Thirsk, Sutton Bank and Easingwold


Thirsk has a Viking name and derives from the word Thraesk meaning lake or fen. It is now a small market town located within the Vale of Mowbray, to south of Northallerton, north east of Ripon and north of Easingwold.

This is a busy market town with a large cobbled market square. There are interesting inns and houses many of the eighteenth century when Thirsk was an important posting station.

Thirsk is divided by the Cod Beck, a tributary of the River Swale which may have formed the marshy ground of Viking times. By the eighteenth century Thirsk had developed into an important coaching stop at the centre of a crossroads and was noted for its many coaching inns. Among the old inns in Thirsk still in existence are the eighteenth century. Thirsk's oldest inns include the Three Tuns dating back to 1698 and The Golden Fleece that is thought to date back to Tudor times.

In the famous James Herriot stories created by the writer Alf Wight (196-1995), Thirsk is the fictional 'Darrowby', a central location in the tales featuring the activities of a Yorkshire vet. The World of James Herriot Museum in Thirsk occupies the original surgery of Alf Wight who lived in Thirsk for more than fifty years.

Wight was born in Sunderland but grew up in Glasgow where he qualified as a vet in 1939. He was briefly a vet in Sunderland before heading for a practice in Thirsk in 1940 where he would live the rest of the days. He retained a passion for Sunderland Football Club throughout his life. Wight's books which were famously adapted for television, capture life in the rural farming communities of North Yorkshire in times gone by.

Thirsk is also famed as the birthplace of Thomas Lord (born 1755) the founder of Lords Cricket Club in London. Lord was born at 16 Kirkgate and this house is now the home of the Thirsk Museum which celebrates the local history of the town. It includes historic farming items and cricket memorabilia.

Apart from the racecourse where racing has been held since 1855, the best known feature of Thirsk is the church of St Mary, a large church of cathedral proportions described by the architectural historian Sir Nicholas Pevsner as the most spectacular Perpendicular church in the North Riding of Yorkshire. The church was begun in 1430 on the site of a chantry founded by Robert Thirsk earlier that century. It was completed in the sixteenth century.


Thirsk is surrounded by Place names of Danish origin, not surpirsing when we consider Thirsk's location in the Vale of York to the north of York, the Viking capital of Northern England.

Most of the Danish place names are betrayed by endings in 'by' signifying the site of a Danish farm or village. Examples include Borrowby, Bagby, Thirkleby, Thirlby, Cowesby, Thormanby, Baldersby, Busby Stoop, Kirby Wiske (on the River Wiske) and Boltby. Sowerby now a part of Thirsk has a name which derives from Saur-by meaning the muddy or boggy farm, a reminder that Thirsk itself means 'marshy place'.

Ainderby Quernhow, about five miles west of Thirsk, just over the River Swale, is also a Viking place name and means the village belonging to Eindrithi, a Viking whose name meant 'sole-ruler'.

Quernhow, which has also been spelled Whernhowe and Whernou means mill-hill, the first element deriving from the Old Norse Kvern, a mill stone. How or Howe, was an old word for a hill and is a common element in Yorkshire place names.

The Quernhow at Ainderby is a small mound on the nearby Roman Road called Dere Street, which marked the boundary between the parishes of Ainderby and Middleton Quernhow. Ainderby Mires and Ainderby Steeple (near Northallerton) are also in the district. The word steeple actually refers to the local church tower (it doesn't have a spire). Mires of course refers to marshy mires.


Thirsk is centrally located in the flat Vale of Mowbray with the lowland sections of the River Swale only five miles to the west. In the other direction the North Yorkshire Moors are only two or three miles to the east and rise suddenly from the lowland district. This is in marked contrast to the more subtle appearance of the Pennines in the dales to the west.

Sutton-under-Whitestoncliffe is situated in the Hambleton Hills on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors near one of the most dramatic changes from lowland to upland. The Hambleton Hills give their name to a large administrative district of North Yorkshire centred on Northallerton. Hambleton means scarred hill.

Sutton-under-Whitestoncliffe has an Anglo-Saxon name that translates as 'The southern farm near the white stone cliff'. It claims to be the longest place name in England and rivals Blakehopeburnhaugh in Redesdale, Northumberland, but Sutton might well be disqualified on the basis of its hyphens.

Nearby we find a number of places which have Viking origins - Osgoodby, Thirkleby, Bagby and Thirlby. Sutton-under-Whitestonceliffe is famous as the location for the impressive Sutton Bank, home of a gliding club and the very steep incline of the A170 road that struggles to make it way up the hill on its way east towards Ryedale and Scarborough.

It is well worth the climb. There are excellent views from Sutton Bank of the surrounding countryside down towards the vale. Close by the neighbouring Roulston Scar is where the White Horse of Kilburn is cut into the escarpment and can be seen from miles around. This is not an ancient hill carving, it only dates from 1857, when it was carved by the village school master Thomas Hodgson with the help of the village school boys. The horse is 314 feel long.

The village of Kilburn lower down the hill was also famous as the home of Robert Thompson (1876-1955) known as Mousey Thompson, a furniture maker who incorporated a carving of a mouse into his work as a trademark.

A plain of land on the hill top above the horse at Roulston Scar does have ancient connections however. In recent years a huge iron age hill fort was discovered here that more than rivals North Yorkshire's other great iron age fort at Stanwick near Scotch Corner. Covering about 53 acres it consisted of ramparts stretching more than a mile and dates from around 400BC.


The A19 road heads south from Thirsk to York bypassing the town of Easingwold. This town's main feature is its cobled market square and its fine Georgian buildings. A wold was historically a piece of uncultivated elevated country with small rolling hills. Easingwold was the wold belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Easa. The hilly areas around Easingwold and Coxwold can be described as wolds, but the true Yorkshire Wolds are much further to the south east in East Yorkshire, between Hull, York and Malton.

The village of Crayke to the east of Easingwold has a peculiar history because it was once a small isolated and quite separate district which belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham. Crayke Castle, which consists of two separate fifteenth century buildings was a house of the bishops. Other isolated places outside of County Durham which were historically part of the Prince Bishops' territory included Holy Island (Islandshire), Bedlingtonshire and Norhamshire in Northumberland. Crayke's name derives from a Celtic word Kraik meaning a rock. It has the same meaning as Craig in Celtic place names.


Coxwold, about three miles south of Kilburn was once the wold belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Cucha. It has a fifteenth century church with monuments deciated to the Belasis family. Three sites of historic interest lie close to Coxwold. They are- Shandy Hall, Newburgh Priory and Byland Abbey and a little further to the east are Ampleforth and Gilling Castle that are covered in the Ryedale section.

Shandy Hall was the home of the writer and Vicar of Coxwold, Laurence Sterne, from 1760 until his death in 1768. His famous works were 'Tristram Shandy' and a 'Sentimental Journey'. Shandy Hall was a fifteenth century timber framed house, later modified by Sterne who named it Shandy Hall.

Newburgh Priory was founded by Augustinian canons around 1150 and passed into the hands of the Belasis family in 1529 (later the Lords Fauconberg). It was converted into a house by the family but retained the name Newburgh Priory . The first Belasis to own the priory was Anthony Belasis, chaplain to Henry VIII. The house still remains in the hands of Anthony's descendants. One Lord Fauconberg married Oliver Cromwell's daughter and it is claimed that a tomb within the house contains Cromwell's body.

Byland Abbey, once Britain's largest Cistercian church, lies to the north of Coxwold in the village of Wass (an Old English word for a swamp). Byland, now a ruin was founded in 1177 by monks from Furness in Cumbria, although the first site they chose was near Helmsley in Ryedale. This location caused confusion for the monks when the bell was tolled at nearby Rievaulx Abbey , so the monks moved to their present site. Their former location is called Old Byland.

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