Today, there are few more tranquil spots in Yorkshire than where the North York Moors roll around Rosedale in a snug embrace.
However, for a brief period in time, covering just a couple of generations, this was the pulsing heart of industrial Britain. It’s estimated that over 4,000 souls crammed into this space, chimneys and furnaces belched flame and soot into the skies and an endless parade of railway trucks took iron ore to destinations all over the world.
Iron mining began here in 1856, and almost immediately it was Yorkshire’s own Klondike. At first, ore was hewn from the rock faces, but then shafts were drilled into the hillsides. Hollins Mine was the one that started it all and the ore recovered from the earth had strange magnetic qualities.
The mines flourished for less than a century. At the peak of this industry, there were around 100 of them. But by the 1920s all the available ore had been extracted, the cost of getting it all out had soared, and there was little (if any) profit to be had. The boom was over, and the bust was imminent. Not that all the mining ventures were successful. Many were, but others failed, and their speculative owners lost a lot of money. One by one the mines all closed and the branch line laid by the North Eastern Railway to transport the ore away to waiting steelworks was ripped up.
That line, which was always intended for industry and never for public use, is now a fine walking and cycling trail of about nine miles in length and is hugely popular with visitors.
Buildings fell into disrepair and crumbled. Kilns collapsed, ventilation chimneys teetered and fell. Much of the stone was recycled – there’s a story that the community hall in Hutton-le-Hole is actually built with blocks from several of the abandoned sites. This extraordinary period of the county’s history was in danger of being neglected. That is until the North York Moors authority decided that here, at their very heart, was a remarkable legacy and a story that had to be told.
Now, some 20 years after the idea was mooted, comes the reality. The Land of Iron exhibition is at the heart of a new visitor experience – part of a £4m project – at the Moors National Park Centre on the outskirts of Danby. Much of the funding has come from the National Lottery, with added investment from other groups and individuals, and the exhibition opens tomorrow.
This new experience charts the story of the Park, its landscape, history and its flora and fauna. Land of Iron is seeking to engage every visitor – from the very young to those entitled to their bus passes. It includes 3D exhibits, animation and interactive hands-on experiences.
A specially commissioned film of the people and places of the park is particularly impressive. There are also many poignant pictures of the area when it was producing ore by the megaton. Not just of the process, but of the people themselves who lived here.
The aim of the new project is not just to cast a light on the richness and diversity of the North York Moors National Park (NYMNP) but also to make sure that visitors will keep coming back. It is housed in what was a shooting lodge for a local private estate. Once open to the privileged few, it is now here for everyone.
“To be honest, we started with the idea that we could easily offer a hundred activities to experience and enjoy, but we thought that might be just too much of an overload, and we pared it back to 50 instead,” says Julian Brown, the park’s interpretation manager.
“One of the questions that people always ask”, says Tom Mutton, the programme manager for NYMNP, “is ‘where did those 4,000 people come from’? And the answer is simple. All over. They came from Scotland and from Cornwall and everywhere in between. Any place at all which had a history of mining. Many were locals. Some stayed when it finished, but very few. There are still a few descendants of the first miners around this area, but not a lot. They moved on. And you have to admire these men and their families. Boys went into the mines from a very young age, and they were very dangerous places to be.”
As Tom says, it was a hard life. “The wages were poor, they were given tokens for their efforts which had to be spent in the shops and pubs owned by their masters. And because they were almost all self-employed they had to buy their own supplies, and gunpowder, fuses and candles when blasting was required.
“Their bosses didn’t give anything to them, it was their responsibility. They’d take it deep inside the shaft, drill the hole to put the explosive in, add the fuse, and then light it. From a naked flame. Can you believe that? As soon as the fuse was ignited, they’d have to run like hell to get as far away as they possibly could. But these were sought-after jobs, because, even though the wages were contemptibly low, they were still higher than the weekly money paid to farm labourers in the area, who received a relative pittance.”
Julian adds: “It’s hardly any wonder that, given all the danger that was around them, day in, day out, the churchyards at places like Grosmont are full of gravestones commemorating these lads, and the manner of their deaths.”
Today, the Park covers some 554 square miles. It employs 125 people full time and there are 500 “active volunteers” and it welcomes up to eight million visitors every year.
The old Danby centre had an annual footfall of around 100,000, a figure that is expected to rise significantly.
The Danby centre, however, is really only part of a much bigger picture. Many of the key industrial heritage sites around Rosedale have also had significant makeovers, becoming “mini-exhibitions” in their own right.
“If there is one purpose that runs through all this effort”, says Tom, “it is to bring this area, with its incredible past, alive again”.