The River Leven winds its way through Great Ayton. In the past there were three water-powered mills in the village, the earliest being Ayton Mill.
Ayton Mill was the manorial corn mill, dating from Norman times, which was situated on Mill Terrace, near the bottom of Marwood Drive. Shortly after, Low Mill (later called Grange Mill) was built on the north side of what is now the Stokesley Road. Ayton Mill was demolished in the early 20th century, but most of Grange Mill remains, now converted into a private house. The third mill, on Station Road, was built in the 1790s. Initially a cotton mill, it was later converted for oil extraction.
Finally, a water turbine was installed to generate electricity for the Friends’ School. It was demolished and rebuilt as apartments when the school closed in 1997. Beech trees at the foot of Station Road were planted to provide wood for the stampers used to crush the seeds in the oil mill.
Ayton Mill and Grange Mill were both powered by water flowing along the mill race from above the weir here in Waterfall Park. The sluice gate is still visible. The unusual arrangement of two mills sharing the same race was because there was only one suitable point to dam this section of the river The mill race crossed Easby Lane and ran along the side of Race Terrace. The tail race from Ayton Mill passed under the ‘Guinea Pig Inn’ and the Stokesley Road and on to Grange Mill.
Because most of the river flow was diverted down the mill race, and village sewage tended to end up in the river, conditions became unpleasant, particularly in summer. On Sundays the sluice gate was closed, allowing the full flow of the Leven flushing out the course of the river through the village.
Floods have caused damage and loss of life on several occasions. The most devastating flood was in 1840 when fish ponds at Kildale burst their banks and a two-metre high wave of water tore through the village. This flood swept away the dam, which was rebuilt in its present form by the local benefactor Thomas Richardson. In 1937 a local boy survived falling into flood waters but two adults, one being his father, drowned in the attempted rescue.
The Victorian urinal is the only survivor of three erected following the introduction of underground sewers in the village in the 1890s. It was positioned at the junction of Station Road and Little Ayton Lane, but moved here when the mini-roundabout was constructed. Another urinal was originally by the Stone Bridge but, following objections by the vicar and the resident of Ayton House, was moved to a site opposite where the present Beech Close joins the High Street. The ‘No.5’ urinals were probably supplied by Lockerbie and Wilkinson of Tipton.
Whitbread Bridge, between Waterfall Park and the High Street, is a memorial to the miners of Ayton (Monument) Mine who were killed in action in the First World War. The commemorative plaque is supported on a length of rail track from the mine.
Gribdale Gate and the Captain Cook Monument feature in the Captain Cook Tour. This tour is a circular route of around 70 miles (113km) with distinctive brown & white road signs from Marton, in Middlesbrough, through Great Ayton and the coast at Saltburn with its smuggling history, then on to Staithes and Whitby, returning across the North York Moors via Guisborough.
The tour may be joined at any point although starting at Marton is the logical point, to follow the Cook story from his birthplace.
The tour can be completed by car in a whole day, but to take full advantage of the Cook related attractions, the opportunities for short walks and just soaking up the special atmosphere of Cook Country, two or more days can be spent. The tour can of course also be made by public transport and there are ample walking and cycling possibilities along the way.