Great Ayton grew up as a village around Low Green, with its Church, Manor House and Corn Mill, three key buildings of an early settlement. The Domesday survey includes ‘Aytun’ and All Saints’ Church. Northerners had an unfortunate habit of rebelling against the monarchs in the south. Two Ayton men paid for their involvement in the 1489 rebellion by being hung in chains from the walls of York. Following the Rising of the North in 1569, many Aytonians were fined and some probably executed.
Ayton, which had been in the hands of the Neville family, were then confiscated by Queen Elizabeth and sold to the Coulson family. Through marriage, the Skottowe family then acquired the village and it was Thomas Skottowe who paid for the young James Cook’s education in the village school.
The young James Cook would have seen the view of the village as drawn by George Cuit about 1788. Many aspects of the view are little changed since Cook’s time. This cannot be said of All Saint’s Church where the 15th century tower was replaced by a simpler structure in 1788 which was then demolished in 1880 with the stone being used to build a wall around the graveyard. At the same time the length of the nave was reduced by half; this was at the time Christ Church was completed on Guisborough Road. Parts of All Saints’ date from the Normans, such as the entrance into the nave, although there is evidence of a prior Saxon church. Captain Cook’s mother and some of his siblings are buried in the churchyard. The inscription on the headstone claims that Cook was killed at Owhyhee on 14 December 1779, but should read 14 February 1779.
Ayton Hall, which can be seen from the churchyard, is a handsome Georgian building. William Wilson, a celebrated Commodore of the East India Company, retired here in 1762. The present Manor House, outwardly also Georgian, is believed to have been built around a much-earlier house.
Marwood School was opened in 1851, as a Grammar School with tuition fees of two pennies a week.
The stone bridge, a characteristic feature of the village, was built in 1777 with two arches. Increasing traffic resulted in its replacement by the present bridge in 1909. The inscription on the parapet originally had the words ‘Great Ayton’ but these were removed in the Second World War in an attempt to confuse any enemy troops arriving in the village!
The view of Roseberry Topping changed in 1912 when a rockfall produced the ‘Matterhorn’ profile seen today. Previously the hill had been likened to a volcano, Cleveland’s ‘Vesuvius’. Roseberry Topping certainly was never a volcano but is an ‘outlier’, separated from the nearby high ground by erosion. The Topping’s geology, with a hard sandstone cap, is identical to the adjacent moorland.
The path on either side of the footbridge at the bottom end of Low Green is paved with whinstone setts. The extraction of whinstone, a hard volcanic rock, was an important industry in the village for centuries. Further down Yarm Lane, the wooden-slatted drying shed of Jackson’s Tannery can be seen. It is all that remains of Great Ayton’s once-extensive leather tanning industry.