Ore-inspiring! The race to raise £1.6m to save Yorkshire's Victorian iron kilns

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Heritage campaigners launch appeal to fund urgent works on the dramatic relics of industrial ironworks high on the North York Moors

Remains from the old ironstone workings, North York Moors national park.
Remains from the old ironstone workings, North York Moors national park. Photograph: Robert Harding/Alamy

They can be seen for miles around, a monumental relic of Victorian industry amid the stunning beauty of the North York Moors. But almost 100 years since the Rosedale iron kilns were last fired, they are in danger of being lost.

The 16 brick arches at the end of a 12-mile railway track, hand-built by navvies and cut into valley walls, are crumbling after decades of being battered by wind and rain. Now the North York Moors National Park Authority is preparing to launch a campaign to raise £1.6m to secure this piece of industrial heritage for generations to come.

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One of the arches is particularly vulnerable and will need propping up in the new year. Conservation of the whole site – a task complicated by its remote location and height – will have to wait for funding applications and appeals to the public, with the hope that work could start in the spring of 2022.

“It’s quite an ambitious target, especially when a lot of people are struggling. But we hope they’ll get behind this project to keep the kilns safe for another 50 to 100 years,” said Tom Mutton of the park authority.

In August 1854, the Gateshead Observer reported an important find on the North York Moors. Under the headline “Discovery”, it said: “An extensive field of ironstone has recently been discovered at Rosedale, near Pickering. A sample of the stone, sent to Newcastle, has been analysed there this week and found to contain no less than 67% of pure iron.”

Remains of workers’ cottages at Rosedale.
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Remains of workers’ cottages, known as ‘black houses’, at Rosedale. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

The great iron rush was soon under way. Mine companies appealed to investors to back their ventures, and labourers flocked into the area – at first, sleeping in barns and communal huts. They endured punishing physical labour with a high risk of injury and death – and, occasionally, tension between different groups of workers.

“At Rosedale last week, the English miners combined to drive the Irish labourers out of the valley,” reported the Liverpool Daily Post in 1862. “Some sharp fighting took place. The cause of the … feeling is stated to have been owing to an Irishman contracting for work at an under price.”

The “calcining” kilns, plus a grand chimney, were built to roast the ironstone with coal to remove impurities and reduce its weight, making it easier to transport for smelting into iron. The railway built across the high moorland plateau saw a constant stream of wagons bringing coal and other supplies to the remote spot, and taking away the roasted ironstone. “The iron from Rosedale and other mines helped make Britain what it is,” said Mutton.

But eventually high-quality ironstone was depleted and the mines faced stiff competition from imported ore. The kilns closed in the 1920s, and the railway line was taken up for salvage in 1929. Since then, “nature has reclaimed the area; the kilns have melted back into their natural habitat,” said Mutton.

The bed of the old railway track has become a popular and accessible walk, with stunning views across the dramatic landscape, and the possibility in summer months of spotting a ring ouzel, an endangered member of the thrush family that migrates from north Africa in the spring.

The North York Moors National Park Authority has been working for the past four years on a project, Land of Iron, to protect the area’s industrial heritage. It had earmarked £100,000 for conservation of the kilns but discovered that the sum was a woeful underestimate of the true cost of halting their deterioration.

The authority hopes to begin fundraising next spring, and estimates that work could be completed by the end of 2023.