Summer Outing to Swaledale

Bill Mitchell

From Hollow Mill Cross to Stollerstone Stile

The extent of Swaledale is twenty long mile

For the 1996 outing, forty of us spent a day in Swaledale, packing in so many sights and sensations we might have been there for a week. It was a golden day, with everything and everyone rimmed by hard northern sunlight. Given plenty of time for the outward journey, some of us stopped by t'Buttertubs, where limestone shafts, some 70 ft deep, are said to resemble in shape the tubs in which butter was kept.

An introductory talk was given in the Muker Methodist Church (1934). A dear old lady who was down on her knees, not in prayer but in order to weed a herbaceous border in the grounds, when asked if we could use the Church, had sweetly remarked; "That's what it's for!" It is said that an arch from Old Gang smelt mill was incorporated in the chapel. Nothing of the right size was visible, though an arch of dressed stones adorns the facade.

In the talk, mention was made of Swaledale's profusion of field barns, the demise in living memory of well over 100 smallholdings in the upper dale, and dependence of small-time farmers on lead-mining for additional income. Muker chapel has an impressive harmonium, the type of instrument described as "an ill wind which nobody blows any good".

Some of us visited the church, successor of a sixteenth century building. The consecration of a burial ground ended the custom of bearing along the Corpse Road to Grinton the bodies of those who died at the dalehead. The dear-departed were accommodated in wicker baskets during the two-day journey. Other Muker attractions were the Literary Institute (where t'Muker Band rehearses) and Swaledale Woollens (a novel cottage industry concerned with locally hand-knitted and crochet worked garments).

With the sun blazing like a searchlight and the temperature climbing perceptibly, we absorbed ice cream and soft drinks before the action was switched to Reeth, at the junction of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. We parked at the periphery of the huge sloping green. The briefing for Reeth included mention of the White House, beside a path leading from the meadows to Fremington Edge, a heathery ridge, with a path leading to an old mining/farming community named Booze. Sorties took place to the Swaledale Museum and to the new studio of Stef Ottevanger, where miniatures of Dales animals are produced. The sun was like a blowtorch and as our arms and faces took on a boiled lobster appearance, the prudent reached for suntan cream.

Our cavalcade of a dozen cars swept up Arkengarthdale, with a passing glance at Langthwaite Bridge, used in the introductory sequence of the many Herriot programmes on BBC Television. More features from that introduction, including a watersplash, were seen as we turned left for the crossing to Low Row in Swaledale. Meeting us by arrangement near Surrender Bridge was Lawrence Barker, an authority on lead-mining. Generations of his family have been concerned with the Swaledale orefield.

As Lawrence led us on the mile-and-a-bit journey through the wilderness to Old Gang, the RAF began a spectacular (and extremely noisy) air show, featuring high-speed jets and helicopters. The jets, whining like aerial vacuum cleaners, drowned out many of Lawrence's words, alas, but enough remained for us to be able to picture the area in the heyday of lead production. We were shown the remains of one of the wayside troughs which were vital to assuage the thirst of horses drawing carts laden with the products of the mines to the market at Richmond.

We stood in the "silver house", beside a well-preserved and lofty chimney and Lawrence described the other features of this remarkable site. The highlight for many of us was a visit to the remains of a peat house, at the rim of the moor, from whence came a supply of fuel for use at the smelt mill in the early days. Two lines of stone pillars lay between high-pitched gable ends, implying that the long structure had a thatched roof (ling) resting on baulks of wood. Peat was stored in four sections, each doubtless representing a year's activity. Horse-drawn sleds were employed to transport the peat which, when placed in the store, which was open to the wind, continued the drying process.

Retreat was sounded. Thirsts were assuaged at the dalehead village of Thwaite and after another talk, this time about the Kearton brothers, Richard and Cherry, pioneers of wildlife photography, we toured the village, greeting as we did George Kearton, who was propping up a wall near his cottage and enjoying the warmth and brightness. George, a half cousin of the famous Kearton brothers, is now the last of the family to remain in Thwaite.

W R Mitchell, former editor of 'The Dalesman'.