CHAPTER IX. FROM PICKERING TO RIEVAULX ABBEY
The broad Vale of Pickering, watered by the Derwent, the Rye and their many tributaries, is a wonderful contrast to the country we have been exploring. The level pastures, where cattle graze and cornfields abound, seem to suggest that we are separated from the heather by many leagues; but we have only to look beyond the hedgerows to see that the horizon to the north is formed by lofty moors only a few miles distant.
Just where the low meadows are beginning to rise steadily from the vale stands the town of Pickering, dominated by the lofty stone spire of its parish church and by the broken towers of the castle. There is a wide street, bordered by dark stone buildings, that leads steeply from the river to the church. The houses are as a rule quite featureless, but we have learnt to expect this in a county where stone is abundant, for only the extremely old and the palpably new buildings stand out from the grey austerity of the average Yorkshire town. In rare cases some of the houses are brightened with white and cream paint on windows and doors, and if these commendable efforts became less rare, Pickering would have as cheerful an aspect to the stranger as Helmsley, which we shall pass on our way to Rievaulx.
Approached by narrow passages between the grey houses and shops, the church is most imposing, for it is not only a large building, but the cramped position magnifies its bulk and emphasizes the height of the Norman tower, surmounted by the tall stone spire added during the fourteenth century. Going up a wide flight of steps, necessitated by the slope of the ground, we enter the church through the beautiful porch, and are at once confronted with the astonishingly perfect paintings which cover the walls of the nave. The pictures occupy nearly all the available wall-space between the arches and the top of the clerestory, and their crude quaintnesses bring the ideas of the first half of the fifteenth century vividly before us. There is a spirited representation of St. George in conflict with a terrible dragon, and close by we see a bearded St. Christopher holding a palm-tree with both hands, and bearing on his shoulder the infant Christ. Then comes Herod's feast, with the King labelled Herodi. The guests are shown with their arms on the table in the most curious positions, and all the royal folk are wearing ermine. The coronation of the Virgin, the martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket, and the martyrdom of St. Edmund, who is perforated with arrows, complete the series on the north side. Along the south wall the paintings show the story of St. Catherine of Alexandria and the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy. Further on come scenes from the life of our Lord.
The simple Norman arcade on the north side of the nave has plain round columns and semicircular arches, but the south side belongs to later Norman times, and has ornate columns and capitals. At least one member of the great Bruce family, who had a house at Pickering called Bruce's Hall, and whose ascendency at Guisborough has already been mentioned, was buried here, for the figure of a knight in chain-mail by the lectern probably represents Sir William Bruce. In the chapel there is a sumptuous monument bearing the effigies of Sir David and Dame Margery Roucliffe. The knight wears the collar of SS, and his arms are on his surcoat.
When John Leland, the 'Royal Antiquary' employed by Henry VIII., came to Pickering, he described the castle, which was in a more perfect state than it is to-day. He says: 'In the first Court of it be a 4 Toures, of the which one is caullid Rosamunde's Toure.' Also of the inner court he writes of '4 Toures, wherof the Kepe is one.' This keep and Rosamund's Tower, as well as the ruins of some of the others, are still to be seen on the outer walls, so that from some points of view the ruins are dignified and picturesque. The area enclosed was large, and in early times the castle must have been almost impregnable. But during the Civil War it was much damaged by the soldiers quartered there, and Sir Hugh Cholmley took lead, wood, and iron from it for the defence of Scarborough. The wide view from the castle walls shows better than any description the importance of the position it occupied, and we feel, as we gaze over the vale or northwards to the moors, that this was the dominant power over the whole countryside.
Although Lastingham is not on the road to Helmsley, the few additional miles will scarcely be counted when we are on our way to a church which, besides being architecturally one of the most interesting in the county, is perhaps unique in having at one time had a curate whose wife kept a public-house adjoining the church. Although this will scarcely be believed, we have a detailed account of the matter in a little book published in 1806.