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In the endless pursuit of energy  a new form of deep drilling to release oil and gas from the subterranean depths of the earth is being used.  It looks dangerous, it’s controversial and what’s more it pollutes water and soil should the chemicals escape.  This technique has been used in the USA with very mixed reactions; that we now find companies in this country testing our land for natural gas should lead to a very deep-seated concern.  That these companies want to drill in the beautiful landscape of the Mendips should send a shudder through any soul.  Wookey Hole with its subterranean river Axe running through the caves, the reservoirs that provide water for Bristol and also the famous Bath Spa hot waters, all come under threat should there be leakage of the chemicals.
The Mendips are an  archaeological and ecological rich area, early evidence of occupation in the caves and gorges can still be found in the landscape, long barrows and Bronze Age barrows can be found dotted all over the landscape.  Fracking is controversial and there have been  worries over what is happening at the first site in England using this method of gas drilling outside Blackpool. 
It has been accused of causing earthquakes, explosions, pollution, and even making tap water flammable.  Now the controversial gas extraction process known as ‘fracking’ could be coming to the Mendip Hills.  An oil and gas exploration company says there are significant reserves of natural shale gas under the Mendips…
The process involves drilling a well then pumping in millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure. The pressure fractures underground shale deposits and opens fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. For each frack, 80-300 tonnes of chemicals may be used, critics claim.
The natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemicals used, but scientists have identified volatile organic compounds such as toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and benzene, the latter of which is a strong carcinogen.
A guest article by David Aspinall. The views expressed are those of the author not of Heritage Action, its individual members or others outside Heritage Action, some of whom remain unconvinced of Mr Aspinall’s claims. The area in question however is poorly investigated and further study may substantiate Mr Aspinall’s findings. Text and images © David Aspinall.

The area of Britain named the North Pennines is now tranquil but has been very busy in the past. Although lead was the main product, other ores have been exploited and most of the seams are recorded. The Rev. Michael Taylor, of Penrith, came into the possession of a broken two-piece stone mould in 1883. He elaborately reconstructed it and described how the removable core, for the leaf-shaped spearhead, dated to the Late Bronze Age, was made and used. Croglin, where the mould was found, is on the western margin of the North Pennines, five miles north of Long Meg and her Sisters, and just three miles west of the Bold Venture copper mine, which is believed to have worked out in the 1920s.
The mineshaft enters a steep riverside bank beside where two brooks converge. The spoil has, presumably, just been tipped into the river, and has now mainly gone, but the remnant of a burial cist is just forty yards from the entrance. There’s no lid or cairn left but similar intact cairns and mounds have survive. The mineshaft enters a steep riverside bank beside where two brooks converge. The spoil has, presumably, just been tipped into the river, and has now mainly gone, but the remnant of a burial cist is just forty yards from the entrance. There’s no lid or cairn left but similar intact cairns and mounds have survived, in the pastures above, and these are unexplored. A short distance upstream from the mine are the foundations of a hut or shelter beside a bed of slag. The river spates have removed the lighter fractions of material from this spoil heap and there’s no identifiable crucible fragments or charcoal. An ancient track to Croglin used to bridge the river here and the nearest hamlet is called Slaggyford. Two open copper working sites nearby are also known to geologists.
Even further upstream is a large dome-shaped stone cairn. The stones are weathered and the mound is overgrown with grass and lichen. Casual examination suggests that there may have been a passage into the mound from the north east and that this has been filled with rubble and topped by several hefty boulders. At the front of the cairn are the ruined foundations of a rectangular fold, with a doorway broad enough for sheep or young cattle. The cairn commands an impressive panorama of the valley, with a distant view to the Cheviots. Behind the mound is a long tapering ‘tail’ of stone, perhaps seventy yards long. Some stone has been taken from this to build a recent sheepfold nearby and the small quarry pits show as pale areas in the grey lichen-covered stones.
The tail of the cairn is shaped like a spearhead and points upward, into the hillside. A few hundred yards behind it there’s a drystone construction built into an outcrop of free stone. A simple rectangular enclosure, about three yards by two, is butted into the hill and is fronted by a now-decrepit concave wall. There’s a flat area before it with enough space for a couple of people to sit or stand. Looking down the hill, the eye is drawn over the tail and the cairn itself to the horizon and a low round hill. This is the alignment of the southernmost moonrise and, perhaps, the shadow from the cairn in moonlight, is designed to fall over the cairn tail. Perhaps the large boulders that now top the cairn trimmed its outline for a closer fit, of the shadow to the tail. It has simply never been tested.
There are other large cairns in the area. One is a sausage-shaped mound of collected stones ninety to a hundred yards long which appears to be completely undisturbed. It has a distinctive limpet-shaped satellite cairn not far away. Another long cairn overlooked the valley and was crushed to make a moorland road a few years ago. This new road, the first of three, is about a kilometre long and was built without planning consent in a Site of Special Scientific Interest within the Area Of Natural Beauty. On the hillside below this lost monument, near a stream called the Hut Burn, are the remains of a roundhouse. The low ruined wall, with a diameter of about five yards, has some of the wall plates in place and has been protected by the incursion of bracken. The entrance doorway faces the southeast.
Almost impossibly a pair of drystone cairns, each just a couple of paces in diameter, have survived. They have a domed profile and casual excavation shows that they are seated deep into the peat. They would have been prominent from below and perhaps were intended to frame the setting sun or moon from a site that has now been lost. Sandwiched in the peat, on the southern slope of the Knar valley, is a profusion of bog oak pieces. Most are the roots and knotty parts of Scotch pine and they usually have the mark of a cutting tool at both ends. They may be scraps left over from the extraction of roundwood – a single complete piece of bog oak four foot long has been recorded and it is of interest that firewood is still sold in four foot lengths in the US.
The main South Tyne river valley held substantial monuments at several sites. Within living memory is the practise of decorating north-facing fieldwalls with an ochre wash – several examples survive – and an old railway bridge has also been decorated in just the same way. The Kirkhaugh gold ornament was excavated from a hillside cairn in 1935 and in the riverine meadow, below these cairns, are substantial heaps of jumbled stones. Some show signs of being alternately burned and chilled by water, to break them, but a large section of a double stone circle has been positively identified. The low stones that remain in the Kirkhaugh true stone circle are all prone with many partially or entirely covered by turf. Near the centre of the circle is a rectangular feature directed toward the northernmost moonrise. Three sides of the rectangle survive, perhaps twenty or thirty yards in length and four or five wide. Little stones have been set into a narrow bank, which appears to have at least one formal entrance, and there is also a hint of an external ditch. The double stone circle, with an approximate diameter of seventy to eighty yards appears to have had an entrance portal, formed by four stones. It may be only be recognised from the railway embankment.
A little stone circle was known at Featherstone, several miles to the north, and the circle, which comprised of eight low stones is shown on old large scale OS maps. This circle was uprooted in the nineteen eighties and the stones have been unceremoniously dumped beside a ditch. This destruction has continued until almost the present day. Another site, overlooked by a spectacular hill, has remnants both of what are probably stone rows and a Roman marching camp. One row can be identified, though the stones, again, are all prone. It has an elongated Z- shape and has a very eroded cup and ring stone amongst its debris. Stones lie all about this site which leads to a prominent hill the shape and size of Newbrough. The local tradition is that this big mound, named Amos Hill, is a barrow. From the footpath above it’s easy to surmise a stone facing to the round hill and it’s still possible to identify a putative southern oriented entrance. This well-placed mound has never been investigated in any way, of course.
Amos Hill long barrow
The area has many simple cupmarked stones as well as standing stones of all sizes. One standing stone, that is very eroded, has an entire face pecked out in micro-cups. It does seem that the Upper South Tyne valley was at its peak in the prehistoric era and that the Industrial Age just saw a temporary reprieve. The farmers and gamekeepers that work every day in this landscape protect it fiercely and actively discourage visitors with hostile behaviour, misleading directions and plain obfuscations. Consequently the rich history of the first metalworkers here is both undisturbed and unexplored. All of the moorland is managed with Right To Roam access and this is unlimited except for a couple of fields where there is the restriction that dogs must be kept on a lead. Farmers are very used to visitors travelling up and down the main valley, following the Pennine Way originally, and the South Tyne Trail, subsequently. It is very rare that tourists step off this beaten track but that is the only way they can find the many prehistoric monuments that remain here.


October 2011

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