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The Lead Mines at Old Gang

Ruined buildings give eloquent testimony to Swaledale's important industrial past.

Distance 7.8 miles (12.5km)

Minimum time 3hrs

Ascent/gradient 853ft (260m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Tracks and moorland paths - a little road walking at end

Landscape Pasture and moorland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 30 Yorkshire Dales - Northern & Central

Start/finish SD 989999

Dog friendliness Can be off lead except near sheep

Parking At junction of two minor roads, in valley of Old Gang Beck

Public toilets None on route

1 From the bridge over the beck, turn up the track that goes upstream by the 'Bridleway only, no vehicles' sign. Follow the track for a mile to reach Old Gang Smelting Mills.

2 Continue along the track for another ¾ mile (1.2km), going right where the path forks, following the Level House Bridge sign. Level House, which stood at the junction of the paths, was a dwelling built in the late 17th century for one of the partners in the early mining here. You will see the remains of the rails that took the ore-laden trucks from the mines to the smelting mills along the way.

3 At the bridge, go through a gate, cross the bridge and go uphill. This track follows the Old Rake Vein, towards the Merryfield Mines. Where a track comes in from the left, turn right, following a path down into the valley to cross two streams, past spoil heaps and some small cairns. When you reach a fence, continue ahead with the fence on your right. At a gate in the fence, go through and continue with the fence on your left. On reaching a stony area, turn right to follow a stream valley. Cross a small stream and continue ahead along the track. Go through an area of spoil heaps and shafts, bending right through a bare rocky area to continue along a grassy track, through more heaps.

4 There are views into Arkengarthdale, another heavily mined area, to the right, and you can see the remains of hushes. These were an early method of reaching the ore. At the top of a steep slope a stream was dammed with turf. Once enough water had collected, the dam was breached and the water rushing downhill gouged a trench in the slope, with luck exposing the vein.

5 Where another track comes in from the right go left and follow the track to a road. Turn right and follow the road, which crosses a cattle grid. Go over a footbridge beside the ford at Fore Gill Gate (viewers of BBC television's All Creatures Great and Small series will recognise this as the ford crossed in the opening titles by the vet's car) and ascend the hill, then continue downhill.

6 Before reaching the bridge over the Old Gang Beck, you will cross the horizontal flue from the old Surrender Smelt Mill, downstream to your left. The flue was connected to the chimney up on the hill to your right. Such long flues enabled the smelt mills to use higher temperatures to separate the lead from the slag. Some lead vapourises in extreme heat, and this was previously being lost in the atmosphere. The long flues meant that the gases cooled as they went towards the chimney, so the lead solidified in the walls. Men (though it was often boys) could then be sent into the flues to recover the lead deposit. Cross the bridge to return to the parking place.

The area around Old Gang was one of the most intensively-mined parts of Swaledale in the 18th and 19th centuries. The lead-bearing veins here were very complex, so there are many - and confusing - remains all around you. The largest surviving building beside the track at Old Gang is the smelting mill, while on the hillside behind you can see the columns of stone that were the peat house. This open-sided building was 390ft (119m) long and 21ft (6.4m) wide, and originally had a thatched roof. It could hold enough locally-dug peat for a year's smelting. On the hillside between the mill and the peat house is the entrance to Hard Level, opened in 1785.

While you're there

Further your knowledge of the district's lead mining by visiting Gunnerside. The valley of Gunnerside Gill, which stretched north from the village, was one of the most heavily-mined areas in Swaledale. A stroll up the valley will enable you to see mine entrances and the remains of crushing mills. There is a particularly impressive show at the Bunton site, where the valley is steep, while beyond are the ruins of the Blakethwaite Smelting Mill.

Where to eat and drink

There is nowhere on the route; the Punch Bowl Inn at Feetham, south of Old Gang, offers bar meals and snacks, as does the Red Lion at Langthwaite in Arkengarthdale to the north east. Langthwaite also has the Charles Bathhurst Inn (usually called the CB), which has both bar meals and a higher-class dining room.

What to look for

You are perhaps more likely to hear the curlew than to see it as you walk among the remains of the Old Gang lead mines in the spring and summer. It is very difficult to spot when it is on its nest in the grass or amongst the heather roots, but you may see the male performing its courtship display flight. It has a brown, speckled plumage and a white rump, but its most distinctive feature is its 5-inch (13cm) downward curving bill, that allows its to pluck creatures from deep in the mud as it feeds. The female lays three or four eggs in April or May, and the young hatch in a month. By the end of July curlews gather at river estuaries before flying south. Their call 'coor-li' - from which the name curlew comes - is one of the most distinctive sounds of the northern moorlands. Male curlews decorate this basic call with extra trills as they are courting.

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