Bentley Grange; iron-pits

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Monday 18th October 1999, part 1/2

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old iron workings, Bentley Grange CISTERCIAN MONKS had a chapel dedicated to St Werbergh, a forge and a millpond here. They organised the digging of bell-pits in the open fields of the village of Emley, (OS grid ref. SE 265131) to reach a bed of Tankersley ironstone, not far beneath the surface. The circular spoil heaps dotted across the slope here were, according to surviving charters, dug between the late 1100s and the early 1500s.

bell-pit Each pit started as a vertical shaft. When the miners hit the seam of ironstone they started digging sideways to take out the ore. The spoil was dumped around the entrance to the shaft. This resulted in a bell-shaped hollow. When the excavations started to collapse a new pit would be started 20 or 30 yards away.

furnace slag Part of nearby Bank Wood is known as Furnace Hill. In the field below there are pieces of glassy greenish furnace slag. This waste material is rich in silica and, like flint, which is a form of silica, it shatters to give sharp-edges with shell-like fractures (conchoidal fractures to use the geological term). Gas bubbles frozen into it are another clue that these pieces came out of a furnace.

Bentley is the Anglo Saxon for 'a clearing overgrown with bent-grass.' Acid soil encourages the growth of Common Bent-grass, a fine-leaved grass of limited value for grazing. Rhododendron, a shrub that requires acid soil, grows well in Bank Wood.

A Grange, from the Latin for grain, was an outlying farmhouse in which a religious establishment or feudal lord stored crops or tithes. During the middles ages Bentley Grange was an outpost of the great Cistercian monastery Byland Abbey, 46 miles away in north Yorkshire. Some of the stonework in the farm may date from before the dissolution of the Abbey in 1536.

The spoil heaps overlap medieval strip cultivation, which must therefore be 800 years old. Bentley Grange is one of the most striking historical sites in the county but very few people have heard of it. The excavations stretched for another mile towards Emley before they were erased by opencast mining. Today, following in the footsteps of the monks, Cobex plan to strip mine some of the fields between here and Bretton Park, but for coal this time, not iron ore.

The pattern of strips and iron-pits shows up best in an aerial view, but you'll see them at ground level if you come to pick-your-own soft fruit at Bentley Grange farm. I'm told the raspberries and strawberries are the best in the district. Slightly acid soil is ideal for these fruits.

Richard Bell
Richard Bell,
wildlife illustrator

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