Chris Scott Wilson Writer
Roseberry Topping viewed from Stokesley bridge in an old engraving
This article was originally published under the pen-name J.S. Christopher
“’Tis a long hill, ’tis a hard climb, ’tis a fine view,” is probably the most accurate observation ever made about Roseberry Topping. The landmark seen from a great part of Cleveland has fostered legends, yielded ore, jet and fossils plus sandstone for building. It has changed its face more than once and has been known by at least twenty four names throughout the centuries. They range from Odinburgh through Theuerbrught to Roseberrye Toppinge. Daniel Defoe in about 1726 even called it Rosemary Torp! Most writers agree on the name's derivation. The early versions come from the God Odin. Later names evolve from Ross (meaning heath or common), Bury (Saxon for fortress) and Topping (meaning point or apex).
Over 1,000 feet above sea level, Roseberry Topping has conjured inspiration for countless local poets, and has always been a magnet attracting sightseers. Some endure the climb in order to rest at the summit where a panoramic view of Cleveland awaits. Others have gone to carve their initials in the soft limestone.
Camden in about 1600 wrote of many a ‘syllie soul, not without hazard of breaknecke tumblinge’ who scaled Roseberry in order to crawl through the eye of a dangerously sited rock called Willifryd's Needle, now long gone.
Another lure was water. The ancient Cottonian manuscripts tell of a well dedicated to St. Oswald near the foot of Roseberry. A sick person's shirt or shift would be thrown in to see if it would float. If so, the patient was diagnosed to recover. But if it sank, then… Visitors would tear a strip from the cloth as a token of thanks and hang it on the briars near the well. The writer remarked, ‘I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rheme (fair ream) in a paper myll.’ Also mentioned is a spring erupting like a fountain from a stone almost at Roseberry's apex. This mineral water was claimed to ‘cureth sore eyes’, also rheumatism, rickets and lameness. By 1808, however, the spring had withered to a trickle.
Legend has it that when a Northumbrian princess was delivered of a son, Oswy, she consulted a soothsayer who predicted Oswy would die by drowning. Anxious to outwit destiny, the princess brought Oswy to live at Roseberry, although within sight of the sea, well away from its danger. As time passed and the boy grew strong, the princess fretted until she made herself ill with worry. One day while confined to her bed by nervous exhaustion, Oswy went wandering alone. When he did not return, a search was mounted. The young prince was discovered dead in the mineral spring, fulfilling the prophecy. It is said the princess died of shock and heartbreak shortly afterward. Tradition recounts the burial place of mother and son was named Osmunderly (Osmund here lays), or Oswy-by-his-Mother-lay, hence Osmotherly.
Also in ancient times, a hermitage or grotto graced the summit, and in March 1826 a labourer unearthed several tools which implied a forge had been worked at some earlier date. Camden (1600) mentioned smoking craters nearby called the Devil's Kettles, which may corroborate the forge theory.
Roseberry also became known during the 19th century for the Trinity Sunday Fair held on the first slopes. It is thought to have been started by the ‘old Gag’ Mally Wright. She served the community, assisting with rites of passage, both at the beginning and the end of the journey. As a midwife she brought children into the world, then later attended the death bed, laying out for burial. It is said some of the older locals whispered she had ‘tied up t’jaws of t’dying afore tha wur deead.’ On Trinity Sunday, however, her role was more jovial. She set up stall selling brandy snaps and home-brewed ale. Her success brought other vendors until the fair swelled to a regular event.
Attempts were made by the authorities during the mid century (1840-1850) to halt the fair which had become unruly, but after a quiet period it was revived. Richard Blakeborough observed toward the 1890's that many people had started to travel from Teesside and ‘cram into one short Sabbath about as much ungodliness as it is possible to conceive.’ The Rev. Tugman, vicar of Newton-under-Roseberry took up the banner in a bid to halt the revelry. His success is evident as the fair has since died out.
Geological surveys show Roseberry is rich in alum shale and iron ore, and it is also known jet had been worked. Ord writing in 1846 complained Roseberry's cone had ‘diminished of late years. owing to barbarous irruptions of certain Visigoths’ (5th century vandals). He refers to sandstone quarrying. Only four years later in 1850 John Vaughan discovered ironstone in the Cleveland Hills at Eston and it was soon discovered the seam ran throughout the whole range.
Businessmen turned their gaze to Roseberry as a larder from which to feed Teesside's hungry blast furnaces. In 1880 the Roseberry Ironstone Company opened the main seam on the south side of the hill, production spanning three years. Later the Tees Furnace Co. reopened the workings before being superseded by Burton & Sons from 1906-1926, who employed up to 200 men during peak production. The first radical alteration of Roseberry's face took place on the night of 8th/9th August 1912 when a large section of the south-west slope collapsed in an avalanche of tumbling rock. Overnight, the conical hill had become a jagged peak. Inevitably accusations were levelled at the mining company, whose drives had honeycombed the hill. Just as inevitably, Mr. Burton (of Burton & Sons) denied the charge. Ten years later another landslide occurred, though not as severe.
Geologists have since learned Roseberry Topping is criss-crossed by faults and fissures just below the surface, so it seems probable landslips would occur whether or not the mines had been operated. And the problem is accelerating today. The many tourists and ramblers unknowingly wear away the meagre topsoil. Alan Falconer, the local author, was quoted in 1979 as saying the peak 'could slip away any day now.' It hasn’t. At least at the time of writing. Let us hope it doesn’t. Roseberry Topping occupies a tender place in many Clevelanders' hearts.
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