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10/09/2003 Archived Entry: "A Walk fromStaithes to Skinningrove"
A very pleasant walk recently took me along the Cleveland Way via the cliff tops along the east coast north of Whitby. I climbed from the little harbour side of Staithes up to Cowbar and onto Boulby Cliff, the highest in England at 690 feet (209 metres) and past some atmospheric reminders of a former industry of alum mining. Alum shale is a rich source of aluminium sulphate which was used as a fixing agent in dyeing cloth, for tanning leather and for producing top-grade parchment. It was mined at several sites around the North York Moors and along the North Yorkshire coastline, sometimes with dramatic effect. Along this coastline were some 20 sites where alum was processed and they stretched from just north of Loftus down to Ravenscar near Scarborough with further sites inland, such as Carlton Bank near Stokesley and even as far inland as Thimbleby near Northallerton.
It is said that the alum discoveries of this region were England's earliest chemical industry. Alum was discovered in the Cleveland Hills around 1595 by Sir Thomas Challoner of Guisborough. He had been astute enough, on a visit to Rome, to notice that the discolouring of leaves on trees near the Pope's alum works was very similar to those near his home. He realised the clay of both regions was similar too and this led him to examine the possibility that the Cleveland Hills might be a source of this valuable chemical. And so it proved.
In opening his mine at Belman Bank, Sir Thomas effectively set himself up in competition with the Pope who was exporting alum to England at £52 for a ton while Sir Thomas could produce it for a mere £11 per ton. Not only that, one of the enduring tales of his early endeavours was that Sir Thomas desperately needed skilled workers to both mine the alum and teach others their skills, and so he bribed some of the Pope's workers to come to England, smuggling them secretly out of Italy in large casks. Needless to say, he was not very popular with the pontiff!
This discovery led to a boom as workers flocked to the area and more alum was discovered both in the moors and along the cliffs, with two of the largest mines being established in 1615 on the cliffs both at Boulby and to the north of Loftus. The industry continued until technological advances in the 1870's made it uneconomic and the industry collapsed.
As I passed these long deserted sites on my walk, I paused to look down at the curious smooth covering many feet below, and the sad remnants of industrial buildings. It is difficult to imagine how men managed to work on such a site and in undoubtedly dreadful conditions. The area is remote and in winter the weather can be bitterly cold and wet; there would be little shelter from the North Sea gales. And how did they get all their equipment down the steep cliffs?
Not far to the south at Kettleness, there were two mines, one producing alum and the producing iron ore. However, on December 17, 1829 the cliffs around the iron ore mine collapsed, having been weakened by the excavations and the entire village slid slowly but inexorably towards the sea. Fortunately, there was an alum ship standing offshore and most of the residents managed to get safely aboard, but the sliding earth carried away both the village and the alum works. They were rebuilt in 1831 but disaster struck again when they caught fire and burned for two whole years.
One curious spin-off resulted from alum mining along those cliffs. It was the discovery, at Kettleness in 1857, of skeletons of long extinct creatures, which at the time led to a belief that dragons and monsters truly existed. And so they did, except they were the remains of an ichthyosaurus and a plesiosaurus; this matched an earlier discovery in 1824 of the fossil remains of a teleosaurus at Saltwick, near Whitby.
Twenty years ago, The National Trust acquired the Peak Alum Works at Ravenscar and undertook an extensive programme of excavation and recording of this important industrial monument. The preservation work was completed in 1993 and the site, which is just off the route of the Cleveland Way is now open to visitors.