The Watercourse of History

In the mid-18th century the engineer Joseph Foord from Kirkbymoorside constructed several watercourses, mainly in the area between Kirkby and Helmsley. These were predominantly to supply farms and villages on the porous rocks (mainly limestones and sandy “calcareous grit”) of the Tabular Hills where there are no surface streams. Before Foord the only water supply to such places as Gillamoor seems to have been rainwater stored in tanks, cisterns or ponds; even the dew-pond is an 18th century invention, and the groundwater lies too deep for wells. Foord seems to have been self-taught as an engineer, but had a very keen eye for the lie of the country, and noticed that the whole landscape in this area slopes from west to east, which makes it possible to bring water down onto the limestone plateau by choosing a source to the west that is higher than the scarp crest. The watercourses were open channels contouring around the scarp’s flanks, with a gradient as low as 1 in 350 – they frequently appear to be running uphill, for example the line of the High Watercourse still visible on the west flank of Boonfield Common on its way to Newfields Barn.


Lastingham’s Watercourse or Mill Race

The Lastingham watercourse is rather different in that it seems to have been designed as a mill race, and furthermore it does not “climb” the escarpment since the village nestles at its foot, and has a perfectly good water supply from the beck (variously called Hole Beck, Ellers Beck or Lastingham Beck). There is no obvious reason why it should have been thought necessary to bring water over a mile from the headwaters of Losky Beck unless it was to top up the supply (Lastingham Beck does run very low in dry years) or to provide extra head to run an overshot (or backshot – I don’t know which the mill had) wheel which is considerably more efficient than  an undershot one turned directly by the beckwater.



There has been a mill in the village since at least 1538 when “Richard Eston had it for thirty shillings.” It ran as a corn mill till 1910, and seems to have been converted to run a turbine to supply electricity for St. Mary‘s in 1928/9. probably running until electricity arrived in 1947. The millpond was landscaped into a garden pond in the grounds of St. Mary‘s, and the end of the race itself lost in about 1960.

There is no proof that the Lastingham watercourse was built by Foord, but at least in its upstream parts it has the characteristics of his other, known works, and is of about the right date, first documented in the enclosure award for the village, on a map dated 1787. Its course, and that of a subsidiary race that ran over Camomile Hill, is clearly shown on the OS map of 1856 as “Mill Race”. The main race, though not the Camomile one, is still marked on the modern 1:25,000 map and is mostly traceable on the ground today. Part of the Camomile race can also be followed.


Course of the Mill Race

The watercourse is about 1.7 miles long. It starts at a weir on Losky Beck above Bainwood Head, at about 540' (165m), and runs more or less SSE, going under the Chimney Bank road, then along the top of the intake fields past Bainwood Head farm, where a branch was taken off to supply the house and farmyard. It continues through a boggy stretch of ground to pass under the Hutton road which it follows to Bank Foot, picking up a little spring water and land drainage on the way. It is possible that the boggy stretch was built on a kind of raft, or even used a wooden trough, both techniques that are known to have been used on other Foord watercourses.

 At Bank Foot the race passes back under the road and continues down Anserdale to Camomile Foot. This stretch runs with water today and does not really seem like an artificial cut; perhaps it made use of an existing small stream. At Camomile Foot there was a reservoir regulated by a sluice built into the bridge where the lane to Camomile Farm goes over it. This reservoir was used as a sheep-dip as well as the mill pond into the twentieth century, and even in the 1960s was usually full of water, though by then the sluice was broken; now it is usually merely boggy, with the stream running through it.

From here the race runs along the edge of St. Mary’s garden, with a spillway running below it, along the road opposite the vicarage. The spillway is regulated by a sluice-board near St. Mary‘s front gate and goes through a tunnel behind the pub to emerge into the main beck just upstream of the road bridge. The mill race runs into St. Mary‘s garden where it supplies an ornamental pond, and its final run to the mill buildings is lost.



1. A History of Helmsley, Rievaulx and District. Ed. J. McDonnell. Privately published 1963.

2. Water from the Moors. Isabel Anne McLean. Published by the North York Moors National Park 2005 who, we are sad to report, died very recently.

© Gill Smith (Wood) Feb 2006