Travel around California and every so often you’ll stumble across what looks like a film set. Often in the middle of nowhere, there will be the remains of a small town, complete with rows of wooden houses, a sheriff’s office and the decaying wooden structure which for a few years during the mid 19th century supported a gold mine. Yorkshire’s own Klondike lasted a little longer and while its prospectors didn’t wear 10 gallon hats and were on the hunt for ironstone not gold, the philosophy was much the same – plunder what lay beneath the landscape, often at any cost.
“The ironstone rush lasted from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century and in the early years it was not only rich pickings, but it was easy pickings,” says Tom Mutton, who works for the North York Moors National Park Authority. “The area from Goathland to Grosmont, then westwards along the Esk Valley to Kildale, and finally up and over the moors south-eastwards to reach Rosedale was discovered to be rich in ironstone and in some parts they didn’t even have to mine for the stuff it was so close to the surface.
“Not only was it plentiful and accessible, a lot of it was also incredibly good quality. A typical piece of ironstone would be 30 or 40 per cent iron and 60 per cent rubbish. In the North York Moors, those ratios were reversed. Almost overnight an industry was born and it was one that attracted more than its fair share of mavericks.”
As word spread about just how rich the North York Moors system was, people flocked to the area in their thousands. Prospectors wanted to claim ownership of sections of land, engineers saw an opportunity to build an industry into the hillsides and others were just grateful for the promise of regular work.
“It might have been a profitable business for a while, but it was a hard way to earn a living. Now people come to the North York Moors to breathe in the fresh air of the great outdoors, but back then, let’s just say it wasn’t a good place to do your washing. There was a lot of muck and grime and it was also dangerous work. There are newspaper reports of one man having to have his legs amputated after they were crushed by a train and who knows how many others were injured or lost their lives,” says Tom.
The ironstone industry disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. As the ironstone dried up, the men who mined it moved on and the once red hot kilns and the chimneys that had belched out smoke were abandoned.
Over the decades the ramshackle cottages that had provided a temporary home to the itinerant workforce were demolished and the workshops crumbled, but now the industrial chapter in the history of the North York Moors is about to be revisited thanks to the £3.8m Land of Iron project.
Launching this month and spanning the next five years, the aim is threefold. As well as telling the story of the period of industrial growth and exploitation, the money will also be used to record and conserve the various monuments and structures and protect the flora and fauna which went on to reclaim the moorland.
“Within this 77-square mile area there is a remarkable mix of built heritage sites, some visually breathtaking, such as the calcining kilns at Rosedale and the ventilation chimney at Warren Moor Mine, and some almost hidden from view, such as Grosmont Ironworks and the mines at Beck Hole and Esk Valley, and yet we know that most people either don’t even know they are there or if they do, have little knowledge of what they were once used for.
“We have been aware for a number of years that a lot of what does remain is in quite a fragile condition – some of it has even melted back into the natural landscape. We want to make sure that the structures which are still standing are still there in another 50 or 100 years time and we also want to bring those buildings to life.”
It is an ambitious project. Using 3D modelling, the team plan to map the former industrial areas, and as well as an interactive display in the main visitor centre at Danby, they hope to develop an app which will allow visitors to the area to take part in their own self-guided tour.
“It will be a little bit like Pokemon Go,” says Tom. “We want people to be able to hold their phone up to a particular point in the landscape and when they do up will pop what it looked like when the ironstone industry was at its height. It is a truly incredible story, but these days you need more than a few black and white photos to bring it to life.
“By 2021 our hope is that the landscape and ironstone heritage of the North York Moors will be in a better condition and better cared for, will be better understood and valued by more people, and will have a more sustainable future.”
Seven sites have been earmarked for conservation, including the mine workings of Esk Valley, the remains of three blast furnaces at Grosmont and the extensive mining complex lost under woodland at Combs Wood.
The project is a Landscape Partnership scheme, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Park Authority, David Ross Foundation and numerous other organisations, including a small army of local historians whose knowledge of the area’s past is unrivalled.
“You could walk for miles today and have absolutely no idea that you are passing through a site of what was once heavy industry,” says Geoff Taylor, who is a member of the Kirby, Great Broughton and Ingleby Greenhow local history group, which has done much research into the life and times of the Rosedale railway which was built to replace the horse and carts that initially carried the ironstone to the smelting plants. “Iron ore is incredibly heavy. You could only load a certain amount onto each cart and you can imagine the damage that they did to the tracks which a few years earlier had only been used by farmers. It opened in 1861 and took just 18 months to build the railway which would have been an impressive feat at the best of times, but that winter was so severe there were up to 25ft snowdrifts in the cuttings.
“People used to refer to the area as Little Siberia. It was a pretty primitive lifestyle and when the ironstone industry collapsed there was no reason for most people to stay. With nothing and no one to carry, the railway also became redundant and it wasn’t long before grass started growing between the tracks. Quite quickly it was reclaimed by the landscape and it now forms part of the Coast to Coast walk. I suspect that most people don’t give it much of a second thought as they walk along it, but this project will finally give us a chance to tell them the history of what lies beneath their feet.”
This Exploited Land of Iron will be launched on March 18 with a day-long Ironfest event. As well as activities centred around the Moors National Park Centre in Danby, there will be an exhibition of work by photographer Ian MacDonald and artist James McGairy.