LAY OF THE LAND

The Fairies Parlour cave – Sutton Bank

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Entrance to the Fairies Parlour

 The Fairies Parlour cave is located below the White Mare Crags (Whitestone Cliff) on Sutton Bank, 5 miles to the east of Thirsk.

 In his book Vallis Eboracensis, Thomas Gill described his visit and exploration of this small cave, known locally as the Fairies Parlour.

  “In an almost inaccessible part of the rock is a large cave called “The Fairies’ Parlour.” The place is somewhat difficult of access, but when attained it will amply repay the adventurer for his trouble. The parlour or cave is a natural formation. A large crevice of the rock forms the entrance, after which you descend a rugged cliff of three yards perpendicular rock. Another descent of two yards or so, introduces you to the area of the cave, with a projecting arch of twenty or thirty feet in height, very spacious, and running in a parallel line some twenty or thirty yards, with streaks of light glimmering into it through the narrow fissures of the rock. The mythology of the district declares it to have been the retreat of the giants, ……” (Gill, 1852)

 The Fairies Parlour Cave is marked on the first edition OS map (1856) but its exact position is difficult to pinpoint on the wooded and boulder strewn slopes below the cliffs. Luckily, the British Caving Association list 3 small caves along this section of the Whitestone cliffs, and one of these – the ‘Whitestonecliff Through Cave’ closely matches Thomas Gill’s description of the Fairies Parlour. The caves in this area take the form of fissures in the Sandstone bed rock, and cavities beneath displaced blocks of stone. Cave systems formed by underground streams, like those further west in the Yorkshire Dales, are rare.

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A small opening leads through into the main cave

 A visit to Sutton Bank in 2016 found the entrance to the cave beneath a large slab of rock (at grid reference SE 50725 83625), only a few metres from the base of the cliff. The space beneath the slab is big enough to stand up in, and this gives access to a narrow passage leading down to the main cave. This requires a bit of an awkward squeeze through the gap, but it then opens up and drops down into the wider fissure, which extends for 30m or so. There is apparently a smaller exit passage at the far end of the fissure.

 The Fairies Parlour name suggests that there was once some folklore connecting the ‘Wee folk’ with this cave, but unfortunately it has not been recorded. Curiously, Thomas Gill also noted the local belief that giants once lived in the cave, which seems at odds with the fairy name and the small entrance, but again, a lost story may have explained this folklore contradiction. This may have been another example of the Hob and Giant theme (Hob-thrush?) noted at places like the Giant’s Lapstone at Hob Hole in Baysdale.

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A little further along the passage

 There are some similarities here with the Fairies Parlour cave at Almscliff Crags near Harrogate. Both cave passages are located beneath impressive rock formations, and the crags at Almscliff were believed to be the main dwelling place of the fairies in that district. There is a suggestion that this was also the case at Whitestone cliff (see the Thirlby story below). Almscliff was also associated with a giant called Rombald, and the huge blocks of stone laying around these sites may have given rise to the belief that they were the handiwork of giants.

 Like the Fairies Parlour at Almscliff Crags, the Whitestone Cliff cave is also difficult to access, and not particularly impressive to look at once inside. Rather than been folklore sites in themselves, these caves seem to have been part of the wider belief that once connected the local fairy folk with these prominent rock outcrops. The openings in the rock were seen as routes used by the fairies to access their dwellings within the crags. Looking down the underground passage, it is hard not to see this faerie folklore as the last echo of a belief in those other little people – the Scandinavian Dvergar or dwarves.

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The main fissure cave extending under the cliff face.

 There is actually one piece of local folklore which seems to mention the Fairies Parlour Cave. Thirlby is the nearest village to the cave (located on the lower ground 1 mile to the west), and in the late 1800’s, Hugh Fairfax-Cholmeley submitted this local story to the Folklore Journal for the year 1894 …

 “Robert Lawson of Thirlby, a small village at the foot of the Hambleton Hills, was known to the father of our carrier, John White. When trying to bolt a badger into his bag near the Fairies’ Cave in the Hambleton Hills, the bag was drawn tight, and, as usual, he threw it over his shoulder without further examining it. He had only gone a few yards from the hole, when he heard a small voice saying:

“Have you seen out of my little pee pee – Pee pee with an e’e (eye) ?
Have you seen out of my little pee pee, – Pee pee with an e’e ?”

And the thing in the sack answered:

“A’s upon Lob Lowson’s back gaaing ti Thirlbee,
A’s upon Lob Lowson’s back gaaing ti Thirlbee.”

Whereupon he threw down the sack and ran home as fast as he could. “He’d gotten a fairy i’ t’ sack.”

 Given the Thirlby location, it is likely that the ‘Fairies Cave’ mentioned in the tale was the Fairies Parlour, and the story also suggests that the fairies used other openings on the hillside. ‘Pee’ is an old northern word for a squint, or to spy with one eye, so poor little Pee Pee was either cross-eyed, or perhaps even one eyed with a squint (ain eye?). Although the story suggests that the fairy had a comical appearance, people used to have a real fear of offending the fairies as they were thought to be always watching and listening nearby, ie. peeping or spying on them.

 The Sutton Bank area is the focus of a significant amount of folklore, with Gormire lake below the Fairies Parlour, the White Mare crag above it, a Jenny well to the north, and the Devils Parlour cave and the Hood Hill stone to the south. It is likely that other areas once had a similar density of folklore sites but the stories were simply never recorded and so have been lost. The folklore seems to have survived here because the visually impressive landscape at Sutton Bank attracted visitors and writers, who then noted down the folklore connected with this area.

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After thoughts
 The location of the cave is quite difficult to access, but beyond the north end of the crags there is a rough path which descends the steep hillside to the lower ground, from where it is possible to walk back along the base of cliffs to the cave. This route still involves some clambering over rocks, and  is easier in winter when there is less vegetation. As the cave is directly beneath the crags there is also a risk of falling rocks, so take care.

 A very similar ‘Fairy in the sack’ story is recorded in a folklore book published in Germany in 1859. The book has never been translated into English, so it is unlikely to have found its way to Thirlby in the mid 1800’s.(see https://sites.pitt.edu/~dash/type6010.html#baader)

 The level ground on the hill top above the Fairies Parlour cave is called the Hambleton Plain, and this appears to have been an important area in prehistory, with numerous burial mounds and long earthworks extending across the plain. Two earthwork enclosures are also located on the west facing cliff tops, with the ‘hillfort’ at Roulston Scar being one of the largest in the country. Interestingly both enclosures are located above Windypit caves in the cliff face, with the one at Roulston being known as the Devil’s Parlour.


References 

Folklore Journal. (1894) Vol. 5, No. 4
Gill.T. (1852) Vallis Eboracensis

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