“IT was just as if the miners had gone off shift,” writes Peter Ryder in his new book about the history of Swaledale above and below the ground.

“All the railway lines were still in – usually they were cleaned out of the lesser mines by scrapmen during the First World War – and there was a mass of mining equipment, buckets, ropes, tools, detonator boxes, bottles, windlasses still wound with rope, and the skeletal remains of old trucks still teetering on the railway lines.

“There was even a pair of boots – but thankfully no sign of their owner.”

Peter, and illustrator John Longstaff, has spent much of the last 50 years exploring the dale, noting the old buildings on the surface and then rolling boulders and squeezing himself into the tiniest of spaces underground.

Peter’s speleological explorations began as an 11-year-old from Darlington looking for adventure, which was found in the copper mine in Billybanks Wood in Richmond. Once he had located the entrance, he and John – himself a renowned cartoonist who has featured in publications from The Northern Echo to Private Eye and signs himself “Cluff” – returned to the shop by Green Bridge, bought some candles and delved in deeper.

“In one vein working we found a single blue stalactite, of azurite, a copper carbonate,” he writes. “Commoner was green staining from another former of copper carbonate, malachite, and a little golden copper pyrites.”


Examining the names chalked in the 1850s in Devis Drum Mine

Examining the names chalked in the 1850s in Devis Drum Mine


His scientific bent is obvious, and soon he was measuring and mapping – using lollipop sticks with silver milk bottletops on to catch the light to help with his surveying – to create plans of the underground systems his group were discovering.

His book, Swaledale Above & Beneath, tells of his investigations into the natural caves which had often been worked upon in the 18th and 19th centuries by leadminers. In the Devis Drum Mine, near the Grinton smelt mill at Cogden Gill, they discovered a series of caves which the miners had explored in the 1850s.


The new book telling the story of Swaledale above and below the ground, by Peter Ryder with illustrations by John Longstaff

The new book telling the story of Swaledale above and below the ground, by Peter Ryder with illustrations by John Longstaff


“They left their names chalked on the walls,” he writes. “Some of the names we found again, poignantly, on headstones in Grinton churchyard.”

It was in the Devis Drum Mine that he discovered the time capsule of old railway lines and equipment which had been sealed off by a rockfall and just left…

“It was like the Marie Celeste,” he says. “What had happened? All we could think was that the mine had been close to closure and when the roof-fall came, no one could be bothered to dig it out again.”

With daring persistence, there are some amazing discoveries to be made underground. Peter talks of his adventures in the Sir Francis Mine in Gunnerside Gill. The landscape of the gill has been scarred by centuries of mining, with the Sir Francis Mine – which was named after the son of the company owner, Sir George Denys – being dug in 1864 into the Frairfold vein of lead.

“A long wade though breathtakingly cold water eventually gains a chamber with a splendid hydraulic engine, installed in 1879, which was powered by water from a dam in Sun Hush on the surface, and turned a winding drum which is still equipped with its cables from which cages hang in the clear blue water of a deep flooded shaft below.”

This engine was designed by Henry Davey, one of the leading pumping engineers of his day, and using hydraulic power – there was no steampower in Gunnerside Gill – it could pump 500 gallons of water a minute out of the shaft below to enable the miners to work.

“The stone arched roof is festooned with long straw stalactites,” says Peter, returning to his geological notes. “All in all, this is one of the most exciting pieces of industrial archaeology in the north of England.”

Peter has spent his career as an archaeologist working on historic buildings, and his descriptions of the surface of Swaledale are just as knowledgeable as his underground writings.


A happy caver squeezes through Devis Drum Mine, above Grinton in Swaledale

A happy caver squeezes through Devis Drum Mine, above Grinton in Swaledale


“Reeth,” he says, “is a significant place. For 200 years, it had a weekly market, as well as up to six fairs a year, notorious for the drunken brawling they provoked. Its prosperity came from not just lead mining, but from hand knitting, and was such that Reeth folk could afford to rebuild their houses, so that nothing pre-Georgian survives today.”

And then he says: “Reeth is also one of those places that demonstrates the dichotomy in the soul of Georgian and Victorian England.” He notes that on the north and west sides of the green, there is the Burgoyne hotel, plus the Buck Inn, the King’s Arms and the Black Bull, but on the east and south sides there are the Wesleyan and Congregationalist churches plus a former temperance hotel, that is now a bookshop.

“The only thing wrong with this classic confrontation of piety and hedonism is the lie of the land,” he says. “The green slopes quite steeply from north-west to south-east and the physical, if not moral, high ground is occupied by the pubs.”

  • Swaledale Above & Beneath costs £10 and is available from the Castle Hill Bookshop in Richmond, the CB Inn in Arkengarthdale and by emailing the author at publications@broomlee.org