Monday, 17 September 2012

Swale watching - Gunnerside Gill

This post from our holiday in Swaledale was so very nearly entitled 'Bwah hah hah! Mine, all mine!', for reasons that may shortly become obvious.

For our final full day in the idyllic dale of the River Swale, Our Lass wanted to hike up to Gunnerside Gill. This is most easily accessed from the village of Gunnerside, gently climbing the valley of the eponymous Beck until the green pastures and the woods are left behind and the vista becomes at once bleaker and more industrial.

This is an industry that has long gone, yet its ruins and previous activity still scar the landscape with the ruggedly fiercesome beauty of recent archaeology.

As with much of the Pennine range of hills, very little of the landscape is not touched by human hand. For instance, the dale where I grew up in County Durham has been mined for various metals over the centuries, principally lead, iron, silver and aluminium. And that's without mentioning any quarrying for other minerals. All this activity leaves behind spoil heaps, redundant buildings and an all-consuming feeling that the land has been comprehensively worked.

Returning to North Yorkshire, Gunnerside Gill was at the centre of a lead mining boom from the 17th to the 19th Century. As we slowly ascended the eastern side of the valley, old mining structures and features came into view, until we found ourselves in a landscape that felt wild, indeed was wild, but was also the aftermath of a vast industrial process. Time has softened some of the edges, Nature has reclaimed the hills to a degree, but there's no doubt 'who woz 'ere'.

Bunton Level and Hush
The above photo shows two different methods of accessing the ore-bearing rock at Bunton Mine. The old entrance, or adit, is the only visible sign on the surface of a level driven into the hillside to reach deeper veins of galena. The deep gash in the hillside is a hush, the result of water being dammed above the lead seam and released in a rush. The overlying debris would be washed away, exposing the ore-bearing rock, which could then be extracted at the surface with picks and chisels.

North Hush and Lownathwaite Lead Mine
Across the valley from the Bunton Level, could be seen another hush leaving a deep scar on the landscape. To the left of it, a disused building and spoil heaps of unwanted tippings.


Some of the structures are now listed buildings, important in their own right as industrial archaeology. Here a mine entrance, complete with a hopper and narrow gauge railway have been conserved.


Further up the valley, where Blind Gill joins the main beck, lie the ruins of the Blakethwaite smelt mill and peat store. The peat store is in the foreground, looking for all the world like some mediaeval religious building (and I suppose if money was your God, then yes it is). The smelt mill lies behind it, and above that, the course of the flue can be just made out, running up the hillside to a long-since demolished chimney.


Here's another view of the ruin of the smelt mill and peat store, this time looking down the Gill. We ate our picnic here, by the confluence of two streams, in awe of the scale of this ancient endeavour and shocked by the lasting legacy it has left behind and the pollution it must have caused back then. The gurgling and splashing of the becks reminded us that Nature will out, and to prove it, a dragonfly appeared, caught a smaller insect and then landed beside us to consume its meal.

Common Hawker and lunch
We retraced our steps so far down the valley and then forded the beck to climb the opposite hillside on our route back to Gunnerside. A Merlin shot past us, intent on catching a Meadow Pipit, whilst a couple of Red Grouse crouched warily amongst the Heather, as distant guns signalled another game shoot. These things, too, are part of the timeless tapestry of dales life, a world away from traffic jams, mobile phones and satellite dishes.

That night, our wedding anniversary, we shared the evening meal with the other guests at Rowleth End, one couple from the North East (she, a horsewoman, and he, a huntsman) and another couple from the West Riding of Yorkshire (she, a hospital pharmacist, and he, something in consumer electronics). It was interesting listening to other people's viewpoints  and discussing our shared reasons for our journeys to Swaledale. Making conversation does not come easily to one as grumpy as myself. It's definitely more difficult than IDing dragons. However, the food and the wine worked their magic and folk were even gracious enough to laugh at my occasional jokes.

I cannot leave this post without thanking Roger and his staff for a wonderful holiday. The subtle blend of Art Deco surroundings and the welcoming informality of all at Rowleth End were the perfect antidote to the daily grind of 21st Century living. The fires may be extinguished in the smelt mills of long ago, but during the week, something was rekindled in our spirits and the flame burns afresh once more.

4 comments:

Martin said...

I love exploring this industrial landscape. Thanks for the photos of something I regard as being so very British. Industrial workings and greenery blending together into something that is almost art now. Yes once upon a time conditions would have been harsh, but I see it for what it is now - hands-on history. Something to touch and feel. Something real, not in a book.

holdingmoments said...

A fascinating and informative post Graeme.
Really enjoyed it.

Imperfect and tense said...

It was strange. The place had obviously been so busy in its heyday, but even now could only be accessed on foot or in the saddle.

Imperfect and tense said...

Thanks, Keith. If you'll pardon the pun, I was only scratching the surface of this hidden history.