Louise Cooke – This Exploited Land Heritage Officer
One of the tasks that we undertook during the just completed Development Phase of the This Exploited Land (HLF Landscape Partnership) programme was to try and establish a better understanding of the landscape character of the programme area.
Understanding, analysing and describing the character types of the landscape includes some obvious ‘easy hits’ – wide open moorland, farmland, river corridors, enclosed wooded valleys. In each of these different landscapes in the This Exploited Land (TEL) area industrial archaeology has left a significant legacy.
For example, the industrial archaeology features are relatively straightforward to see in Rosedale. Alongside the well-known monumental kilns on both sides of the dale, it is possible to make out the flattened ‘terrace’ that marks out the line of the Rosedale Railway, and the ‘inclines’ that mark out the tramways bringing the ironstone from the mine entrances to the calcining kilns for processing. Whilst there are features that are unmapped (or which we are not quite sure how they actually ‘worked’) the industrial archaeology of Rosedale is easy to see in the landscape and so help to present the story of the dale’s industrial past.
But imagine that Rosedale was not an open moorland setting, but was rather in one of the enclosed wooded valleys. All that was easy enough to make out is suddenly very difficult to see and without seeing the features it is very hard to read the story of past industrial exploitation.
This is the case with the Murk Esk valley between Goathland and Grosmont, which today contains a mixture of broadleaved and conifer woodland, including Plantations on Ancient Woodland sites (PAWS) indicating there has been woodland on the site for a long time. But in addition, from c. 1840s – 1890s the valley was a scene of heavy industry including mineral extraction (ironstone and whinstone), calcining and ironworking (at Beck Hole and Grosmont), and associated domestic life. This includes ‘key’ sites such as Beck Hole Ironworks, Grosmont Ironworks, Combs Wood, Blue Ber Wood and Holme House mines. Much of this industrial past is now ‘lost’ or hidden beneath the trees and it is very difficult to isolate, access and interpret the significant remains that are within the areas of dense woodland.
I’ve walked the route from Goathland to Grosmont with my children several times and they like the trees, really enjoy the river, but they don’t ‘see’ this as a historic place – it doesn’t have ‘easy’ to see ruins or landscape features – rather all they see is the trees, and these are somehow ‘old’ and must have always been there. The natural environment has subsumed the historic environment. As such the significance and value of the Murk Esk valley and the vital importance it played in the development of the ironstone industries and railway technologies is very hard to understand.
LiDAR survey employs a laser based instrument which transmits high frequency laser pulses and records the reflected signal which can be used to generate very accurate topographic map data even beneath woodland canopy. LiDAR is one of many ‘remote sensing’ technologies that are used by archaeologists to survey sites from the air – a ‘teched-up’ development from conventional aerial photography.
LiDAR has been used with spectacular results for archaeological discoveries around the world such as Angkor Watt, Caracol and here in the UK in the New Forest National Park (amongst many others). As it enables a landscape-scale approach it is particularly suited to documenting archaeological landscapes and features in a number of other HLF Landscape Partnership Schemes such as TEL. Although much of England is already covered by LiDAR data held by the Environment Agency (who need to understand topography and land use, including creating flood models and assessing coastal change) – the currently available coverage in the Murk Esk valley wasn’t available in sufficient density to make this useful as a tool for identification of the archaeological features beneath trees.
High density LiDAR surveys enable us to ‘see’ beneath the trees and other vegetation where the laser beam has passed between the branches of the trees and been reflected from the ground beneath. So we commissioned our own survey of the Murk Esk valley to be undertaken in ‘leaf-off’ conditions – in the very short window between the leaves falling of the trees and vegetation and the new buds and growth forming – therefore increasing the possibility of the laser beam passing through the branches to the ground beneath. During the end weeks of winter I was spring-watching with increased nervousness in anticipation of the perfect combination of ‘timing’ and ‘weather’. Fortunately our survey was undertaken on the 9 March 2015.
We have now started to use the results to give us a much better understanding of the landscape character of the Murk Esk valley. The survey has demonstrated that the TEL landscape still contains significant unknowns, and there is a wealth of historic and natural heritage information that can be discovered, amalgamated and better understood. The verification of these results, mainly through ground truthing, will be a central element of the community archaeology and volunteer programs delivered through the TEL programme should HLF funding be secured for its Delivery Phase.
With our industrial past revealed by the falling leaves last winter, the scale of the ‘unknown’ is surprising particularly given the relatively recent past represented by the histories of early railways and iron making in the North York Moors. The past is still there to be discovered.