That the Nidderdale area is one of outstanding natural beauty is not in doubt. It has been officially identified as such and there is universal agreement among residents and visitors that this is the case. Human intervention is clearly evident but it is generally recognised in the form of agriculture and particularly pastoral activity that involves people working in harmony with nature. The dominant crop is grass and the landscapes of permanently green fields suggest that they have never been disturbed by industry and yet there is evidence to the contrary on the ground, on the maps and in place names.
Nature has provided good conditions for agriculture across the length and breadth of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with perhaps some reservations about the challenges that the higher hills and fells present. However, it has also provided some excellent resources for industry, at least prior to the arrival of steam. The key resources in this context are abundant rainfall and minerals together with excellent landscape features for the exploitation of both. The valleys are especially useful, providing the means of harnessing water power and giving easy access to the horizontal (more or less) beds of iron ore.
There are still water mills in the area, some small and evidently built for grinding corn but others are larger and industrial in appearance. New York Mills at Summerbridge and Glasshouses Mill near Pateley Bridge are examples. Their main source of power until the coming of electricity was water, environmentally friendly in use and leaving no legacy of industrial waste.
One important fact about these industries is that they were usually processing natural materials such as corn, flax and hemp so, even though some procedures were unpleasant, the waste was soon absorbed or dispersed without lasting environmental damage. Also, the buildings and other facilities were constructed of local materials, timber, stone and clay so that they merge with the natural scenery and domestic architecture. The lasting damage done to other parts of England by concentrations of large steam powered factories has not been imposed on the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
In Nidderdale and in Colsterdale close to the northern boundary of the AONB there is evidence of a limited amount of coal mining activity that ended a long time ago but the most obvious of all of Nidderdale’s past industries is lead mining and smelting. This industry was active in the area from Roman times (or earlier) until the 20th century and there are extensive remains around Greenhow, to the west of Pateley Bridge, in the forms of pits, waste heaps and quarries.
Lead mining and smelting in the AONB has occurred most commonly in limestone areas such as that around Greenhow, although this is not entirely the case. There are, for example, the remains of a 19th century mine in a millstone grit area next to the A59 highway on Leadmine Hill near Blubberhouses. Nidderdale has been so dominated by the lead industry in recent centuries that there is a tendency to regard any smelting activity in the area as the production of lead and yet there is manifold, though not very manifest evidence that this is not the case.
Millstone grit is the dominant geology over a wide area of Nidderdale, the Washburn Valley, Wharfedale and Wensleydale in the AONB. It is a series of rocks that includes sandstone, gritstone and beds of shale and it often includes coal and iron ore. It is now apparent that the latter has been the basis for an industry that has virtually disappeared from the folk memory of the area.
Much of the iron ore was in the form of rock nodules in beds within the millstone grit but it is also possible that bog iron was a useful ore in earlier times because the conditions for its creation are appropriate in a number of locations on the millstone grit. It is formed when the iron oxide is precipitated from water rising to the surface in boggy areas where it accumulates and can, in the right conditions, form solid lumps that are suitable for smelting.
There is no iron smelting in the Nidderdale area today but documentary references confirm its earlier existence, particularly in central and northern parts of the AONB. Places mentioned in various publications include Dacre, Brimham, Summerbridge, Blubberhouses, Blayshaw and Colsterdale. In addition, other locations such as Fewston in the Washburn Valley, Hartwith in Nidderdale and Ash Head Moor in Wensleydale have been identified by field work that has been carried out by a number of individuals and also by several project groups, some associated with WEA classes, some sponsored by the Lottery Heritage Initiative and some Community Archaeology Projects. Most did not set out to study iron mining and smelting but the evidence of such activities appeared naturally as a result of open ended archaeological investigation.
Map evidence has also been useful in identifying possible sites and the most obvious of all is the area known as Cinder Hills, just to the east of Darley. “Cinder Hills” is an appellation known to relate to the slag produced by iron smelting so it is reasonable to consider the probability that this is a former smelting site even though its appearance today is that of a location fully justifying its description as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Slag is the main waste product from smelting and a great deal of that produced by the processing of iron ore is black and cinder-like in its general appearance. Cinder Hills therefore implies the existence of large volumes of iron slag and the production of iron over a significant period of time. By great good fortune early iron making slag was a useful material capable of being reprocessed to produce more iron and also useful for road making and similar tasks so there are no hills of slag visible today although the erosion caused by streams and tracks has resulted in the exposure of this black, rock like material.
Other names, apparently unrelated to industry may also have derived from iron mining and smelting. “Hole Bottom”, for example, a name that occurs in several places probably indicates mining activity. Once given, such a name can become permanent even if the reason for it is no longer recalled. Places known as Bale Hill probably indicate a location of small furnaces, bales or boles, for either iron or lead while Bellan, a field name, can indicate ground polluted by smelting.
The best indications of the earlier existence of an iron industry, however, are real landscape and archaeological evidence but this is not as easy to find as it may seem. One reason for this is that such evidence soon merges into the natural background and can disappear within a century or two. This is especially true as farmers improve their fields, demolish old buildings, fill old quarries and pits and remove polluted materials.
There is, however, increasing interest in this matter within the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and increasing knowledge of the forms in which evidence of past iron smelting activity may have been preserved so recognition of the sites of ancient iron making should become easier in the future.
The importance of iron can hardly be over-emphasised. Its impact was dramatic when first discovered because its hardness and strength meant that tools, fittings and weapons could be produced that were far superior to anything else in existence. Hence the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age with huge advantages domestically, artistically, in agriculture and on the battlefield.
Even today we are greatly reliant upon it because, as well as iron objects, any article made from steel or stainless steel has a large percentage of iron and we only need a brief look around us to realise what has been possible as a result of its discovery. Its effect on humanity has been great throughout the last two and a half millennia since the Celts learned how to make it and sites in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty may be able to add greatly to our understanding of life in the area and the technology that made it possible, particularly from the Iron Age to the Tudors.
(From "Nidderdale Iron - A Forgotten Industry", Howber Ltd, 2005)