THIS is an account of a short walk in the hills above Arkengarthdale – but it has a back story that begins in the early 1980s and involves a group of mine explorers and an elusive portal into the underworld known as the Brandy Bottle Incline . . .
The Brandy Bottle Incline was a tunnel – in fact two parallel tunnels dug during the 19th Century – that descended at a steep angle into the moors between Arkengarthdale and Swalesdale, in the north Pennines, to intercept a rich band of mineralised ground called the Friarfold Vein.
The veins in the immediate area, which were rich in lead, were worked by some huge operations – namely the Friarfold, Old Gang and Surrender mines, with the equally extensive Gunnerside mines to the south in Swaledale. A hundred-and-fifty years ago, this was an industrious place. It was bustling. It was productive. And with a lead-miner’s life expectancy of 45 years – it was unhealthy.
Stark spoil-heaps smothered the valley sides. Lead smelters filled the pure Pennine air with noxious fumes. Hushes gouged ugly ravines in the moors. I shall return to hushes because they need an explanation. Let’s just say for now they were ugly chasms that changed the Pennine landscape for ever. (Click pictures for high-res versions)
One Sunday morning, with damp mist obscuring the visible world, a dozen mine explorers wearing Wellington boots and overalls set out from Surrender Bridge along a track that someone said led to the Brandy Bottle Incline.
We walked for miles through mist, cold rain and rasping heather until we were soaked to the skin. The best part of a cheerless day was spent tramping in circles searching – unsuccessfully – for the Brandy Bottle Incline. We took all the right steps, as they say, but not necessarily in the right order.
That was about thirty years ago. Today I’m returning to that narrow fold in the hills between Surrender Moss and Melbecks Moor for a long-overdue visit to the Brandy Bottle Incline. If it’s still there, that is.
The day is already old because I slept in this morning and then planted three rows of Japanese winter onions on the allotment before setting out. I bet Reinhold Messner never embraced such a strict training regime in preparation for his oxygen-less assault on Everest. I bet he doesn’t grow Japanese onions either.
At about 2pm, after driving through the famous ford that featured in the opening titles of All Creatures Great and Small, and tramping up a track along Mine Gill, I arrive at the ruins of the Old Gang Smelt Mill.
These mills, which are numerous in the Pennines, had long flues that stretched many hundreds of feet up the fellside to increase the draught and condense furnace fumes into mineralised residues. Periodically, the flues would shut down and men would be sent inside to scrape out deposits of lead and arsenic. Are you beginning to see where the low life-expectancy thing comes in? And these chaps were just the surface workers. They had the easy job.
At the Old Gang mill, galena – the ore of lead – was crushed in a water-powered stamping mill and separated from its accompanying veinstone by gravitation in contraptions called jigs and buddles. It was then smelted in a furnace fuelled by peat dug from the fell. The operation was very self-sufficient. Not environmentally friendly, carbon neutral or conducive to health and wellbeing – just self-sufficient.
There are some colourful topographical names around here, many of which have their origins in mining times: Ash Pot Gutter, Old Rake Hush, Notion Gill, Smith Hill, Doctor Gill, Windy Beale, Surrender Bridge. This is history clinging to rocks and nailed to the hillside to prevent the past being torn away by the wind. It’s history with attitude and segs on its hands.
From the mill I continue north-west along the track. The ugly gash of North Rake Hush slices up the fell to the south.
Let me tell you about hushes. They were an ingenious method of turning nature upon itself to exploit the environment. They were simple, effective, and they provided a lucrative return – but with little thought for the contentment of future generations. A bit like selling off the Royal Mail, if you like.
The mining companies realised that the mineral veins ran across the grain of the landscape, cutting almost at right angles through ridges and valleys. So they built reservoirs on the tops of the hills and periodically discharged huge volumes of water along the course of the veins, sweeping turf, boulder clay, and loose rock from the fellside to reveal the mineralised ground.
This ground would then be worked by miners. The pattern would be repeated: floods of water would surge down, the miners would go in with their picks, the hushes would get deeper and deeper, and then more water would surge down. They were called hushes because that’s the noise the water made as it swept through the ever-deepening chasms. Husssshhhhhhhhhh . . .
You have to admire the early industrialists. They didn’t mess around waiting for Local Enterprise Partnerships to determine whether or not disfiguring the countryside would expand private sector growth and create stakeholder opportunities. They got off their backsides and washed away the landscape for galena and its byproducts. It was opencast fracking without the police cordons and Caroline Lucas.
And the results are still here. The irony is, time and nature have cloaked the hushes in heather, moss and grass – and they have become part of the Pennine landscape. They have been reclaimed and naturalised. Like old wounds.
I wander further up the valley, and just beyond the place where the track fords the stream I stumble upon the double portals of the Brandy Bottle Incline. This has been the longest walk of my life – thirty years from Surrender Bridge to these two dark holes in the ground. I wouldn’t mind but it’s only a couple of miles.
The mine company originally planned to install a steam engine here for hauling ore wagons from the depths of the Friarfold Vein, but the plan altered and the engine was never installed. The incline was used as an access for horses and miners, its full potential never being realised.
I happen to have brought two head-torches with me so I crawl under a gate in the left-hand passage and slither down the slope for about a hundred feet to where the tunnel begins to lower and a large volume of water cascades through the roof. This is far enough for a silly sod by himself. But it’s good to see the incline is still open and the prospect of many fathoms of abandoned tunnel lies beyond my light beam, waiting to be explored.
By the way – yes, horses. They were used for hauling ore-tubs. Most of the mines in these dales were worked by horizontal tunnels – or levels – driven into the hills from the valley bottoms, and horses were ideally suited to the task of hauling strings of tubs from the workings to the mills. And that’s not all they were used for.
Above the Brandy Bottle Incline I veer south-west along Friarfold Rake, where a continuous line of ancient tips marks the course of the Friarfold Vein as it crosses the moor towards Gunnerside – and almost immediately, and quite unexpectedly, I discover the remains of a horse gin shaft.
A simple idea. The horse walked in a circle around a capstan, and the capstan wound a rope that went over a wheel and down the shaft. Look at a large-scale map of any mining area in this country and you will probably see evidence of their existence in old names: Gowerdale Windypits, on the North York Moors, is one – “windypit” being a corruption of winding pit, as in horse-winding pit.
Gin pits, horse-winding pits, windy pits, whim pits, horse whims, whim shafts – they were everywhere. Horse gins were also used extensively on farms, usually enclosed in octagonal or circular buildings. There is one within a hundred yards of my back door, recently converted into a holiday cottage. It’s a bit cramped when the horse is working, but holidaymakers put up with anything in these times of austerity.
This little gin pit on Friarfold Rake has the remains of a circular wall, a tiny stone shelter where the engineman probably huddled, and a depression a few yards to the east indicating the site of the shaft. It was probably old or even redundant when the Brandy Bottle Incline was sunk in the mid-19th Century – but it’s still here. It’s a tiny jewel of history in a wild and empty landscape.
I follow the vein and its spoil-heaps across the crown of the moor, expecting to be greeted by panoramic views of Gunnerside Gill and Swaledale – but rain sweeps in from the east and the landscape is obliterated. So I follow a track back along the crest of North Rake Hush to Mill Gill and the road to Surrender Bridge, passing an old stone-breaking machine and a rather dangerous shaft capped with old railway lines.
The rain is still lashing when I reach the car. But here’s a thought. Pity the poor bloke who had to huddle on the moor, coaxing his horse round in circles and unhooking kibbles of lead ore as they were hauled to the surface. No light-weight waterproofs, thermal base-layers and flask of tea for him. Nothing but freezing rain and the prospect of more.
I expect he used to pray for sunshine – or a day off in the warmth of the furnace flues, scraping lead and arsenic from sooty stones.
AND FINALLY: Old Railway Goods Wagons No 14
DRIVING home down the moor and joining the main road in Swaledale, I enter the hamlet of Healaugh and am greeted by the site of an old railway goods wagon in a farmyard, several lumpy miles from the nearest railway line.
It’s always a joy to see something like this. In years to come it might baffle the archaeologists. And it’s another for my collection of old railway goods wagons in obscure locations. Toot toot.