Deep in Swaledale, a glacier-formed valley spanning east to west across the top of the Yorkshire Dales, is the village of Gunnerside, its two to three dozen cottages rising in terraces. They seem to cling to the north rim of the valley, busily huddled together in a landscape swooping and spacious by comparison. Strangely though, the original inhabitants weren’t as interested in admiring the valley as much as melting it down.
‘There are veins of lead under the ground,’ explains Vivienne Crow, writer of this Discovering Britain trail. ‘During the height of the Industrial Revolution, the lead mines across the north Pennines were the busiest in the world, and Gunnerside was one of the most productive.’ But how did workers access the seams? Walking through the cluster of cottages, it becomes clear that they are hiding another secondary valley – a ‘gill’ – behind it, which ribbons beyond, through forest to the moor above. It has the look and feel of a secret passage.
The narrow footpath follows the course of the stream – or ‘beck’ as it is known in this part of the country – which created the valley. The beck is key to the gill’s mining story but it also hints at an earlier history of Norse culture in this area. It comes from bekkr, the Norse word for stream, while ‘gill’ comes from gjil, for a small valley or ravine. ‘There are remnants of Old Norse all over upper Swaledale,’ says Crow. ‘There’s also fors meaning waterfall, fjalls for hills.’
The place names are hangers-on from when Scandinavians came to the upper part of Swaledale in the tenth century. ‘They would have come across by way of Ireland and the Isle of Man, on a circular route from Scandinavia,’ Crow explains. The geography was named by Vikings, but the trudgers of this particular path were mineworkers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Once beyond the view of the village, the track begins to rise away from the waterside, up the gill’s east side. Still in winter, there are no leaves on the trees, but strings of lichen and moss on tree branches suggest spring, while indicating clean air. It might have been a different story 200 years ago. ‘The woods would have been cut down to fuel the furnaces, and poisonous fumes would have clouded the valley,’ explains Crow.
At a steep gradient, the path is slippery over dark tree roots and the tough, teal-coloured grasses that have outlasted the frost. It’s a treacherous route, but this path would have been the commute for hundreds of workers every day. And it gets worse. ‘There’s a local legend that they used to knit as they walked,’ says Crow. The knitting is a nod towards the area’s economical mainstay of farming sheep for wool, which still continues today. Over the top of the woods are dozens of drystone barns scattered like Monopoly houses over squares of pasture.
Time was precious for the mine workers of Gunnerside Gill, more so than for most. ‘People didn’t live very long near to this industry,’ says Crow. Apart from the treacherous commute there were also the health hazards of working with lead.
Lead poisoning is associated with abdominal problems, learning difficulties in children, memory loss, kidney disease, high blood pressure and reproductive issues. ‘There’s anecdotal evidence of these effects,’ says Crow, ‘but there’s also the obvious physical challenge of working with rocks all day.’
Suddenly, the forest opens out onto a wider flood bank, where the first signs of the mines are visible. On the right side of the beck is a row of small rooms, open on one side, similar to stalls. ‘These were part of the dressing floor of the mine,’ says Crow. ‘Excavated rock was brought down here to be separated into waste and lead ore.’ Waste rock was left in heaps that are still visible today. Though it was gruelling, sorting the rock was considered lowly work and it was underpaid. ‘Women and children were employed to do it. They would just be shifting rocks for hours per day, mostly by hand, but occasionally by water.’
Water was put to more effective use further up the gill. In fact, it has left lasting scars on the landscape. ‘In these old mining landscapes, you come across small areas of complete desecration,’ Crow says. If there’s any desecration in Gunnerside Gill, the ‘hushes’ are it. Rising up the east side of the gill, two smaller tributaries are completely bare of their vegetation down to the bedrock, as though they have been skinned. ‘It’s never grown back,’ she says.
These visible scars were made by ‘hushing’, an unreliably gentle term for the process of releasing huge quantities of water at the top of the valley in order to remove the topsoil. ‘There’s a bit of debate among industrial archaeologists about what the role of hushing was and how it would have taken place,’ says Crow, ‘but it is generally agreed that they would create dams higher up the hillside, to build up water, and release it all at a given moment.’ The force of the water would expose the lead veins underneath, allowing miners to excavate the ore straight from ground.
More traditional signs of mining are also found around here. Dotted on the hillsides are tunnel entrances known as ‘adits’ that would have been excavated on a level through the rock and accessed from the top of the moor by mine shafts. One of these old entrances still has a rusted mine cart across the entrance.
The valley becomes narrower, more ravine-like, and ruins are everywhere. Unlike the hushes, the dilapidated buildings and blown-out walls seem to blend in with the moor. There’s the grey belly of a furnace still visible on the hillside, and graceful arches of a storage building. ‘The structures seem church-like, especially in such a remote and beautiful part of the valley,’ says Crow.
The furnace is part of the old smelter, where the ore was melted down into metal. Initially the ore would have been carted out of the valley to be melted down elsewhere. However, in their heyday the mines were productive enough to have a smelter on site. The long, grey remains of a chimney flue runs from the bottom to the top of the valley. ‘It would have been made in an attempt to remove the noxious fumes from the gill,’ says Crow. ‘It might have improved conditions a bit, but young boys were still sent up there to scrape the solidified lead off the sides.’
The walk ends at a confluence of two streams under the ruins. It runs frothy and brown here, which was another clue to the mine’s prosperity. The beck was an important source of power for the furnace, but it wasn’t the only one. Smelters in this part of the country were lucky enough to have a ready second source of power – peat. Over the lip of the valley are vast stores of peat, which could be cut, dried and burnt as a fuel. Running alongside the flue was a peat slide to get the cut soil to the bottom of the valley. From there it would be taken to the open, arched building to dry. ‘The brown colour of the water comes from filtering through the peat,’ says Crow. ‘It looks dirty but is actually very clean.’
There is still lead ore under the gill, but the market collapsed with cheaper competition from the Americas and Spain at the end of the 19th century. The collapse meant the valley went quiet and the prosperity of Gunnerside came to an end. But the land has had time to recover. Strangely, the walk today through the gully to the ruins seems more like a pilgrimage today than an industrial tour.
‘There is something oddly romantic about it,’ says Crow. Nature has softened the edges of what used to be hard and dangerous work.
This was published in the April 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.
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