The Ryedale Windy Pits
The Ryedale windypits were first discovered by modern man during the early part of the 19th century, and are all either on or near to the valley of the River Rye between Duncombe Park and Hawnby. They are thought to have been formed by subsidence and slippage of the local limestone rock, possibly during the early Ice Age, although windypits are not limited to limestone and can form in many different types of rock.
The name ‘windypit’ is thought to refer to the rising of warm or cold air from the fissures. During cold weather, mist-like steam can be seen rising into the air from the fissure, even from quite a long distance away. Fitton and Mitchell performed some of the earliest studies of the windypits, identifying that have no streamway (and are not water formed), and they typically have deep or very steeply sloping entrances where a collapse has occurred.
Extensive exploration began in 1949 by members of the Scarborough and District Archaeological Society. John Ford of Douthwaite Dale was one of a small party exploring the depths of Slip Gill Windypit, one of the largest holes with over a 23m (75 feet) vertical pitch requiring ropes and ladders. Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Ramblers Club explored and mapped Buckland’s and Ashberry Windypits.
In general the windypits are found high up at the top of valleys, where the movement of the entire side of the valley has opened up a series of underground fractures which may later become open to the surface due to localised collapse.
Several of the largest windypits in the moors are hundreds of metres long and 30m deep, with multiple rifts and parallel rifts that take hours to explore. They are mostly unstable as they are formed by land slippage and not the action of water. However, some of the moors windypits have been eroded slightly since their formation by dripping water resulting in some extensive calcite formations and moonmilk.
Archaeologists exploring the windypits have discovered a number of bones. These bones were mainly from the remains of dogs, sheep, deer, and hogs, however unusual animals such as horse have also been found. Many human bones have been found mainly from Neolithic Man, who during the Stone Age lived in the fissures and made burials. The remains of hearths and evidence of burning is well preserved in some locations.
New windypits are frequently opening up, most recently, MSG Hole in Ryedale. This extremely extensive windypit was discovered when a tractor broke through the surface in 2011. It was explored by members of our club and the North York Moors Caving Club and found to be nearly 30m deep with over 100m of passage, requiring several ropes and ladders to reach the spectacular cavern at the end.
In 2006 a group known as the Windypit Forum was formed as part of the North York Moors National Park Authority. This group comprises archaeologists, ecologists and cavers. The purpose of the group is to create a long-term plan for controlling access and to protect the archaeology of the classical Ryedale Windypits (Antofts, Bucklands, Slip Gill and Ashberry) while enabling access to those with genuine reason to request a visit.
Surveys and descriptions of all Windypits can be found in Moorland Caver (Gibbs and Stewart 2003). Members of York Caving Club have recently been involved in resurveying of several of the Ryedale Windypits for the purpose of producing a 3D model, although this data is not publicly available.
Several Windypits may be accessed freely from public footpaths or by speaking with local landowners. For example, Blood Windypit (a superb trip) and Spider Windypit are only metres from a public footpath. Old Fat and Past It Pot in Dalby Forest (one of the area’s finest trips) may be accessed by contacting the Forestry Commission in Pickering.
The Ryedale Windypits of Duncombe Park are unfortunately not accessible:
Statement from the North York Moors National Parks:
The Ryedale Windy Pits lie on private estates and contain vulnerable archaeological deposits. They are also notified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest for their geological and biological importance, the latter as a hibernation roost for bats. Consequently, access is not permitted unless as part of an approved programme of scientific or archaeological research. For further information or to discuss access further please contact Graham Lee at the North York Moors National Park Authority.
Email: g.lee[at]northyorkmoors-npa.gov.uk (replace [at] with @)
Telephone (9am-5pm): 01439 770657
- BBC History Cold Cases - The Skeletons of the Windy Pits
Broadcast on 30th June 2003, it is a 1 hour documentary following a team of scientists taking a fresh look at the bones found at Slip Gill Windypit. More info on the BBC website page.
- Moorland Caver
Gibbs, J & Stewart, R.
J.M.G. Publishing, 2003, ISBN: 095460590X
- A History of Helmsley, Revaulex and District
Stonegate Press, 1963