The North Pennines

Last week I got the rare chance to head up into the North Pennines as I had to go to Westgate to look at a dig my university has been involved with. I’m not naturally drawn to moorland landscapes. I have a fairly low tolerance for Gore-tex and Kendal Mint Cake and normally prefer my countryside on the more pastoral side. It may be heresy, but I must admit I can take or leave the Lake District or Snowdonia. However, I do have a soft spot for that stretch of the Pennine ridge between Stainmore and Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike the Yorkshire Dales to the south it has managed to avoid the excessive tidying up and gentrification which has turned some parts into a lumpier version of the Cotswolds.

My drive took me up to Weardale with a diversion to Rookhope then up over to Alston and down Teesdale. The weather was beautiful, the hay meadows were in full flower and the dales were saturated with birdsong. Bizarrely, this is an area where oyster-catchers and curlews nest in the summer- close your eyes and you could be by an estuary rather than in some of the highest moors in England. This was also a landscape loved by WH Auden:

From scars where kestrels hover
The leader looking over
Into the happy valley,
Orchard and curving river,
May turn away to see
The slow fastidious line
That disciplines the fell
Hear curlew’s creaking call
From angles unforeseen…

(Missing, 1929)

Many of Auden’s poems keyed into the thing that keeps me coming back to the North Pennines; it is a post-industrial landscape.

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to a wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living…


From the Roman period until the early-20th century this was an area dominated by lead mining. In the 19th century, the mines of the London Lead Company and the Blackett-Beaumont Company produced more lead than anywhere else in the world. This industry had a direct impact on the land in terms of the scars of mining and the construction of pithead and processing facilities. It also brought people into the Dales and created a distinct human landscape – non-conformity was strong and the lead companies had a strong ethic of public benefaction and investment in supporting their workforce. Methodist chapels multiplied and many areas of miners housing (‘mine shops’) still survive. At exactly the same time, further east, the great north-east coal field was also reaching is zenith; through much of the 1800s County Durham was dominated by these two great extractive industries. The lead mining declined in the earlier 20th century whilst in the County Durham the coal industry did not collapse until the 1960s and finally dying in the 1990s. However, today, virtually nothing survives of the collieries– if you did not know it, it would be hard to tell that you were in the heart of a once-thriving coalfield. The pitheads are long dismantled and many mines are built over (my last two jobs in Durham have seen me working in offices on the sites of former coal mines). Even the spoil-heaps that once dominated much of east Durham have been sculpted and shifted out of existence. This is in contrast to the lead mining area. Here land is cheap and there is little pressure for development- the mine buildings stand derelict as in places do the miner’s houses. The scars caused by hushing and processing have never been erased. It’s a landscape where the evidence for the industry is still apparent. The mines always operated alongside farming and the moors were owned by the great estates and used for game shooting. The moors are still home to sheep and grouse, but the miners are long gone.

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1

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