Signs of digging up the Dales

Signs of digging up the Dales

Springs Canal, Skipton

Cononley Lead Mine

Cononley Lead Mine

SAMSUNG (9741370)

First published in Dales Life Craven Herald: Photograph of the Author by , Deputy Editor

THE Craven Dales were almost turned inside out in a quest for materials that could be marketed.

What comes to mind is the Springs Canal in Skipton - an attractive waterway, in a splendid setting. Its origin was industrial. Limestone blasted from Hawbank, also known as Skipton Rock, was quarried on a grand scale. In late Victorian times nearly a hundred quarrymen were employed.

Until the opening of Springs Canal, stone had been carted through the town to the basin of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. Then a narrow gauge railway delivered limestone to Springs Canal. I recall, as a Skipton lad, seeing the stone slithering down huge metal chutes into waiting barges.

Grassington Moor had its naturalness gravely disturbed by men who quested for lead. Tales were told of The Knockers, mysterious beings that dwelt in the mines and gave warning of any accident that was about to occur. When I first ventured on to Greenhow Hill, between Wharfedale and Nidderdale, in the mid-1950s, I found abundant evidence of the old mining days.

Lead was mined extensively in the vicinity of Kettlewell, Malham and Cononley. The Duke of Devonshire opened up a lead mine on the moors above Cononley and Glusburn.

Workers in the Craven lead mines were mainly of Yorkshire stock, as one might suppose, but they were augmented by immigrants from Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall. Accommodation problems at Cononley were eased when in 1832 a local building society was formed and a row of cottages was constructed for those associated with the mines.

Greenhow was highly mineralised, being on a tongue of limestone, the edge of which was distorted by geological faulting. Here were derelict mine buildings and the crumbling entrances to long-vacated mine levels. I was reminded of the human aspect when I found a rusty clog iron half buried in peat.

Surface features of the Craven lead-mining days included flues leading to moortop chimneys. Water channels and dams testify to the copious water supply needed to turn large waterwheels. A goodly number of Craven miners died, while still in their forties, from what was termed “gruver’s desease” – a respiratory complaint derived from a confined, dusty environment.

A large deposit of calamine – zinc carbonate – was mined in Pikedaw, between Settle and Malham. A chance discovery by miners looking for lead revealed a cave passage packed with calamine. This was in demand by makers of brass. Before my legs became wonky, I was fond of ascending Fountains Fell, partly for its industrial aspect, because here was a stone coke oven related to a long-expired colliery. The coal – thin, brittle stuff, in the Yoredale series of rocks – was extracted via “bell pits”.

At Helwith Bridge, in North Ribblesdale, a blue flagstone of Silurian origin was quarried, being sawn into pieces and used widely as water-cisterns, shelves and flooring in houses and on farms. Exported slate was made into vats at breweries in Yorkshire and Northern Ireland. Lead-mining in Craven declined in the 1880s. In the following decade the price of lead was at the low point of £9.50 a ton. Cheaper lead was being imported.

I found it a joy to listen to mining tales related by old-timers on and around Greenhow. George Gill, a former owner of Stump Cross Cave, which was discovered in 1860, explained that discovery that when a party of Greenhow miners was sinking trial shafts, hoping to locate a rich vein of lead, they found a natural opening at a depth of over forty feet. As it was time for a meal, they settled down to eat.

Two small boys who were working with them crawled underground, also splashing through water. They reached a large chamber that held calcite formations of great size. Rushing back to the miners, the lads said: “We’ve seen a lot of naked men leaning against a wall.” Stump Cross Cavern became a major tourist attraction.

When lime kilns were common, a small kiln was built at the foot of Castleberg, the limestone crag that dominates Settle. John Hutton (1779) heard that the inhabitants were afraid that if any more lime was dug out, the rock might fall and “bury the whole town in ruins”.

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