The end of April saw a spell of dry, sunny weather, and I made the most of it by playing lots of tennis and going out for plenty of walks. One of my routes takes me through the gorgeous village of Crayke, which lies on a hill almost 20 miles north of York.
The main thoroughfare is Church Hill, so-called because St Cuthbert’s Church sits at the top. The hill was covered in late-blooming daffodils and looked absolutely beautiful, so I decided on the spur of the moment to stop and have a wander around.
It is a place steeped in history, and someone once told me that the hill was the one that the Grand Old Duke of York marched his 10,000 men up and down, although a brief search on the internet doesn’t suggest there is a connection with the famous rhyme. Nevertheless, strategically it is the perfect place to spot enemies coming from any direction as the summit of the hill commands spectacular views all around. Some say that there was a Roman watchtower on the hill, but it has never been proven, although Roman roads did pass close by and Roman artefacts have been found in the village.
According to my dad in one of his books (Folk Tales from the North York Moors), there was a timber castle in Saxon times, and this was replaced by a Norman motte-and-bailey castle in the 12th century, some of which still exists as part of the current Crayke Castle building, located at the highest point in the village. However, we know it was almost totally rebuilt and extended in the 15th century, thanks to accounts from 1441 which list the changes made. In the 17th century it was repaired and restored again, and this is more or less what stands to this day.
I took a walk around the beautiful church yard, and you can really get a feel for the age and history associated with that place. The original church was founded by St Cuthbert, who lived from around AD634 until 20th March AD687. He spent much of his time in the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, particularly at the monastery in Lindisfarne, and he was so admired for his spiritual devotion that King Ecgfrith gifted him the village of Crayke (then known as Crec) and lands for three miles around so that he had his own place to rest on his regular journeys between Lindisfarne and York. After Cuthbert died, he was initially interred at Lindisfarne, but there were fears that his grave might be destroyed by invading Vikings, and so his body was moved. It was carried to a number of different places over the centuries due to continuing unrest, one of which is believed to be Crayke, although his final shrine is in Durham Cathedral. Because of its connections to Cuthbert, Crayke was officially considered part of Durham right up to 1844 when it was returned to Yorkshire. The local pub is called The Durham Ox.
As I was walking around the graveyard, I noticed that a few of the headstones were inscribed with only initials, rather than the full name of the deceased, and very few further details, not even the date they died. I wondered why, as I have not come across this before. I asked my mum and brother if they had any any idea, and they didn’t. One theory we had was that they came from families that couldn’t afford a full inscription (if the stonemason charged by the letter). Another was that they were possibly criminals, or died in some kind of shame, and another suggestion was that they were in fact footstones, but I did not see a corresponding headstone at the other end of the graves.
No-one I spoke to had come across them before, but it was quite common in days gone by for people who could not afford a headstone to be buried with no marker at all. I wonder whether the stonemason used by the folk of Crayke was a kindly soul who offered to place markers on the graves of his fellow villagers who could not afford to pay him?
I’d be very interested to get to the bottom of this little mystery, so do get in touch either through this paper or via my webpage below if you know the answer.
Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 7th and the Gazette & Herald on 5th May 2021