NATALYA WILSON reads about the changing face of the Esk Valley

LONG or short, wide or narrow, large or small, rivers are – and always have been – the lifeblood of the land.

Rivers produce food, create industry and have historically been the place for settlements to spring up.

Despite the sparse number of inhabitants living in the vast North York Moors National Park, there are more than 100 villages and many of these lie along the banks of the River Esk.

And though the Esk might not be the longest or mightiest river in the country, it plays an important part in the life of the inhabitants of the North York Moors and Whitby, the town that sits at its mouth, once one of the most important ports in the country.

These days, the idyllic villages situated along the Esk are the destination for many tourists coming to the area for rest and recuperation, but it was once a very different story, as outlined in Alan Whitworth’s book, Esk Valley Through Time (Amberley Publishing, £14.99).

Gazette & Herald: Alan Whitworth’s book,
Esk Valley Through Time

This interesting book is illustrated with contemporary and historical pictures of some of the Esk Valley villages with fascinating snippets of information about the places and their industries, from the river’s estuary at Whitby into the Cleveland Hills and valley villages of Rosedale, Westerdale and Castleton.

During the early part of the 19th century, this part of North Yorkshire was still mostly wild and inhospitable.

It was a landscape of narrow valleys and steep hills with hamlets scattered here and there. The height of the land made it difficult to build roads and the valley floor regularly flooded, meaning that the most reliable access to the area was by sea, which limited trade. However, all of this changed in the age of rail with the construction of the Whitby and Pickering line 175 years ago.

Through this selection of images both past and present, and the information which accompanies them, Alan Whitworth takes the reader on a fascinating guided tour of the Esk Valley, the changes wrought upon its wild moorland by the passage of time and industry and the history of its towns, villages and residents.

Alan has plenty of local knowledge, having set up a small museum of local history in Thornton-le-Dale and as founding secretary of the Whitby Civic Society and lecturer in local history subjects.

There are fascinating facts about the growth of industry in Whitby – not just fishing and whaling, but also the Prussian Dye Works, which made clothing of a distinctive indigo colour. The dye stained the cliffs well into the 1970s, long after the dye works disappeared.

The book also illustrates how the west side of the town grew up around the railway, with the West Cliff estate having been built at the expense of ‘railway king’, George Hudson, which, says Whitworth, saved the town from certain bankruptcy.

Another industry built up around the tidal area of the Esk was Ruswarp Mill, mentioned in the Domesday Book, which once belonged to the monks of Whitby Abbey.

At one time, two mills stood side by side. The one that still stands there – now converted into flats – was built in 1752 and was originally a water-powered corn mill, later a Bolting Mill. It suffered a disastrous fire in 1911 from which it never really recovered, and eventually ceased production in 1962.

Also of interest is the fate of some of the villages. Grosmont is now a peaceful village, yet only a century ago the scene was quite the opposite when it was overshadowed by the huge furnaces of its ironworks – a hive of activity, noise and dirt from 1837-1915. The same can be said of Rosedale’s mines, Commondale’s pottery, the ironstone and coal mines at Castleton and jet workings at Danby, once thriving industries that have long since ceased to exist.

Gazette & Herald: Rosedale depot in its heyday

Rosedale depot in its heyday

As well as industry, the book illustrates the changing nature and face of some of the villages, such as Sleights, whose Coach Road was the first stagecoach road out of Whitby in 1794, a turnpike toll road, unrecognisable in the old and new pictures as being the same place.

The book features many more interesting facts and pictures and makes for an ideal coffee table read.