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While farming has long been the cornerstone of the Dales economy, exploiting its mineral wealth and craft based enterprises have had an important part to play from the very earliest times.
Possibly the first mineral resource to be exploited in the Dales was chert, a hard stone which could be fashioned into weapons and tools when imported flint was not available. Excavations at Malham Tarn show that the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who exploited its rich wildlife, used locally gathered chert as well as flint carried in from the Yorkshire Wolds. They clearly preferred the latter since flint cores were worked to exhaustion whereas chert ones were used to yield just one or two flakes before being discarded.
The most valuable mineral resource found in the Dales was lead ore. Scant evidence survives for its early exploitation, just a handful of Roman lead pigs. Documentary evidence indicates lead mining from medieval times onwards and by the 18th and early 19th century, parts of Swaledale and Wharfedale are almost entirely given over to the mining and processing of the lead ore.
Coal mining was also carried out on quite a large scale in some parts of the Dales. Along with locally dug peat it was used to fuel lime kilns and lead smelt mills as well as for use in the home until cheaper, better quality coal started coming in on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal in the 18th century and later the railways.
The limestone of the Dales, as well as yielding rich mineral veins was also exploited as a resource in its own right. Hundreds of small, local quarries supplied building stone and stone for burning in lime kilns. Slaked lime was an important ingredient in producing lime wash and plaster. From the 17th century it was used to improve upland pastures by ‘sweetening’ the acid soils. More specialised quarries, such as those at Burtersett and Askrigg, supplied a wider area with stone roofing slates while Dent ‘marble’ was sold to fashionable Victorian homes all over the country. Railway transport made both these 19th century industries economically viable.
While many farming families subsidised their incomes working in the mineral industries of the 18th and 19th century Yorkshire Dales, other earned a living processing the raw materials from agriculture. Knitters, spinners and weavers could all be found working with wool, flax and later, imported cotton and silk. Such cottage industries flourished alongside the growth of textile mills although the workers were eventually all sucked into the factory system.
The fast flowing streams of the Pennines supplied ample water power to many of these fledgling factories. First the new mill machinery was driven by water wheels. Later, more efficient turbines were brought in. By the early 20th century, the latter were often making their owners a steady income by supplying electricity to their local villages.
Before the days of refrigeration, milk was usually processed on the farm to give it a longer shelf life and provide a cash income. Again railways were important in widening the market for such farm produce. Every farmer’s wife knew how to make cheese and butter, skills now almost lost. Factory production of Wensleydale Cheese has survived however and provides a welcome income for dairy farmers in the dale.
Lead mining survived the longest of most of the Dale’s industries, finishing around Grassington in the 1890s although spoil heaps there were reworked in the 20th century for valuable minerals such as barytes. The main industry surviving in the Yorkshire Dales today is quarrying. Crushed limestone from Dales quarries is used to build roads all over Britain. The dust and lorry traffic has made this industry seem increasingly out-of-place in the peace and quiet of the National Park, and nearly every quarry now has a limited life span. Many quarry owners are already implementing extensive conservation projects to return wildlife to the sites once work has finished. The old quarry at Ribblehead is an excellent example.