North East farmers are doing their bit to reveal and restore the hidden historic gems on their land

PUBLISHED: 14:39 25 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:10 20 February 2013

Father and son farmers Malcolm (left) and James Nattrass in restored blacksmith’s shop at Low Slit Mine, renovated under Higher Level Stewardship scheme, Westgate in Weardale, County Durham, UK

Father and son farmers Malcolm (left) and James Nattrass in restored blacksmith’s shop at Low Slit Mine, renovated under Higher Level Stewardship scheme, Westgate in Weardale, County Durham, UK

The North East is rich in architectural heritage, yet many of our ancient agricultural and industrial buildings have been neglected and forgotten. Now local farmers are doing their bit to reveal and restore the hidden historic gems on their land

Upper Weardale is steeped in history. Scratch the surface of this beautiful, bleak landscape and youll find Neolithic flint tools, Roman artefacts, medieval ruins, and the abandoned relicts of 700 years of lead mining.

Much of this hidden past can be found on rugged farmland where farmers have been getting involved in a series of restoration projects to unearth and restore significant buildings, from beautiful old calf byres to big industrial lead mining works.

One such farmer turned historian is Dennis Craig whose family have been farming here for 200 years. His farm, on the outskirts of Westgate, was once part of the huge walled deer park where Durhams Prince Bishops held lavish hunting parties hundreds of years ago.

Dennis is the last farmer in the valley to rear dairy shorthorns, a traditional breed developed in Durham, and he can trace the origins of his herd back to the early 19th century. In front of his farmhouse stands a small, but now perfectly formed building which has been painstakingly restored using traditional methods and materials.

Its a calf byre with two stables on the ground floor, just large enough for half a dozen calves, and a dovecote upstairs. Its been beautifully done and Dennis is especially proud of the stone stairway, which had to be rebuilt from scratch.

He shows us a childs leather boot, tiny and worn, that was uncovered during the renovation. A lady from Durham University dated it to the late 19th century. It was probably put in for good luck during a previous restoration, he explains.

When we think of the North Easts architectural heritage its the big, iconic structures that spring to mind Hadrians Wall, our coastal castles, Durham Cathedral. Its easy to overlook the countless agricultural and industrial buildings that stand testament to a bygone way of life. But farmers like Dennis are doing their bit to rescue some of these modest buildings, and ensure they are preserved.

Dennis was able to restore the calf byre thanks to a capital grant from the government under whats known as the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme.

A little further up Weardale father and son farmers Malcolm and James Nattrass show us another example of HLS-funded restoration on their land. Low Slit Mine was one of the biggest lead workings in Weardale when it closed more than 100 years ago, and the remains are now a designated scheduled monument.

Until recently the ruins were so badly overgrown walkers on the public footpath which runs through the site didnt realise it was there.

Painstaking restoration work, clearing undergrowth and repointing stonework with authentic lime mortar, have changed all that. Malcolm shows us the remains of the blacksmiths workshop, the huge stone-lined pit where a massive waterwheel once stood, the stone base of an Armstrong hydraulic engine, and a row of bouse teams, where each team of miners would store their unprocessed ore.

Kevin Charlton, a stonemason specialising in traditional techniques, tells us its taken three years to repair all the stonework. Providing work to specialist craftsmen such as Kevin is an incidental but important benefit of the scheme, as is the boost to local tourism which historic sites such as Low Slit Mine can provide.

Under the HLS scheme farmers can receive up to 100 per cent of the capital cost of protecting historic and archaeological features, and up to 80 per cent of the cost of restoring historic farm buildings, but they arent allowed to benefit financially for the 10 years each scheme runs, so they cant for example, convert a barn and then sell it for housing.

Tom Gledhill is regional historic environment adviser for Natural England, which holds the HLS purse strings, and has been involved in both of the Weardale projects. He points out that as well as their intrinsic historic worth, many of the projects also have a biodiversity element. At Low Slit Mine, for example, the flat ore washing area is home to rare lead-tolerant flowers such as spring sandwort, which were in danger of disappearing as the soil was washed away.

Tom is particularly proud of the restoration of Shittleheugh Bastle - in the wild heart of Northumberland National Park. Bastles were fortified farmhouses, built to protect farmers and their livestock from the border reivers, cattle rustlers, and the hungry English and Scottish armies which regularly passed through this lawless area.

The ruined bastle on Shittleheugh farm in the Redesdale valley dates from the turn of the 16th century, and is, according to Tom, surrounded by archaeology: Surveys revealed ridge and furrow fields, corn-drying kilns, field boundaries and cattle drove roads that give rare clues to the lifestyle of the farming families of the Borders.

Linden Craven, who farms the 500 acre sheep farm on which the bastle is located, says the restoration took about a year from survey to completion: If it hadnt been for the help of Natural England and HLS funding we couldnt have found the funds. It all worked smoothly and the bastle now looks really good its an asset to the farm, she says.

HLS is a really good mechanism for spending public money to stem the steady loss of historic monuments, adds Tom Gledhill. Were targeting structures at risk, scheduled monuments and listed buildings that have been identified by English Heritage as of national importance. Many are decaying, and once theyre gone, theyre gone.

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