Spirits of the lead miners that still stalk Stump Cross

Craven Herald: George Gill, former owner of Stump Cross Caverns George Gill, former owner of Stump Cross Caverns

Stump Cross, on Greenhow Hill, 1,275 feet above sea level, marked the boundary between Craven and the Forest of Knaresborough. It has long been a spooky area. A miner who periodically walked the high-road scared any late wayfarer who heard the clip, clip of his clogs. A soldier who died during a march over Greenhow was buried at the roadside. Bill Mitchell, of Giggleswick, relates some of the inexplicable tales of a fabled hill.

While the lead miners have departed from Greenhow Hill, their spirit lives on. A member of the Cave Survey Group was camping by the hut at Stump Cross one moonlit night when, about midnight, he heard the sound of clogs on the road. He investigated. The sound came nearer, passed him and went towards Greenhow. There was no one about. The old-time miners – known collectively as t’Old Man – formed the subject of special study by the late Harald John Lexow Bruff, author of “t’Oade Uns upuv Greenho’” who judged that the mining population may have been of Yorkshire stock with Scots, Irish and Cornish blood grafted onto it. There was also an auxiliary labour contingent of Welshmen.

Local dialect would therefore take some sorting out. Bruff, who in the 1930s was secretary and treasurer of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, was an enthusiastic supporter of a scheme to record the many Yorkshire dialects before they were flattened out by better education and the cinema “talkies”.

A geological map shows a tongue of limestone reaching out from Wharfedale to Greenhow, the edge of it being distorted by the Craven Fault. From its knobbly, windswept acres came innumerable King’s ransoms in lead.

A prime tale-teller in my early days at The Dalesman was George Gill, a former proprietor of Stump Cross Caverns, which lie beneath Craven Moor.

In his day, the caverns extended to about two miles, a quarter of a mile being convenient for visitors. The rest was a happy crawling ground for cavers. George had just taken over the Caverns in 1939 and was living in Duck Street at Greenhow when – on a moonlit night, of course – he heard clogs outside the house. They sounded on the gravel of the road, then on the cobblestones by its side, and finally on the gritstone slab at the door. There was no-one to be seen, ether by himself or his wife.

T’Old Man was involved in the discovery of the Caverns. In 1860, miners followed rich seams of lead to their termination. They sank a number of trial shafts in the hope of locating more. When a shaft reached a depth of between 40 and 50 feet a natural opening was found. It was mealtime. The men settled down to eat.

Two small boys, who had been working with them, managed to get a light and crawled along a winding and tortuous passage, alternately walking and crawling, invariably splashing through water.

They entered a large chamber containing a row of impressive stalactites. Rushing back to the miners, the lads excitedly reported having seen a lot of naked men leaning against a wall.

The story did not end there. Recovered from this cave system were four almost complete skeletons of reindeer, together with a much smaller skeleton that can only have belonged to one that was unborn when tragedy befell its mother.

What had happened to the deer must be speculation, but it was supposed they had been grazing on a hill slope when an ice dam, high above, was breached A torrent of water washed the drowned deer into a pothole and thus underground. They were possibly swirled along by the water until the bodies settled in a sheltered part, here to decompose and remain untouched for thousands of years. I saw the bones when visiting Major ER Collins, of Nidderdale, to whom had fallen the task of restoring the skeletons. Boxes of bones, cleared of mud and dipped in size to preserve them, ensure that this treasure from Greenhow would endure.

The Greenhow miners I chatted with more than 50 years ago were not happy when they found lead. They were seeking fluorspar for the steel industry. And they wanted the stuff as pure as possible. Fred Walker, a descendant of the Greenhow lead miners, told me that for steel-making it should be over 80 per cent pure. Getting rid of the lead was the worst aspect of the problem!

Fred lived at Dry Ghyll, a roadside building that was formerly the Grouse Inn. It was outside, on a patch of grass beside the road that a lead miner called Joss fought Gipsy Jack, whose home was a horse-drawn caravan. The dispute was over a horse deal. It was so violent the face of the inn was splashed with blood. The winner was – Joss.

Fred heard ghostly clog-sounds on the road over Greenhow. The sounds indicated that a man was stepping from a bicycle prior to walking beside it. Fred looked in the direction of the sounds. There was no one about.

He showed me some of the objects brought out of old workings. They included a fragment of a clock, the rusted head of a shovel and clay pipes galore. In one old mine the skeleton of a fox was found. The animal had been curled-up when it died.

Legends abound. A troop of soldiers marching from York set off up Greenhow Hill. A soldier named John Kay collapsed with sunstroke; he was carried to a stone water trough at the top of the hill and his head was bathed with sphagnum moss. The poor lad died and was buried at the roadside. No-one claimed the body, so the Greenhow miners adopted him. As they passed the grave on their way to and from work they cried: “Gie a knock, John Kay”.

An old friend, Dorothy Ashman, who lived near the church on Greenhow, found that life in this silent little village, with its ever-changing moods, was a unique experience. On a moonlit night, the atmosphere might be charged with a special aura of ghostly expectancy.

Dorothy said: “The clouds, scudding fearfully over a reluctant moon, give a kaleidoscopic effect of black enigmatic shapes flitting about on strange unearthly quests; and this impression of an active ghostly population is borne out, sometimes reluctantly, by people of local standing.”

She began scraping out an accumulation of trodden-down earth that lay thick over the kitchen flagstones - and discovered that one of them was a gravestone dated 1749. The gravestone, protected by a rug, was left in place.

Dorothy hoped that the lady whom it commemorated would not decide to walk on a moonlit night. She might find the road over Greenhow crowded with other pedestrian ghosts.

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