With so many wayward farmers and villagers scattered over miles of difficult terrain, exposed to the full force of the English weather, it’s small wonder that there are so many medieval churches, chapels and abbeys in the area. In a time when religion played a dominant role in people’s lives, the farmers and villagers would have relied on the church to provide guidance and succour in hard times. As the centuries passed and religion’s role diminished, many of the chapels and churches fell into ruin and some, like Jervaulx Abbey near Middleham, have become stops for tourists looking for a bit of local history (and a decent cup of tea).
One of the lesser-known sites rests on a spur of Pen Hill and dates from the 12th Century. It is a Knight’s Templar preceptory, or chapel, the ruins of which were uncovered in the 19th Century. It is what gives the nearby Temple Farm its name and was, until recently, reflected in the name of the Palmer Flatt (now the Aysgarth Falls Hotel) – Palmer being a derogatory term for the Templars and Flatt referring to the local field system.
I’m a sucker for an old ruin and this walk was one of the first I went on after we moved here in the early 2000s. Starting on the village green in West Burton, I headed down to the corner of the village where the wooden sign pointed the way to Cauldron Falls, a small but pretty spot that I have photographed far too many times.
It’s a tranquil part of the world and I spent a little too long taking photos of the waterfalls and the little beck – I had a polarising filter on my camera to cut down the glare of the sun, but it also serves as a useful tool for getting rid of reflections on water. If you go into the village hall a little way up the road there are photos on the walls of the village through the years, including one fantastic image the falls and beck completely frozen – I’ve had some cold winters, but never one that severe.
Crossing the little bridge, it’s a steep climb up a set of well-worn steps and a rough track before entering a field below Pen Hill. The hill is criss-crossed by myriad paths and tracks and as I walked through a flock of nervous sheep, I saw a sign pointing out a footpath that followed the beck up above the waterfall and made a mental note to follow it on another day.
On the other side of the field I passed through a gate and into Barrack Wood – the Dales are full of intriguing place-names – and followed the path to the left, breathing in the smell of wild garlic. You can insert your own vampire-related joke here as I’ve used mine in a previous blog post.
Following the path, it’s rewarding to stop every now and again to look through the gaps in the trees up Bishopdale. I was particularly fortunate with the weather on this day, the sun shining and the skies almost completely clear of clouds. The leaves were coming out and the flowers and bees and butterflies had returned, a welcome change from the drab dreariness of an overly-long winter.
It’s only a short walk from one end of Barrack Wood to the other where I climbed through a gate onto a rough farm track that winds up towards the top of Pen Hill. It was here that I made a slight alteration to my usual way of doing things. Normally on a walk like this, I would do as much of the climbing early on when I’m fresh and then enjoy an easy decent for the rest of the walk. On this occasion, however, I decided to do things the other way around because, from a photographer’s point of view, it meant seeing things from a slightly different angle which would, hopefully, avoid my repeating photos that I’ve taken before. Trust me, it works.
Following the track up a little way, you come to a metal gate with a sign for Temple Farm. This is where, had I stuck to my normal route, the return leg would have come out. This part of the path is mostly on the flat, following a small plateau with a steep drop to one side.
There was no livestock in the fields and I enjoyed the easy terrain and the glorious weather. The day’s big advantage was that it was the day after the bank holiday and so with no people in sight I felt as though I had the whole countryside to myself. I’m not unsociable, but there are times when it’s a nice change to get away from the hustle and bustle (what there is in the Dales) even if it’s only for a couple of hours.
The footpath stays close to the wall until, at last, you have to go through a gate into a small copse of trees and then over a stile into a field where a huge flock of sheep with lambs turned as one to look at me. It was almost like that scene in the pub in An American Werewolf in London.
Sheep have a tendency to follow me whenever I enter their field – I assume it’s to do with being farm animals and associating humans with feeding time or with being moved to a barn. Whatever the reason, I walked briskly through the field and through a metal gate outside Temple Farm.
I heard screams and laughter from the farm children playing in their garden as I turned right and walked up a muddy track shaded by trees with new leaves on their branches. This was probably the hardest part of the walk, my shoes slipping in mud whilst I tried to hold onto my camera and keep my balance – not an easy thing to do and I imagined the children laughing at the silly Southerner tumbling down the hill in a mess of mud and camera parts.
At last, at the top of the track I could see the low walls of the preceptory. Now I must emphasise that this is a very small site, so don’t expect something on the scale of Fountains Abbey near Ripon or Jervaulx near Middleham. That said, it’s a lovely spot and I can see why the Templars would have chosen it as a site for a place of worship. It sits on the flank of the hill with wide views all around and when the sun is out the scene is bright and peaceful. The site, according to the sign, included other buildings which have not been uncovered. I would love to see just how extensive the site was in its heyday, but unless the owner of the land gives permission for an archaeological dig, I’ll just have to rely on my imagination.
Inside the walls you can see where the alter once stood and there is an open coffin with the head at the Eastern end along with three coffins with their covers intact. I’ve scoured the internet for any information on those who were buried in the chapel, but come up blank. If you’re interested in the history of the site, more information can be found here.
For the first time I had actually forgotten to bring my water bottle with me on a walk and with the sun beating down, I was starting to feel a desperate need for a drink. I left the ruins and crossed the track into another field. The last time I came through here this field had been full of cows and a single bullock that came a little too close for comfort. On this occasion, however, the field was empty save for a couple of curlews who soared into the air and out of range of my camera as soon as I tried to get near.
One day, I thought to myself, mentally shaking my fist at them for continuing to taunt me.
Not that I’m obsessed or anything.
Passing the thin stretch of trees to my right, I was greeted with the reason I had done this walk back to front. The whole of Bishopdale lay before me beneath a beautiful Spring sky with the trees and fields verdant under the sun. I snapped away with my camera, forgetting how thirsty I was and enjoying the view.
The clouds were starting to role in as I carried on and I had a quick look at my phone to check the weather forecast – there is a mobile phone mast on Pen Hill for those wondering how on Earth I could get 4G in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough, it was predicting rain later that evening. But at least the clouds added to the beauty of the scene and I knew I’d be home long before any rain fell.
Like the lower path, this one follows a small plateau and the going is very easy, although I did come across a couple of awkward stiles consisting of large slabs wedged into the dry stone wall. They looked distinctly unstable, but they bore my weight without showing any signs of collapsing. At last I passed through a final gate and back onto the track a little way up from where I had originally left it.
I walked down the track, a small stream that ran under it making my thirst seem all the more acute, and followed it to a small humpbacked bridge over the stream on the outskirts of West Burton as the clouds rolled in and I felt the first few drops of rain begin to fall.