This picturesque walk utilises an old drovers’ road and a section of the Cleveland Way. It is filled with historical interest and the views across the Vale of Mowbray and the Cleveland Hills are magnificent.
Our walk begins from the Sheepwash car park, a popular picnic spot whose name most likely originates from the fact that shepherds once brought their flocks down from the moors to wash them at the ford crossing Cod Beck. Although it is endowed with the more modest title, Cod Beck is actually classified as a river. Its name is a derivative of 'Cold Beck' but, some authorities say, it comes from the Celtic word 'Coed', meaning woody. The beck flows into the Cod Beck Reservoir before continuing on to merge with the river Swale at Topcliffe.
Leaving Sheepwash we join a broad track known as the Hambleton Drove Road. This ancient track traverses the plateau of the Hambleton Hills from Swainby to Oldstead. Opinions differ as to its origin, but it was certainly in use long before the Romans arrived and is one of the oldest roads in England. Artefacts of the Bronze Age and the Neolithic period have been discovered along its course. In 1069, William the Conqueror is reputed to have used the road during his Harrying of the North. It had royal protection by 1246 and was described as Regalis Via or the King’s Way in a document in the Rievaulx Chartulary.
The drove road saw the most activity during the eighteenth century, when Scottish drovers used it to take their cattle to the markets of Malton, York and as far south as London. Herds of between 200 and 300 cattle were driven along this road. The drovers travelled ten to fifteen miles (16–24km) each day and the columns of animals often stretched for over two miles (3km). There were regular stopping places along the route, known as stances. These usually had an inn and essential grazing for the cattle. Chequers was one of these stances. In those days it was the Chequers Inn and the original sign can be seen on the wall outside inscribed with the words ‘Be not in haste, Step in and taste, Ale tomorrow for nothing’. One gullible traveller complied with this invitation and remained at the inn until the following day with great expectations. Unfortunately, his joy ended abruptly when the landlord informed him that his tomorrow had yet to come!
From Chequers we descend into the pleasant little valley of Oakdale. The reservoirs originally supplied water to Northallerton, but now they are used solely for recreation and also attract a wide variety of wildlife. Leaving Oakdale we follow the Cleveland Way to Osmotherley.
This elegant village, known locally as ‘Ossy’, is located on the western fringe of the North York Moors. It is recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Asmundrelac’, which means ‘Asmund’s clearing’. Tradition suggests that the village was named after an infant Northumbrian prince called Oswy, who suffered a tragic death. His grief-stricken mother died soon after and they were buried together, resulting in the name ‘Oswy-by-his-mother-lay’ – Osmotherley.
Beside the market cross is the stone barter table on which John Wesley stood to preach during his first visit in 1745. He visited Osmotherley many times and one of the first Methodist chapels was built here in 1754.
We continue along the Cleveland Way and within a few minutes of joining Rueberry Lane there are superb views over the Vale of Mowbray to the Pennine hills.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Mount Grace, better known as Lady Chapel, lies just off this lane. The chapel was first licensed for Mass in 1397, one year before Mount Grace Priory was founded. It is thought that the monks worshipped here while their priory was being built at the foot of the hill. The chapel later became a monk’s hermitage and Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, was one of its benefactors.
After a steep climb to Beacon Hill another splendid panorama unfolds: to the north, the dramatic escarpment of the Cleveland Hills; to the east the high moors of Bilsdale; and the bulk of Black Hambleton dominates the southern skyline.
The scenery remains uplifting as we descend to Scarth Nick. During the last Ice Age, which ended about 11,000 years ago, the ice sheets failed to cover the summits of the North York Moors. However, glaciers flowed on either side of the higher land masses and also crept into Scugdale. As the ice melted a glacial lake formed. The lake, about 400 feet (122m) deep and 800 feet (244m) above sea level, overflowed at Scarth Nick cutting a distinct V-shaped valley, a landmark which is visible for many miles to the north.