A desolate past industrial lead mining landscape – a loop walk from Gunnerside
With the stay at home restriction being released on the previous Monday, I was desperate to get out and back up to the Yorkshire Dales. My pal Paul had a day off work on the Thursday so I suggested meeting in Swaledale to do a walk I had seen in a great little book I’d bought called Walk the Yorkshire Dales by John and Judi Johnson.
The walk was a 10 miler up over wild moorland before walking through abandoned lead mines and returning via Gunnerside Gill.
We parked near the Kings Head pub just next to the bottom of the Gill, but rather than just walking straight up the path we followed the main road through the village for a while before meeting a metalled track on the left heading up hill.
The track winds up hill very steeply, which was a shock to the system so early in the walk. Eventually we came to a gate which took us onto the heather moorland and a rougher track which still kept climbing, allowing us to gain height quickly.
Looking back from various points on this ascent, there were stunning views back over Gunnerside Meadows. This is one of the iconic views of the Dales with a mosaic of dry stone walls and field barns covering the whole of the Swaledale valley bottom, with the stone cottages of the village perched on the edge of the dale.
As we climb over the heather moorland, we started to meet lines of grouse butts where shooting of grouse takes place regularly from 12th August till 10th December. There was lots of evidence of where squares of heather had been burnt to encourage new growth shoots supposedly for the grouse to feed on. As well as looking a mess there is growing evidence that the tradition causes masses of harm to the environment, drying the moor, killing the local wildlife, releasing masses of carbon and increasing risk of flooding in the valley.
We started to see the tell-tale signs of an early small scale lead mining industry with lines of round mounds. This is all that is left now of the Bell pits, where miners would find a lead vein and dig down into the ground and out, almost creating a conical flask shaped hole in the ground as they mined the lead before digging a new Bell pit along the vein.
The moorland path eventually meets another track at a T junction just to the left of Old Gang Mines, and it is here that you start to get a grasp of the scale of the later lead mining in the area done on an industrial scale. Even 150 years after lead mining came to an end in the Dale, the evidence and devastation of the landscape is still there to be seen.
There were miles of just waste land with scree and stone left on the surface with old pieces of machinery such as lead crushers and even an old chair dotted around the landscape.
It was freezing up here in the wilds of Swaledale with strong winds creating a further wind chill. But it did make you think about life in the late 1700’s/early 1800’s when men would have made this 4 mile walk from Gunnerside each day just to go to work, spending their days in these cold, windy, bleak locations without the benefit of micro fleeces and Gortex waterproofs.
We explored this weird almost lunar landscape before picking up a path along the edge of the moors which climbed further up the valley to Blakethwaite Dams. Here we start to see further examples of the devastation on the landscape with scoured out scars on the valley sides known as “Hushes”.
This is where streams were dammed with turf walls before the water was released to scour the hillside and remove the surface vegetation to expose potentially new veins of lead. The sound of the water being released gave a “hush” sound, giving the scars their name.
If you look at the map of the area, there are many hushes marked – the Gorton Hush, the Bunton Hush, the Frairfold Hush and many more.
Eventually we came to a stone National Parks building with two stone seats and a great view back down Gunnerside Gill.
The path eventually comes to an end just after the remains of Blakenthwaite lead mines close to where you can see what look like the remains of a pair of bridges over the gill. They are actually two dams. Here we had to pick a straight line and head to these stone structures where we stopped for lunch.
Blakenthwaite Gill joins Cross Gill before their becks run into Gunnerside Gill. It is worth noting the word “Gill” is Norse in origin and means gully or ravine. The Becks which run through the Gills are streams but come from the Norse word Bekkr.
The Dams are the remains of where the flow of the water down the valley was artificially controlled to help the water powered lead mining processes further down the valley such as powering bellows in the smelt mills or driving water wheels to power crushing machines.
After lunch we had a tricky time descending from the dams, past a sheep fold to the side of the Gill where the path then follows the beck for a mile of so past limestone cliffs, before reaching more lead mines.
You can still see the mine entrances (or “Adits”) on the hillside. But here are some more great examples of the ruins of the old lead processing including peat stores used to dry the peat to be burnt to fuel the smelt mills as well as evidence of dressing floors and crushing.
The arches of the peat store and smelt mill still remain and almost look like the Romanesque architecture of a Norman church. It is very eerie having sites like this to yourself, knowing that for hundreds of years these locations were bustling, busy hives of industry with men, women and children all working hard in these bleak locations.
Once the lead had been mined from the hillside, the lead ore or galena would have been still set into the limestone, so was stored in what where known as Bourse Teams. This was then taken to Dressing floors were where women and boys would have “dressed the stone” hammering the mined material to separate the valuable ore, leaving the waste rock which is scattered across the landscape now and along valley sides. This was a physical process and had to be done by hand.
Once the ore had been separated from the rock, it would be crushed and then heated to remove impurities and smelted into bars or “pigs” of lead.
From here the path down the valley gets easier and is well defined, walking along the valley side along Jingle Pot Edge. As you can see Gunnerside again in the valley the main path bears sharp right, but we took a less well marked path across sheep pasture to descend back down into the village.
Whilst the walk has some great views at the start and finish, it is not the most beautiful walk in the dales. But over the course of its 10 miles, you get bleakness in spades and really feel like you are in the middle to nowhere. The industrial archaeology is what makes this walk special and it is fascinating to see and gain an understanding to how hard life in the Dales was 200 years ago when it was a working landscape as opposed to a centre of tourism.