There are few tests of clutch control quite like coming up against a hefty and stubbornly immoveable highland cow as you’re climbing a 1-in-5 slope. But then the Victorian villagers of Levisham, up on the North York Moors, might have told me to count my blessings that I lived in the age of the automobile at all.
The village itself is a very attractive sort of place, with a wide, grassy main street lined with handsome farms and cottages. It sits proudly on the top of a hill, along with a hamlet-sized ration of flat arable fields, but to get to it by road you have to plunge right down into the bottom of a steep-sided valley, winding tortuously and sharply down narrow lanes that put both your brakes and your nerves through their paces, before crawling back up the other side in second gear and praying you don’t meet a lorry.
On the other side of the village, the same thing happens, except this time when you’ve negotiated your steep, slithering descent to the valley bottom, nosing your way through the normally docile highland cattle that roam this part of the moors, the road peters out at Levisham station. Only a thin strip of forest access track disappears off into the woods on the other side of the railway line.
Levisham station, still operated seasonally by the North York Moors Railway, has to be one of the most peculiarly-located stations I’ve ever come across, at least from the point of view of everyone except tourists in search of a leisurely and picturesque route into the heart of the Tabular Hills. The village that shares its name is over a mile away by road (not to mention a punishing climb), and there’s nothing else nearby except the even tinier hamlet of Newton-under-Rawcliffe up on the next hill along (accessible only via a twenty-minute muddy scramble across woods and sloping fields).
It turns out the clue to its existence is in the grand house almost directly next to it, once a home of the Revd Robert Skelton, who was both the local vicar and also the lord of the manor in the early to mid-1800s. He owned a large swathe of land in the area (the imposing ruin of Skelton Tower up on the moor overlooking Newtondale still bears his name) and allegedly part of the deal of getting permission to run the track through his territory was constructing the station next to his house.
Be that as it may, the monumentally inconvenient station didn’t actually go out of use until the 1960s, thanks to the fact that that particular portion of the line was made single track during the First World War (they needed the rails for the war effort, apparently). In true British tradition this temporary arrangement persisted for half a century. Levisham provided a handy spot for a signalman to control the traffic on the single-track stretch, and since he was there, he continued to sell tickets to the paltry number of people who used the platform.
Inevitably, the Beeching cuts saw the end of Levisham station (and in fact the entire line), but the volunteers of the North York Moors Railway have since put it back in business, and have restored it to a state which I suspect rather surpasses its modest former glory. These days it has a resident artist, a café, waiting rooms and even a sort of modern, upmarket version of a camping car, and only a few weeks ago I witnessed it in a state of occupation by the Wermacht. Quite possibly life has never been so exciting for little Levisham station.
But the Victorian villagers of Levisham had more than just the climb from the station to get the lactic acid bubbling volcanically through their leg muscles. Because the church wasn’t in the village either, but rather at the bottom of the valley on the other side. So on Sundays I suppose the God-fearing folk had to begin their day by slithering all the way down the muddy hillside in their best clothes then toiling back up again once the sevice was over. At least the pub was presumably in the village.
Like many churches in the area, St Mary’s is based on fairly ancient foundations, and there’s a theory, based on archaeological remains in the area, that the medieval settlement might have originally been down in the valley, nearer to the water supply. When the houses moved up onto the top of the hill for better access to the flat arable land, the church didn’t, or at least not until someone got fed up in the late 1800s and built an alternative church in the village (also rather pretty, as it happens, and full of interesting things like an old stone font, the ‘dragon stone’ and some Thompson furniture). At more or less the same time, they added a tower to the old church in celebration of Queen Victoria’s jubilee, as if to say ‘look, we’re DEFINITELY not decommissioning you’.
But they did, eventually, and now St Mary’s stands empty. A sturdy shell with no roof and windows, surrounded by sheep and the peaceful monuments of the dead, who from the dates on the stones have continued to be buried there long after the church went out of use. It’s an atmospheric place, but not a sad one, and the barren stones still have that oddly friendly sort of feel characteristic of country churches.
At one end, behind a metal gate to protect it from vandals (yet spattered with bird shit, of course) is a 12th-century gravestone with a long sword carved deeply into it. I wonder who he was. Surely with a monument like that he must have been fairly powerful. A Norman, maybe? Was he just passing through when he turned his toes up, or did he live up here, and if so, where? And how many people have asked the same questions since that stone was first laid down the better part of a thousand years ago?
It was the sort of thing I couldn’t help daydreaming about as I continued on my way down the valley to the crossing at Farwath and back to the car at Levisham station via Newton-under-Rawcliffe.