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Keeping The Home Fires Burning – Yorkshire Peat

Dales Countryside Museum collection of peat tools

The Story of Yorkshire Peat

The gritstone moors of the South Pennines and the limestone hills and mountains of the Yorkshire Dales tend to be of tabular form with poorly drained summits. The peat banks and wet peat bogs that cling to the surfaces are amazing eco-systems, which for well over seven thousand years have been relentlessly forming on the surface of these highly acidic moorland wastes at a rate of between a few millimetres and around forty-five millimetres per year.

Many peat bogs extend over wide stretches of these moors which is the ideal home for acid loving plants such as heather, bilberry, cowberry, cotton grass, wavy hair-grass, cross-leaved heather, tufted cotton grass known as ‘draw-moss’, and in the Dales ‘moss-crop’ – a valuable winter sheep feed – common cotton grass (which in autumn turns wine red), deer grass, sphagnum, crowberry and the insectivorous-feeding sundew.

Typically growing on the peat beds blanketing Yorkshire Dales limestone are to be found vegetation and flora such as: crested hair-grass, northern bedstraw, harebell, wall-rue, maidenhair, green spleenworts, bog asphodel, sphagnum moss and myrtle. Many of these plants carpet the surface of the peaty moorland in distinctive, highly attractive colours. Indeed, many large areas are covered in hair’s tail and white flowers of eriopherum, which in July and August, in a light breeze are a riot of white nodding heads. On certain stretches of moorland there can be seen large expanses of densely growing, tufted purple molinia that grow in three foot tall springy, ‘clunters’. Rushes are also commonly found on peat moorland, which in past times were harvested for scattering on the flag stone floors of cottages, churches and castles alike. Certain varieties, after dipping in mutton or pig fat were used as rush lights for lighting up the dark recesses of buildings during the long dark winter nights. On some areas of the peat moorlands extensive stretches of dense growing bracken can be found. This nuisance plant is now found to be extending all over some moorland and fell sides, and if unchecked can rapidly gain prominence over the other vegetation. Traditionally, during autumn when the bracken had wilted and turned brown, it was cut down and carted from the moor to be stacked in barns for bedding animals down during the winter.

Peat Digging

Whether on gritstone or limestone moorland, after grazing, the greatest value of these moorland wastes was their source of peat for fuel. On many moors throughout the South Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales, for centuries there had been the commoners Right of Turbury, which was taken up by the freeholders of the parish: this was the common man’s right to dig peat to use as fuel for cooking, boiling water and for keeping his house warm.

During the late spring and early summer months, the villagers would gather on the moorland where the peat was to be dug, at the ‘peat pots’, Using specially shaped spades, they would dig out from the peat bank their supply of peats required for the long winter months ahead. After digging, the peats were carefully stacked up with spaces in between them thus allowing air to circulate to slowly dry the fuel. The peat stacks would remain on the moor drying out throughout the summer and into early autumn. Just prior to the first frosts, the peats would be carted down in specially built peat carts or sledges, many of them being centuries old,to the village cottages and farmhouses where the fuel would then be stacked in stone buildings known as Peat Houses. These buildings would be purposely erected against the external rear wall of the farmhouse or cottage to include a small doorway leading directly into the kitchen where the all important family hearth with its continuously burning fire was located. Dried peat was also used for animal bedding or as poultry litter.

Ickornshaw Moor’peat pots’ displaying the diggings at the peat bank, and the dug ‘peats

Cowling is situated on the old turnpike between Glusburn in Craven and Colne over the Lancashire border. Right of Turbury, (turf and peat cutting) were for centuries valuable common rights of the parishioners of Cowling and of other Dales villages.

Both Stott Hill and Ickornshaw Moors have for several hundred years, played a large part in the livelihoods of the inhabitants of Cowling and the surrounding scattered moorland hamlets of Farling Top, Ickornshaw, Gill Top, Middleton and Starmire. Situated around the 1200 foot contour on the lower reaches of both of these moors are a number of ancient, long abandoned peat diggings. Nearby in deep water-filled crevasses cut centuries ago into the yawning peat banks, particularly after heavy rain, semi-fossilised limbs of birch and pine emerge from the sucking quagmire, a reminder of the vast mix of deciduous and coniferous forest, that until the last Ice Age of 12,000 years ago, thickly covered the moors. Since that period the surface of the moor has become thickly carpeted with saturated peat. Because the current climate is far too wet for trees to grow at this elevation, Stott Hill and Ickornshaw Moors, nowadays almost devoid of trees, would in former times, have been good peat digging districts. However, as the practice is now illegal, the digging of peat on these moors no longer takes place.

Around thirty years ago, when peat digging operations hereabouts were commonplace, the peats were cut in late spring, stacked and left to dry. The digging process generally involved the grass, heather and bracken being pared off to reveal the underlying peat bed. The peats, upon being dug out of the bed in convenient to handle sizes, were then laid out to dry for several weeks. After which, the peats were formed into a cylindrical stack which afforded stability whilst allowing the wind to blow through, thus encouraging drying. Providing the summer was reasonably dry, the stack would be left in place, perhaps until late September when they would be loaded onto horse-drawn carts and brought down to be delivered to Cowling’s scattered hamlets and cottages in readiness for winter. However, during wet weather, commonplace in Craven, the peat never properly dried, so would have to be removed and stored in barns or sheds around the district.

For countless years farmers have grazed their sheep on Stott Hill and Ickornshaw Moors, the high, wild tracts of moorland that rise to 1456 feet above sea level. Rushes and bracken have also been gathered for bedding down cattle and horses before straw became readily available. The good folk of Cowling, until recent times harvested peat for their cottage hearths. The author recalls burning Stott Hill Moor peat in his own fireplace, and can still affectionately remember the pleasantly scented aroma of peat smoke that hung over the hamlet of Farling Top on still, frosty nights; but is now just a nostalgic memory. He also remembers however, that the ‘getting of peat’ was at most times, due to the often inclement weather, an arduous task.

Traditional Peat Digging Practice

The procedure involved the removal of heather, grass and other vegetation to reveal the peat. In the local Yorkshire vernacular, this was known as ‘fleeing’ or ‘flaying’, the process was carried out by using a straight-shafted shovel or one adapted, rather than a conventional cranked shovel. The shovel blades had a 2½ inch flange welded to the left leading edge, which allowed peat cutting from the right hand side; the flange thus formed produced a left hand cut.

Generally, two men worked as a team. While one man dug the peats which he loaded into a conveniently placed wheelbarrow, his mate would be engaged wheeling away a previously filled barrow out of the working area called the ‘the peat pots’. This barrow load would then be laid out to dry, which was called ‘liggin’ out’. This ‘liggin’ out’ ground would consist of an area perhaps dug during previous years, which the men would have carefully covered with each successive year’s ‘turves’ thereby stabilising it. It is upon this area that the newly dug peats were laid to dry.

In days gone by, the peat-diggers took enormous pride to ensure that the ‘liggin’ out’ ground was carefully looked after to resemble as close as possible the original surface of the moor prior to the commencement of the peat digging operations.

The men would allow the peats to dry for two or three days, followed by ‘stooking up’ into two pairs (four vertically standing peats leaning face to face). The procedure kept the majority of the peats off the damp surface of the moor, whilst allowing the wind to blow through them and the sun to dry out the fuel. Providing the weather was reasonably dry, between approximately three weeks to a month later, the peats which at this stage would be about half dry, would be walled into five feet high by forty inch diameter stacks, the tops being domed to cast off the rain.

The peats usually remained slowly drying out for three or four months and when sufficiently dry they would be carted off the moor in a horse-drawn farm wagon. In this period, five hundred peats constituted a typical load. Peat diggers who didn’t own a horse and cart would usually hire the services of a local carter to haul their cut peats down to Cowling village. Once there, the peats would be stacked up into the back yards of the cottages, from whence they would be gathered for burning on the hearth.

For hundreds of years, all over the Craven Dales in cottages far and wide, because cast-iron grates were expensive, peat was burned directly on large slabs of locally quarried sandstone. This is where the term ‘hearth stones’ originated.

The author holding up peat fuel specimens among the ‘peat-diggings’ display at the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes, Wensleydale

Peat Digging Stories from the Yorkshire Dales

In 1807, Swaledale yeoman farmer, Richard Garth of Crackpot, dug some twenty five cart loads of peat from local moorland, which when mixed with poor quality Tan Hill coal made the coal burn considerably hotter. Tan Hill Inn, England’s highest pub at 1732 feet (528m) above sea level at the head of Arkengarthdale, has for over two centuries enjoyed a reputation for keeping a fire of mixed peat and coal burning continuously.

In the late 19th century, another Dales farmer, James Alderson of Pry House, Birkdale, harvested considerable amounts of peat on Ash Gill Moor, which was conveyed on peat sledges across the River Swale to be later stacked in a purposely built peat house in a corner of his barn.

In Cam, the isolated, windswept, tiny hamlet situated at the head of upper Wharfedale, peat used for heating the local dwellings was still being dug out of Cam Fell in the late 1950s. The old trackway known as the ‘Roman Road’ leading out of Cam went past numerous stacks of peat reared up to dry in the wind. After being dug out of the fell, the peats were left to ‘set’ – to partially dry – then would be built up to form conical stacks. The newly dug ‘green’ peats required dry, windy conditions throughout the summer months for them to thoroughly dry out. Around mid-autumn the peats were transported by cart or sledge to the ‘peat houses’, small buildings of dry stone which were situated among the cottages. Here the fuel would be stored for use during the winter months. In certain hamlets peat was the chief fuel. Therefore, the usual method was to cut a three years supply, and particularly in upper Wharfedale, to ensure that should the summer be wet, which was often the case, there would be sufficient dry fuel available.

The Ling Gill Peat Digger’s Purchase of a Cam Farmer’s Wife.

Emerging from the mists of time, is the rather bizarre tale of a down-on-his-luck Cam farmer who sold his wife to a lonely, unmarried peat digger from nearby Ling Gill. The story goes that the lonely Ling Gill peat digger, whilst delivering a cart load of good dry peats to the farm at Cam, and upon seeing the farmer’s wife as she brought him a mug of ale, did take a fancy to her and after hearing tales of never-ending bad luck and being penniless from the miserable looking farmer, offered to purchase her for the then princely sum of five gold sovereigns. With typical Yorkshire bluntness, the Cam farmer flatly rejected the peat digger’s bold offer, saying it wasn’t enough. The desperately lonely, Ling Gill peat digger immediately increased his offer by adding not another gold sovereign, but as equally valuable thereabouts, another cart filled with dry peats. The Cam farmer, recognising good fortune, spitting on his upturned palm pushed his arm forward and readily accepted. The Cam farmer’s wife was evidently overjoyed with the deal, and apparently had no objection as she considered her husband a miserable, tight-fisted man and her purchaser a youthful, good-looking Ling Gill man.

Peat-Fuelled Lead Smelt Mills

Typical peat cart used by the Alderson family of Stone House, Keld, Swaledale until the 1920s

Yorkshire Peat for Dales Industries – Peat-Fuelled Lead Smelt Mills

In the northern region of the Dales, it was commonplace to burn peat mixed with ‘hard coal’, for firing the furnaces of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale lead smelt mills. For storing the peat fuel, huge barn-like buildings of local stone were constructed that could hold abundant stacks of peat.

At Old Gang Lead Smelt Mill, Swaledale, the 391 feet (119 metres) long, by 21 feet (6 metres) wide heather-thatched Peat Store, reputedly one of the longest buildings in the Dales, could store three years supply of the fuel. In late May or early June, a year’s supply of peat was dug on the moor, which when dry was carted down to the Smelt Mill, where it was stacked in the Peat Store. The ruins of this once impressive building deliver a spectacular testimony to the huge scale of the peat getting. The ‘peat accounts’ for the Smelt Mill in the early 19th century describe peat carting operations from moor to Peat Store lasting seven or eight days and involving two dozen horse-drawn carts and over a hundred men, women and children.

Peat Fuel for Lime-Burning

Ever since earliest times, man has dug peat for fuel used during the manufacture of lime for agricultural use and for the making of lime mortar for building work. Throughout the limestone Yorkshire Dales numerous lime kilns of various configurations: square, circular, with rounded or flattened arches, were constructed from the local rock. All types had the same function: to reduce broken pieces of limestone rock by extreme heat to form lime. The process was usually carried out during one single burning cycle of a large quantity of limestone rock. Alternatively, there was a continual process in which the broken limestone was introduced into the kiln and the burnt lime drawn from its base, regularly and repeatedly over a lengthy or shorter period. These two procedures were generally carried out in a Pye kiln e.g. a ‘pit kiln’, or in a ‘running kiln’.

The burnt lime was used principally in two ways: either for the manufacture of building mortar, or for using as a manure which was spread onto the pastures for reducing the high acidity of the thin, sour moorland soil. The concept of spreading kiln-burnt lime onto grassland for the improvement of the land was discovered during the 16th century. Fitzherbert’s treatise on land surveying dated 1546, recommended mixing marl, animal dung and burnt lime together as a manure for the general improvement of poor pasture land. Around this period, to own a lime kiln was a tremendous asset. Indeed, in 1621 Henry Holmes, a Hebden-in-Wharfedale farmer left in his will farming assets which included ‘one lime kilne and turves worth 12s’.

Peat, semi-decomposed vegetable matter has for several millennia been used by mankind for boiling water, cooking his food and keeping him warm. Peat fuel in more recent times has been used in a number of Dales industries.

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