This week some friends of ours have been staying nearby in a holiday cottage in Leyburn. On Wednesday we went for a walk up Gunnerside Gill in Swaledale.
I'd forgotten just how magnificent it is. The village of Gunnerside stands at the foot of the Gill, almost on the banks of the Swale itself. This is the closest the road gets to the Gill, so we parked there and set off. The path on the map is slightly confusing - in fact, it doesn't seem to exist on the ground - but we soon found another, which led us to a land-rover track that contours along the steep western side of the valley. We found ourselves looking down on the stream that runs along the valley floor and across to another path that meandered across the hillside above the far bank and which would take us back to Gunnerside later on.
After a couple of miles this path arrives at the most industrialised part of the Gill. Why do we consider industry to be such an ugly intrusion on a landscape while at the same time preserving and promoting industrial heritage? The upper part of the Gill has been scoured down to bare rock by intensive mining operations. Here and there you come across the picturesque ruins of mine buildings. At first glance everything seems to be the colour of rock, or the colour of storm clouds (perhaps they're the same, or so my memory seems to tell me). The place has an austere beauty about it and, in fact, a lot of England's bleak, beautiful places were created by human industry. One need look no further than its deforested moors.
At one point on the path we came across the entrance to a mine - a drystone arch that, on closer examination, formed the start of a tunnel that ran in a straight line far into the hillside. Two of us ventured a short way in - we had to bend down as the roof was low. Ferns grew from the walls. Water trickled between the rocks on the floor. We shone the torch ahead of us. The further we ventured, the further on the tunnel seemed to go.
We didn't go far - just three or four paces. Fools rush in and all that. A complete novice, I'd been lucky enough to be taken down a Swaledale mine once before with a team experienced in mine rescue. I'd been well-drilled in the dangers at the time. Unlike caves, mines are man-made. From the moment they're first dug, nature patiently begins to reclaim them. The walls and the roofs become unstable and prone to fall in. In an old mine, I'd been told, never touch the ceiling or the walls. Carry a good supply of spare torches and batteries and woe betide anyone who gets lost underground in a maze of tunnels. The picture Tolkien paints of the Mines of Moria (well-known to Lord of the Rings readers), if anything, understates the potential awfulness of it all.
On that previous mine trip we were walking down a passage when the person ahead of me suddenly cried out and stumbled backwards. In the darkness he'd put his foot down into empty space. Fortunately, his instinctive reaction to throw himself backwards saved him on that occasion. We could hear gravel he'd dislodged from the edge of the pit clattering below us in the darkness for several seconds before it came to rest. Our torches revealed a sheer-sided hole of unknown depth that spanned the whole width of the passage-floor.
In lead mines one can come across deep, vertical passages divided horizontally by wooden floors. Spoil from side passages used to be indiscriminately heaped on these wooden platforms. Wood rots. One can stumble over -or under- one of these and set off a collapse of platform after platform. We're talking the stuff of nightmares here.
Needless to say, although the tunnel we'd discovered in the hillside went on and on, I had no desire on this occasion to go on and on into it. Instead, we stepped back into the daylight, where the others were waiting, and set off on the return leg to Gunnerside. Our outward journey had been a bleak land-rover track. This part of the walk was more interesting: the path wove up and down the steep fields of the Gill's Eastern side, in and out of drystone walls and ancient structures built by the lead miners. Towards the end it wound through a wood, running along the bank of the stream that had accompanied us -usually at a distance- all afternoon.
11 months ago