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  • Digging deep in the Pennines – The story of stone quarrying by David Johnson

    I can probably trace my interest in and fascination with quarries back to ingrained memories from early childhood when I would spend what seemed like hours gazing out of the window on gloomy winter days across the fields behind our little cottage. Entranced by the red glow from the open doors of a Hoffmann brick kiln, and when my best friend and I (illegally) played in the clay pits during school holidays. Add to that is a life-long love (well, since the age of 10) of being in hills and mountains, and an incurable obsession with peering down holes in the ground. I am drawn to rock, not just the ways in which it was won from the ground in quarries and underground mines, but how different types of stone have been used in buildings and how this all impacts on the landscape. I have also, and not just as a hobby, spent many a day repairing the dry stone walls that are such an iconic and essential feature of the landscape in the Yorkshire Dales where I have lived and worked for over 30 years. Up here it is hard not breathe rock, to feel it, to empathise with it and to become totally enveloped by its effects on life, work and landscape.

    Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines 1 Underground quarrymen using hammers and bars to prize away blocks of rock in a now-disused chert quarry in Swaledale. (Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines, Amberley Publishing)

    My deep interests in the quarrying of limestone, in particular, led to my undertaking a comprehensive field survey of the many hundred lime kilns that are peppered across the Dales and the former county of Westmorland, most now in a ruinous state – if they survive at all. One result of this was my first book for Amberley Publishing (the second, revised edition of Limestone industries of the Yorkshire Dales, October 2010) which has come to be recognised as THE classic work on limestone quarrying and lime burning.

    Quarrying in the Pennines is not just about limestone, though. The diversity of quarry materials – past and present – is a direct reflection of the region’s varied and complex geology, and of the multi-faceted ways in which stone products were such essential ingredients in the days before manmade substitutes started to kill off our traditional industries. For anyone of a certain age, when they were children, lime fired in kilns from limestone quarried in almost every parish, found its way into most aspects of daily life – in textile dyes, carpets, clothes, as whitewash and limewash, as disinfectant, in tanning leather, making soap the age-old way, for mortar, for preventing cereal seed from rotting, for improving the productivity of soil and pasture, for curing cattle disease ... the list is endless.

    Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines 2 A massive judd wall built to hold back waste stone in a disused sandstone quarry near Shibden in West Yorkshire. (Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines, Amberley Publishing)

    Houses and barns were roofed either with slate or flagstones – the thackstones of old – all of which came from quarries across the Dales and the wider Pennines. Dairies and domestic pantries had shelves made of Blue Flag, actually a hard mudstone quarried in Upper Ribblesdale; public buildings across the country had fireplaces and floors finished off in Black Marble (really just polished fossil-rich limestone) from Dentdale and Garsdale; terraced housing, town halls and other public edifices across Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire were built from sandstone rock quarried across the Pennines, each town’s character being partly determined by the type of sandstone used – some smooth and fine grained, others coarser, some light in colour, others deep brown. Chimney pots and sanitary ware were manufactured from fireclay dug from pits and underground workings across the region and, of course, the endless terraced houses of many an industrial town were built with bricks using clays, again of varying colours.

    Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines 3 A group of men in a limestone quarry in Ribblesdale in the 1880s proudly displaying the tools of their trade. (Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines, Amberley Publishing)

    Stone has been quarried in the Pennines since Roman times though it is difficult to pick out either Roman or medieval quarries today: they were not large and many have long since been in-filled or buried in vegetation but they can still be found and recognised by their hummocky and seemingly disorganised nature. Quarrying took off in a major way in the late seventeenth century, and grew apace during the next two hundred years as towns and industrial complexes mushroomed with their never-ending need for building materials and raw products. Until the late nineteenth century quarries were on a small scale compared to today’s giants, and most of the work was done by men reliant on hand tools and sheer graft. Dimension stone – large blocks of stone – were prized out using long iron bars, stone to be crushed was broken up in the quarries by men wielding sledge hammers; access to deep quarry holes was by often rickety ladders called stees while, later on, stone was hauled out by A-frames or steam cranes. It was hard and demanding work, and weather dependant, and accidents were common, but many quarrymen then as now took pride in their work and were loyal to the quarries where they toiled.

    Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines 4 Breaker and filler pushing V-skips full of limestone that they have broken up by hand. They were paid on a piece-work basis – the more skips they filled, the more they got paid. In poor weather they earned nothing. (Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines, Amberley Publishing)

    For this book I have drawn together a collection of historical photographs from across the Yorkshire Pennines which provide the reader with a wide-ranging view of quarries that have long since been abandoned or even in-filled, that quarried a broad range of stone types, and that used simple technology. Many of them are published here for the first time. In addition, I have included photographs I have taken especially for the book showing evidence of old quarries and methods as they are seen today. Each site has been given a grid reference so that the interested reader can visit those sites which are publicly accessible and safe to enter.

    My research interests do not just focus on quarrying and the use of quarry products: I am keenly interested in rural trades in general in the Pennines and Cumbria and my next book is due to be published by Amberley this year. An Improving Prospect? A  history of agricultural change in Cumbria examines the ways in which farming in Cumbria has changed over the centuries since medieval times – the hows, the whys and the by whoms of agriculture.

    9781445653679

    David Johnson's new book Quarrying in the Yorkshire Pennines: An Illustrated History is available for purchase now.

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