Grassington village in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is a charming little place. It has everything for the tourist or day tripper, and crowds flock there in their droves to sample the pubs, café’s and gift shops. It is also the setting for Darrowby village in the recent TV production of James Herriot’s ‘All Creature Great and Small’. It is a lovely little place and picture postcard perfect.
But if you go up the Main Street and out on the moors for a couple of miles, you will come to a very different world. One that few of the tourists could imagine. Because for hundreds of years these moors were home to the Grassington lead mines. Men, women and children toiled in dangerous and back breaking conditions just to make a meagre living from the land. However cheap Spanish imports, flooding in the mines and a general slump in the price of lead caused the mines to eventually close in the 1880’s.
Nowadays the land is scarred with many old mineshafts, levels and spoil heaps. Ruined buildings dot the landscape and several small reservoirs are now home for wildlife. It is a dangerous place for the unwary, but it is also an amazing place to visit as a walker and photographer. It is one of those places that you can spend all day on and never see anyone else. But care must be taken – the shafts are very deep and some are only covered over by rotten railway sleepers or old rusty bits of iron. They are not marked and it is easy to mistake a natural depression for a mine shaft. What may seem like a good place to sit in the shade and have your lunch can drop you 2 or 3 hundred feet to your doom!
Apart from the mines, there are also a number of caves. For under the moor lies the Black Keld System, thought to be many miles long – some believe up to 200! The old miners broke into the caves when they dug ‘Old Turf Pits’ shaft, and they stacked the ‘deads’ in there having little interest in the natural caverns. Few records survived to the modern day and despite various attempts by modern cavers so far it hasn’t been possible to enter the natural cave.
The two main caves in the area are known to drain to the Black Keld System. Langcliffe Pot is 6 miles long and across the valley is Mossdale caverns – 7 miles in length and the site of a caving tragedy in 1967 when 6 experienced cavers were drowned in a flash flood. They are buried in the cave.
The moors are also a haven for wildlife, Lapwings and Curlews frequently fly overhead as do Red Kites and Buzzards, whilst on the ground are Grouse, Pheasants and some rare butterflies and beautiful little wildflowers.
Not so long ago the moors were scarred and burnt from the lead and the ground was poisoned, but over time the healing has progressed and the heather and moor plants have started to renew.
I have spent a good deal of my time on these moors. I have been in all the accessible mine levels and have descended a crumbling shaft or two. Nowadays I just walk the moors with my trusty Olympus and a bag of lenses and some food and drink and enjoy the peace and solitude that these moors give me.
A couple of days ago I took young grandson Mackenzie on the moors to visit Mossdale Scar. It is a long walk – hard going and strenuous, but we were up to it.
We left my house and within 2 minutes we were on the Moor Road, winding North through 12 miles of gorgeous scenery across the bleak Grouse moors of Yorkshire. A left turn at Greenhow, a tiny lead mining village, and onwards past spoil heaps towards Grassington 8 miles away.
We drove slowly up the Main Street avoiding the dozens of tourists and on up the moor road to the old Mining Agents house – which is now a private residence. We parked the car at the side of the track.
We walked down the miners track for half a mile until we reached the valley bottom and turned left along the old Dressing Floor where the women and children would separate the lead ore from the rock. It would have been back breaking work.
Walking past several collapsed levels, we eventually came to the remains of Gill House farmhouse. Now just a pile of stones, I remember coming here 40 odd years ago (maybe even 50) and an old lady who must have been about 80 asking me if I would like a drink of water. She said she had lived there all her life and now she lived alone. I was the first person she had seen for over a month.
Half a mile on, at the side of a dry stone wall we came across the remains of a crashed WW11 Wellington bomber which came down in 1945. Little now remains of the wreckage, but about 4 or 5 years ago someone planted a small cross at the side of the wreckage and it is still there.
Fording a small stream, we hit the gamekeepers track and a quarter of a mile later we reached Mossdale Scar. Here the valley is grim and dark and claustrophobic. Below the scar is the entrance to Mossdale Caverns and a river disappears in the rocks beneath the scar. It is the scene of the worst caving disaster in Britain. In 1967 six young men were exploring it’s crawls when a flash flood struck – they stood no chance and were drowned. The cave is too severe and flood prone for the rescuers to get the bodies out and they remain in the cave.
We stopped for lunch and Mackenzie scrambled on the rocks and tried to find another entrance whilst I took photos and rested up a bit. Then it was time for the journey back. We went a different way following one of the ancient miners tracks , down through the valley bottoms and past a ruined building. Where ever we walked Red Grouse chicks would run from us and hide in the deep heather.
Eventually we reached the final bit – the Moor Road leading back to the car. It is only about half a mile long but quite steep and by this time the weather heated up and it was quite hot and sunny. I think we were both glad to get into the coolness of the car and head for home.