Lead mining was on a relatively small scale until the mid 18th century, but from this time until the early twentieth century much of the North Pennines was dominated by lead mining and the landscape was transformed.
Levels were driven miles underground to exploit the lead veins, and the ground surface became studded with mine complexes, dressing floors and smelt mills. The hills were criss-crossed by reservoirs and leats providing water power to various sites, flues taking noxious gasses away from the smelt mills to chimneys high in the hills, and tracks and railways providing access to all the different sites. All of this was on a truly industrial scale: there were some smaller companies, but Weardale and the Allendales were dominated by WB Lead (owned by the Blackett/Beaumont family), and Teesdale and Alston Moor by the London Lead Company.
Although the church and the mining companies made a fortune from the lead, the miners themselves certainly did not. Many lived in small farmsteads scattered throughout the dales, working their shifts in the mines and also growing produce to support their families.
Today’s distinctive landscape of scattered farmsteads (most with a single building combining cottage, barn and hayloft) with a few small stone-walled fields, generally referred to today as the ‘miner-farmer landscape’, dates essentially from the 18th- and 19th-century heyday of the North Pennine lead industry, when at least a quarter of all Britain’s lead came from the region.
Many limekilns were constructed to produce quicklime, used on the fields to improve the fertility of the acid soils and as lime mortar for the construction of buildings.
Today’s rights-of-way network, criss-crossing the moors, is based largely on the system of tracks that grew up to serve all the isolated miner-farmer cottages, linking them with the main roads in the valleys. While the rights of way have survived, many of the settlements have not, their melancholy ruins serving notice of the rise and fall of the once great North Pennine lead industry.
While many miners lived in relative isolation in farmsteads dispersed throughout the upper dales, and many occupied new settlements founded by the mining companies such as Nenthead, Garrigill, Allenheads and Carshields, others lived in long established settlements, such as Stanhope, Alston and Allendale, that survived from medieval times and contained the ancient parish churches.
Away from these ancient settlements, and despite the founding of Anglican chapels in several villages, the Church of England was never as influential in the North Pennines as it was in surrounding lowland areas. Lead-mining families throughout the region tended to be Methodists rather than Anglicans, and numerous Methodist chapels were built from the mid eighteenth century, both within villages and at isolated roadside locations for dispersed communities. These chapels generally reflect local, vernacular tradition, though sometimes with allusions to Gothic or Classical.
The lead mining companies supported education for North Pennine communities, and several new schools were founded during the nineteenth century in Teesdale, Weardale and Allendale, alongside numerous institutes and reading rooms.
Industry and transport
Although lead was the dominant industry, it was far from the only one. Iron was mined and worked on a local scale from medieval times, and from the mid 19th century on an industrial scale at Tow Law and Stanhope Dene. Elsewhere, limestone, sandstone, whinstone, fluorspar, zinc, copper and coal have all been worked on a large scale at various times.
North Pennine industries received a great boost during the mid 19th century with the introduction of the railways, and many small branch lines linked lead mine complexes, such as that at Rookhope, with the mainline network. Industry also provided the impetus for mid nineteenth-century improvements to the road network, but in more remote areas pack ponies continued to tread well-worn tracks to get ores to the nearest road or railway.
Today, few domestic buildings from earlier than 1700 survive in anything like their original form, but many attractive 18th and 19th century houses do survive and collectively contribute much to the character of the AONB. These are invariably of local stone, often provided from small-scale quarries operated on an ad-hoc basis to meet fluctuating demand.