Trail Tales – Lead by Generations

Each stamp on the Old Smithy door represents a single moment in time. The crisp edges left by the branding iron may have been dulled slightly by two centuries of Yorkshire weather, but most are still legible… a tangible connection to the history of Swaledale.

On this early spring day, the light catches the grain of the wood, creating valleys and ridges reminiscent of the dales in which we spent the day riding. As we step inside, the low, watery sun streams through the open doorway over uneven flagstones, stretching to the back of the smithy.

In the early 1800’s Stephen Calvert’s great, great, great, great grandfather stood where he does now, working the bellows to the smithy furnace and bringing it up to temperature. Once the metal was glowing hot, his clogged feet would have shuffled around 180º and then he shaped the pliable iron one hammer strike at a time.

Standing in the Old Smithy in Gunnerside, over 200 years later, we watch Stephen do exactly that.

The clogs have been replaced by modern footwear, but a square of wood on the stone floor remains, worn into a shallow hollow by the generations of Calverts moving back and forth between the furnace and anvil.

The rhythmic ringing of metal-on-metal contrasts with earlier that day as we stood above the deep v-shaped valley of Gunnerside Gill.

Mist and rain rolled in and out like the tide as we rode across the bleak, barren moorland: the only noise coming from an occasional startled grouse gobbling, and flapping its wings as it took flight, staying low over the heather. Our trail dropped out of the cloud and the silence into the heart of the gill. It is a unique trail for many reasons, but the contour-defying rocky singletrack feels quite out of place in a landscape better known for its wide, grassy lanes and gently rolling fellsides.

pistas cubiertas de hierba y sus laderas de suave pendiente.

The descent was over in a flurry of chopping changes in direction, black crags looming over a thread of a line set between boulders and loose rocks, so enclosed it was almost tunnel-like by the time we reached the base.

Immediately in front of us, the ruined remains of buildings had been built on to man-made platforms of flatter ground. At first glance, they look out of place in this seemingly natural place.

The reality is the entire visible landscape has been shaped by man’s touch.

The history of lead mining in and around Gunnerside stretches back to at least Roman times. Galena (lead ore) runs in vertical seams across the hillsides and it has been extracted, smelted and worked to make pipes, roofing, bullets and hundreds of other uses since its discovery. Originally, bell pits were dug: simple holes in the ground. Look closely and the acned pockmarks of the earliest mining are visible all across the Yorkshire Dales.

Then, ‘hushing’ was used: springs up on the moor tops were dammed to create large artificial lakes before being demolished and torrents of water running down the hillside would strip all topsoil and loose material off, washing it down to the streams in the valley bottom. Hundreds of years later, it is between these scars we had picked our way down, for all the world feeling like we were navigating between natural landslips and features.

Mines were built, tunnelling deep, following seams far into the hillside, creating mile upon mile of interconnecting tunnels, often linking one dale to the next.

As silent as Gunnerside Gill was on this mid-week morning, the air would have been surrounded by the noise of picks against rock, echoing out of tunnel openings. There was no mechanisation. Just men, tools and physical effort. Many of those tools were made by Stephen’s ancestors, bought by the miners, carried to work each day. The smithy also made the carts that would creak under the weight of ore, pulled by boys and horses.

Shouts, singing, chatter, industry. The ghosts of these sounds lay heavily on the landscape, somehow trapped by the valley walls.

There’s beauty in the delicate skeletal buildings: a slender chimney reaching towards the moody skies, empty windows framing the post-industrial relics and the heather capped fells beyond.

We follow the trail down the valley, with Gunnerside Beck widening the lower we get. Our tyre tracks follow the journey of the lead; and that of the miners at the end of the working day.

Weary, blackened faces returning home.

We pass the dressing floor: where the quarried rock was smashed – usually by women and children – and the ore extracted.

Finally the ore was smelted down to lead ‘pigs’; ingots of metal that were sold on to industries. In order to identify the origin of each pig, the still hot metal was struck with a stamp, featured with the initials of the mine. It is those very same imprints that are on the smithy door; fresh from the day the stamp was made. The act of hammering it into the wood was visual proof to the purchaser that the end product was flaw-free. This small blacksmith literally left its mark on the industrial revolution in the UK.

As we continue onwards, the path we ride is no different, a physical reminder of the hundreds of footprints that would have made this journey every day. The village of Gunnerside sits where the beck with which it shares its name meets the river Swale. And, set back from the banks of the beck stands the Old Smithy. Stephen’s footwear and couple of electric light bulbs aside, the smithy is identical to the day it opened in 1795.

We follow the trail down the valley, with Gunnerside Beck widening the lower we get. Our tyre tracks follow the journey of the lead; and that of the miners at the end of the working day.

Weary, blackened faces returning home.

We pass the dressing floor: where the quarried rock was smashed – usually by women and children – and the ore extracted.

Finally the ore was smelted down to lead ‘pigs’; ingots of metal that were sold on to industries. In order to identify the origin of each pig, the still hot metal was struck with a stamp, featured with the initials of the mine. It is those very same imprints that are on the smithy door; fresh from the day the stamp was made. The act of hammering it into the wood was visual proof to the purchaser that the end product was flaw-free. This small blacksmith literally left its mark on the industrial revolution in the UK.

As we continue onwards, the path we ride is no different, a physical reminder of the hundreds of footprints that would have made this journey every day. The village of Gunnerside sits where the beck with which it shares its name meets the river Swale. And, set back from the banks of the beck stands the Old Smithy. Stephen’s footwear and couple of electric light bulbs aside, the smithy is identical to the day it opened in 1795.

Same furnace, same bellows, same anvil, same process.

That can’t be said of the world outside the characterful front door. The mines were only just profitable at their time, and once cheaper sources of lead were discovered in America and Spain it didn’t take long for the hillsides of the Yorkshire Dales to fall silent again, save for the baaing of the hardy Swaledale sheep.

“Any true local feels part of the Dale”

The Calvert’s business carried on regardless. Horses still needed shoeing, agricultural tools and machinery needed making and repairing. Eventually demand even for horseshoes died off.

In 2021 a working blacksmith feels anachronistic, even in a quiet village like Gunnerside.

Stephen, like many of his family before, splits his time between blacksmithing and running a small farm. Much of his metalworking now is bespoke – ornamental almost – but still retaining functionality. He works the iron blank into a gate latch as we stand there chatting. A fireplace poker set with a stylised ram’s head is waiting to be collected by a customer.

“Any true local feels part of the Dale” says Steven, working deftly. It’s part of what keeps him in the trade that he seemed destined for. He doesn’t have many memories of his grandfather; William died when Steven was young. One is etched in his memory as clearly as the stamps on the smithy door.

Five year old Steven was battling with a nutcracker and a walnut, his small hands unable to wrap around the handles and extract any kind of leverage. William dressed him up in his coat and took him into the smithy, firing up the furnace. Steven watched on as his grandfather worked the metal, each strike pushing, shaping. It didn’t take long for him to hand Steven his own miniature nutcracker. Not many years later, Steven was helping his father in the smithy. Forty years on, he’s still here.

Gunnerside’s population is significantly lower than it was in its mining heyday. It has declined more rapidly in recent years as people move closer to work and the old cottages are bought up as second homes and holiday lets. There’s no bitterness in Stephen’s voice as he describes this.

He understands people need work; and who wouldn’t want a holiday home in this beautiful part of the world?

Instead he has a sense of pride that he’s bucked the trend and maintained a piece of history for another generation. Perhaps though, a sense of loss for the close knit community way of life that has gradually disappeared.

Is Stephen the end of the family line for working blacksmiths in the dale? Well, his teenage daughter has expressed an interest in carrying on the business, so there may still be blacksmith Calverts for another generation.

There’s an increased relevance to his trade, too. People are once again valuing commodities that last and that can be repaired when they do finally break; a step away from the disposable culture of the last few decades.

This whole trip has been one of exploring permanence and transience. The peak of the lead mining boom lasted just a century, yet its impact on the landscape and the culture of Swaledale will survive significantly longer.

The old mine buildings, stamps on the smithy door, the hollow worn into its wooden floor, dents on the anvil, and the trail through Gunnerside are living entities.

While they will physically remain for years to come, the stories connected with them need to be retold for them to retain their meaning and connection to the stunning landscape in which they are set. History isn’t just what is written down in books: it is about people, lives, experiences. And so, we stand, watch and listen as Stephen works and talks.

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