A Bit About Britain’s geomorphological expert will know that erratics are rocks that have been transported by a glacier, and left behind when the ice has melted some distance from where they started. It’s a descriptive term, because ‘erratic’ means “uncertain in movement, irregular in conduct, habit, opinion” (Oxford dictionary of English) and rock erratics can certainly look disorderly. They are also known as ‘boulders in the wrong place’ and are frequently of a different rock type to the one they end up sitting on; so they can indicate former ice flow. The Norber Erratics on the southern slopes of Ingleborough in Yorkshire’s Dales country are a prime example. They have a very distinctive appearance – and there are loads of them, all gathered together in one area.
The Norber Erratics are (apparently) a hard form of sandstone known as ‘greywacke’. They date from the Silurian period and are about 430 million years old. I hope that makes you feel better about yourself. The rock underneath is carboniferous limestone, which is younger by around 100 million years, formed in a shallow, tropical, sea. As Sherlock might have said, “Sedimentary, my dear Watson.” It’s thought that the older sandstone boulders were ripped from the ground by massive ice sheets and deposited at the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago. Some erratics of the Norber variety are perched on relatively narrow pedestals of limestone, because the base of the older and harder sandstone has protected the weaker limestone below from erosion. Anyway, you can also tell the darker sandstone from the lighter coloured limestone, because the former is covered in green lichen and the latter in white. I’m honest enough to admit that I hadn’t noticed that and didn’t know about it until I read it.
Place names fascinate me. I’m intrigued by ‘Norber’ and, assuming it didn’t once belong to a landowner called Norbert (which I guess is possible), like to imagine a conversation between a local farmer and a visitor to the Dales long ago that went something like:
Ancient tourist: “What are those rocks?”
Ancient farmer: “Why, t’aint nobbut erratics…”
A more likely, prosaic, option of ‘hill to the north’ is offered by the Daelnet website, presumably derived from the Old English nord and the Anglian beorg or Old Norse berg.
The Norber Erratics is said to be one of the finest groups of glacial erratics in Britain. Frankly, I find it hard to compare. But a walk to see them is well worth the slight effort. They are all a-jumble, as though some giant has scoped up handfuls of large stones and scattered them, randomly across the landscape, in a dice-throwing move of the arm. In good weather, it’s a delight and a good place for a picnic. The walk to get there takes you through some lovely, verdant, Yorkshire Dales scenery and the views are great. In poor weather, I imagine it to be a bleak, unfriendly, place, where it’s easy to miss your footing – or your way. Beyond the erratics lies a limestone landscape that needs to be explored another time (though it can form part of a slightly longer circular walk).
Walk to Norber Erratics
The easiest route is from the village of Austwick. Starting from the old market cross (probably 15th century, pillar c1830s) in the centre of the village:
- Take the road to Horton, pass the Game Cock Inn and the school, and turn left up Townhead Lane.
- Pass Austwick Hall and take a footpath on the right by an old milk-churn stand. The path goes through someone’s garden. At the top, go straight ahead to a stone wall by a driveway and cross the stile into a field.
- Keep going up, then down by an old barn on your right, cross a track (Thwaite Lane), over the wall opposite into another field where a stream bubbles, up the hill to a ladder stile at the top.
- Cross the lane (Crummack Lane) and go over the stile more or less opposite.
- The path will take you by Nappa Scars (it’s a bit of a drop, so watch your step) and at the end of a small rock face you’ll see Norber Erratics on your right, behind a wall with steps over. It looks as though the wall’s trying to keep the rocks penned in.
There’s an easy circular route from the village of Clapham, which starts at the back of the National Park Car Park across fields to Austwick. And then, from Norber Erratics, follow the path to the west, back down the hill skirting a boggy depression (I know, I know – I get them too) back onto Thwaite Lane. Turn right and back to Clapham via the tunnels under Ingleborough Hall Estate to the church. Turn left to return to the car park.
The area is covered by Ordnance Survey OL2 map.