In the footsteps of bygone miners of the Dales

Ahead of the Richmond Walking & Book Festival, Chris Berry meets a couple who have written a book about their discoveries in Swaledale.
Tony and Margaret Brennan with walking festival organiser Richard Wright.Tony and Margaret Brennan with walking festival organiser Richard Wright.
Tony and Margaret Brennan with walking festival organiser Richard Wright.

When regular countryside walkers Tony and Margaret Brennan became curious of the sights they came across in Arkengarthdale little did they know that some years later they would be writing a book about their findings. On Wednesday they take another step further by leading a walk as part of the Richmond Book and Walking Festival that gets underway today.

“Swaledale and its tributary Arkengarthdale are some of our favourite walking areas,” says Tony, who turned 80 this week. “We both share an interest in the lead mining that took place all around here and our insatiable curiosity led us to explore an area that was simply marked as unmapped territory.

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“We were at the opposite side of Arkengarthdale one day and looked across at what was very different to the rest of the landscape. Intrigued we made our way over and found a plethora of mining and geological antiquity and detritus. We didn’t know it at the time but what we were looking at was what the doyen of lead mining writing in this area, Arthur Raistrick, had termed The Hungry Hushes.

“This has since become the title of our book. A hush refers to a method of extracting the ore that involved a sudden release of water along the line of a lead-bearing vein to wash away the topsoil and debris to make extraction easier. This left the area with many gashes and that was part of what we saw from the other side of the valley.”

Lead mining became a major employer in the area during the 18th century although it had first been extracted from the hills and slopes in Roman times. The CB Company owned by Charles Bathurst had been set up in 1656. It ran for centuries until it finally folded in 1911 when the price of lead collapsed. Reeth was once the capital of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale’s lead mining industry, where rich veins of lead ore were processed in purpose-built stone structures. What Tony and Margaret came across that day were the remains of many of the entrances to the mines, the buildings where the ore was dressed, and terribly broken land.

“We were walking on Windegg,’ says Margaret.

“We had stopped to have our lunch and wondered what all the strange markings were that we could see across the valley. We found stone arches that were the entrances to the mines and checked out just how scarred the landscape had become where this four square kilometre stretch of lead ore mining had once flourished.”

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For a period of two years they walked every inch of ground, marking every detail by Ordnance Survey grid reference to provide the full picture. “There are quite a few books about what was mined, how much and how many were employed here, but we were interested in what was left on the surface and what us and others could see when walking. At one point we were discussing something and were stood where there was once a dressing floor, and where the workers dressed the ore that had been mined.

“A couple that were out walking with their children had overheard us talking and asked about the lead mines. That’s when we started thinking that a book like this could be useful to those coming to the area.

“What we also found was that some of the mines, although they may look inconspicuous from the outside, formed incredible tunnels inside the hills. Fagger Gill had around 15 miles of workings within the mine and due to the labyrinth of workings that developed over centuries it was possible to go underground there and not come to the surface again until you were 11 miles away and in a completely different valley. It seemed that many of the mines had ended up being connected.”

The walk Tony and Margaret are leading on Wednesday will explore each of the methods used to mine the lead ore as they find the appropriate examples of where shafts were drilled, water was used “hush-style” and “drifts” were made.

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“It’s only a five mile walk so it should be well within most walkers’ capabilities,” says Tony.

Richard Wright is the walking programme organiser for the Richmond Walking & Book Festival.

He rediscovered his love of walking when he came to the town some years ago to work at Catterick Garrison.

“The Richmond Walking Festival came about in 2001 in response to the Foot and Mouth outbreak earlier that year which had decimated visitor numbers. We needed to get people back to the countryside.”

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This year’s big news so far as walking is concerned is the relaunch of the Swale Way and has taken up a great deal of Richard’s time. “We have rejigged some of what is now a 77-mile walk starting from Boroughbridge to the Swale’s source just beyond Keld.

“We are planning on walking the Swale Way over six days, but there are plenty of other walks for visitors. Nine years ago we amalgamated with the books side through Castle Hill Bookshop here in Richmond. It h now means that there are activities both during the day and in the evenings with many special events where authors talk about their work.

“While we have internationally acclaimed authors such as Peter Robinson who writes the DCI Banks novels as our patron it’s also good to have authors such as Tony and Margaret with their book about this area.”

Anne Wicks runs the Castle Hill Bookshop that acts as the hub for much of the activity from this weekend to next weekend. “This year’s festival includes one of the UK’s best-read crime writers, Mark Billingham, who will be in conversation with Peter Robinson at Richmond School on Sunday, September 22.

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“It is always nice to have a walk that is connected with a book which is why Tony and Margaret’s The Hungry Hushes is particularly appropriate this year.

“We also have the launch of a new book titled Yorkshire’s Strangest Tales from Yorkshire born Leonora Rustamova; an afternoon tea with Gervaise Phinn at Richmond Town Hall; our ever popular secondhand Book Fair at The Station.”

The Richmond Walking & Book Festival takes place from Saturday, September 21 until Sunday, September 29. Programmes are available from Castle Hill Bookshop and throughout Richmond.