ago the mound was opened, and my informant, (then a boy)…said the skeleton…was of abnormal size…and a weapon somewhat like the blade of a scythe.’

Janet told me that Bogg goes on to describe another variation where the giant captured a young lad named Jack in nearby Pilmoor Woods and forced him to do menial work at the mill. But Jack managed to escape and slay the beast, a story reminiscent of the Jack and the Beanstalk tale.

In his column from 25th July 1981, Dad mentions his favourite giant, Wade, one that is perhaps better known across North Yorkshire. Also known as Duke Wada, it is possible that the figure who inspired the legends was a real man. John Leland, the 16th century antiquarian known as ‘the father of history’, wrote about ‘Mongrave Castle’ (a nearby predecessor of Mulgrave Castle) and said: ‘The northe hille on the topp of it hath certain stones, commonly called Wadda’s Grave, whom the people there say to have been a giant and owner of Mongrave.’

There is some evidence that Wade was either a Saxon or Anglian nobleman of considerable stature living in late eighth and early ninth centuries. He is said to have helped plot the murder of the brutal King Ethelred of Northumbria in AD796. He became a folk hero, a powerful yet kind leader who enjoyed the respect of those who followed him.

It is not surprising then that the great man’s reputation was reflected in tales of his imposing physicality. Over time, Wade evolved into a giant who lived with his wife Bell at Mulgrave. Bell kept a cow over the other side of the moors, and to ease her passage across the difficult terrain, her husband built a road which became known as ‘Wade’s Causeway’, which still exists along the route of the Roman road near Goathland, and it is open to the public.

The other popular story is that during a domestic row, Wade scooped up a handful of earth and threw it at his wife. It left a huge gouge in the landscape, which we now call the Hole Of Horcum. The pile of muck missed Bell, instead landing at – and thus creating – nearby Blakey Topping.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th July and the Gazette & Herald on 28th July 2021

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