Thursday, 21 October 2010
The other day I took a day off and my wife and I ventured out into the playground known as the North Yorkshire Moors where, surrounded by the panoramic moorlands, dotted with farms and homesteads, I began to think about preservation and conservation. These thoughts only came to mind after I’d, unsuccessfully, tried to cross a mill stream by standing on what I thought was a stone but turned out to be a patch of white clay. I sank as if it were quicksand and soon the water was over the tops of my rigger boots that filled to their tops and made getting out even more difficult. Further along the track we stopped allowing me to sit and empty out my boots and ponder on the wonders of life the universe, industrial archeology, conservation, and cold feet.

Now we all know about conservation – we know how precious the moors are and how they have to be maintained and protected and I’m not having a go at that. As far as I’m concerned we’re the custodians for future generations and, although we seem to have fucked up the rain forests, the ozone layer, the oceans, and quiet a lot of other things, we have managed to organise the National Parks where there is a great awareness of preservation and conservation of landscape, flora and fauna. That’s good, very good, however – and this is where I question conservation – the conservationists want to keep things as they are now – and we, us visitors and tourists look around and say yes this is wonderful, this is beautiful, this is how it has and should forever be – and that’s our big mistake. Landscape only appears like it is today because it has evolved that way, and it has evolved that way because of natural evolution combined with mans interference.

Through the ages the landscape we have come to think of as unchanging has evolved and developed, and nine times out if ten that development has been influenced by man. For example let’s take Rosedale Abbey. As picturesque a landscape and village as you’ll find anywhere – but its not natural – its evolved that way. First of all man arrived and felled the trees to create a space to built an abbey – and that led to a hamlet evolving around the abbey and the hamlet evolved into the village, and even more trees being cut down. The Abbey, in order to sustain itself, farmed sheep. To do this they felled more trees, and drained marshland and created fields with dry stone walls that they made from quarries and cliffs that they dug out of the earth. Slowly more farming and more agriculture developed and changed the landscape, more trees were felled, more stone walls built, more farms and farm buildings were constructed alongside new roads and bridges. Then, in the middle of the 19th century, witgh the advent of the Industrial revolution iron was the master and mining was the name of the game and Rosedale turned into an industrial hub. Ironstone mines were dug, railway lines were constructed, along with all the auxilary support infrastructure, engine houses, water tanks, pumping stations and housing for the workers. These workers needed shops, pubs, churches and other buildings, some of which still stand in Rosedale Abbey.

In 1873 the Rosedale mines produced over half a million tons of ironstone but, as a result of a depression in the iron trade, production fell so much that in January 1879 the Rosedale and Ferryhill Iron Company were forced to suspend production. The mines opened again at the end of 1880, but production never again reached the level of the early 1870s. The first mine closed in 1885, the next in 1911.

The East Mines were given a boost during World War I when demand for iron was high, but once the war was over, in 1921, the price fell sharply and the number of workers fell. Mining stopped completely during the 1926 General Strike, and never restarted. The East Mines were officially abandoned on 28 February 1928. The railway survived a little longer – until June 1929 when the last locomotive, travelled along the Ingleby Incline. Industry had come – taken out of the ground what it could, and passed on leaving behind a shattered community and a lot of empty industrial buildings and infrastructure. Just like Sheffield in the late 80’s early 90’s.

So where does that leave us, today? Well surely it asks the question “at what stage does conservation kick in and at what stage do we begin conserve/preserve?” I mean back in 1928 at the closure of the railway, if we’d have preserved everything that was left behind by the closure of the mines, today we would have had an industrial heritage complex the size of Beamish – with train rides for tourists up and down the valley – a tea shop in the engine shed, and tourist shops selling iron bric-a-brac all along Bank Top. Lets face it, that’s what we’ve done with Armley Mills in Leeds, The National Museum of Mining near Barnsley and a number of other industrial sites turned museums up and down the country.

But back in 1928 industrial heritage wasn’t a buzz word(s) and that didn’t happen – the site was left derelict, stone was removed and reclaimed for other building projects, and nature did what nature does so well. It covered the remains so that eventually the site was reclaimed by the moorland. If we’d have preserved it in the 60’s we’d have still had chimneys and stone buildings dotted around, but we didn’t. We’ve chosen, or rather the powers that be have chosen, to preseve it as it is today and by doing so have chosen to attempt to freeze progress, freeze evolution right here and right now. In actual fact Rosedale and Bank Top, apart from the last 20 years or so, have never looked like it does today. It would have been very interesting if, back in the 1800’s someone, somewhere had come along and said “no!” to the building of the mines – what would we have preserved then? What did the moor look like prior to the building of the railway lines and the reshaping of the landscape – and more to the point, would it have been interesting enough to preserve?

And that’s the problem about conservation – we can only conserve what is around now – we cannot conserve or preserve what was. To do that we’d have to go back in time and pick a moment that we think, with todays insight and hindsight, its optimum period, which usually means suiting todays preconceptions – obviously, unless we have access to Dr Who’s Tardis, that cant happen. Therefore we can only preseve what exists today, with todays criteria and demands and perspectives. But sometimes, as we know at Rosedale, the landscape we have preserved today, the landscape we travel miles to look at and photograph isn’t natural and doesn’t tell the full story. Will it change in the future? Have we, by bringing in preservation orders and creating National Parks with all the attendent rules and regulations managed to stop the passage of time – have we managed to halt erosion? Have we suspended the countryside in a timeless heritage bubble that precludes future development and evolution? In this day and age of energy and financial poverty it would be interesting to see what would happen if someone discovers an oil field or natural gas field under a National Park.