Once an industrial site with “grim” working conditions, the former Langcliffe Quarry and Craven Limeworks near Settle has been quiet for decades and reclaimed by nature. Major re-development work is now underway and expected to attract business back. A planning application brought by Craven District Council was approved on 25 January (follow the link to get the full details of the plans). Our Media Officer Andrew Fagg met Senior Historic Environment Officer Miles Johnson to get the story.
First came a question, “Can you see that big scar up there?”
Miles Johnson was pointing at Stainforth Scar, on top of which sits Winskill Farm.
In truth it would be hard to miss, being a tower of limestone rising above the Ribblesdale road between the villages of Langcliffe and Stainforth.
“Most people look at that and think it’s a natural cliff. It’s not. It’s a quarry face nearly all the way up to the top,” said Mr Johnson.
As with so much else in the dale, the story of Craven Limeworks, also known as Stainforth Sidings, is bound up with that of the Settle-Carlisle railway.
The creation of the Settle to Carlisle line (1869-75) created a new industrial opportunity. The railway brought in coal to burn the limestone quarried from the scar, and took away the finished product, lime for building and agricultural use.
Mr Johnson said: “It’s a pretty vast industrial monument. A colossal amount of stone was burned. It’s had various uses since it stopped being a limeworks. There was a recycling centre here for many years and a part of the quarry floor is not accessible because it was used as a landfill site in the 1970s and 80s.
“The National Park Authority has been involved in managing part of the site for upwards of 20 years and been involved in thinking about its future for even longer than that.
“A lot of the interest of the site is in that mix between the historical structures and the return to nature. Some of the structures have bats in; there are all the bee orchids; cave spiders live inside the kiln; and the quarry face has had peregrines nesting on it at points.
“The Authority has always taken the view that it’s been a ‘discovered site’. We have had some interpretation here and a trail for about 15 years, but basically we made a conscious decision not to promote it. But the new developments here will change the numbers of people visiting.”
In August 2020, the National Park Authority’s Planning Committee debated an application brought forward by the owners of site, Craven District Council, to built industrial units, offices and workshops on it. The site is allocated for business development in the Local Plan. A formal decision was made on 25 January 2021, after a conservation management plan was agreed.
As we moved through the site from south to north, a modern set of light industrial buildings and the railway were on our left, with the monumental remains of ‘Spencer kilns’ on our right. Next came arguably the highlight: the lozenge-shaped, 22-chamber Hoffman kiln.
“It’s quite something, isn’t it,” said Mr Johnson as we stooped through one of the chamber entrances, once used by workers shovelling burnt lime onto wagons waiting a few feet away in sidings constructed either side of the kiln.
“We’re looking from the north end of the kiln to the south end on one side, and you can see ten entrances with shafts of light coming through each. The shafts of light illuminate the arching. In between, you’ve got strips of darkness. Just from an artistic sense, it’s amazing to look down. But for me, it’s also, I suppose, the sense of people’s experiences of it in the past that makes it special.
“It’s quite pleasant space to be in now but while it was in use it was probably absolutely grim. Lime is really nasty, caustic stuff to work with. The lime burners who worked in here had to cover every inch of their body with rags and clothing to try to keep the lime dust out. When lime dust meets moisture or water it reacts and generates a lot of heat. So if you’ve got lime dust on your body, and you’re shovelling and starting to sweat, then you’d start to blister and burn quite quickly. The limeburners’ hair would turn ginger.
“There’s not another experience quite like this in the Yorkshire Dales. We’ve got a lot of very special industrial monuments, particularly with the lead industry, and there are some amazing underground places as well, but as a place that’s easy to access, I don’t think there’s anywhere quite as good as this.”
Look up while inside the kiln and you will see holes where coal would be dropped through. These have now been taken over by rare cave spiders, their egg sacks suspended around them.
“Cave spiders are not for everybody. But you know, I don’t think they’re particularly interested in people,” said Mr Johnson, who himself appeared more taken with the various states of the fire bricks in the ceiling.
“Here you’ve got different phases of lining. What happens with intense heat is that the brick gets affected and starts to vitrify and lose its insulating properties. So fairly regularly throughout the lifetime of the kiln they’d have to peel off these bricks and reline the interior, hence, the reuse of them all around the site. Spent fire bricks are found in structures all around the local area.”
It isn’t known how many visitors the site currently attracts. However, data from a footfall counter installed by rangers on the right of way running along the railway, for a five year period to 2011, suggested only a relatively small number of people knew about it.
Mr Johnson said: “It does get a steady trickle of visitors – more so on weekends and interestingly at times like New Year’s Day, Boxing Day, that kind of thing. We don’t know whether 20% more people will come after the development, or 500% more, which is why the management plan is in place to conserve the site.”
** A version of this article first appeared in the Craven Herald & Pioneer – the Voice of the Dales since 1853 – on 14 January 2021.