A little to the east of Sunniside, scattered liberally over the junction of the A692 and Pennyfine Road, lies the small community known as Street Gate. Wood- and meadow-land lie strewn hereabouts, and in a patch of land betwixt the village and its larger neighbour to the west was recently found the remnants of two old bell-pits.
Bell-pits, as I am sure many of you will know, are relics of the earliest days of mining – coalmining, of course, in this case – dating back to the 14th-17th centuries. Basically, a gang of prospectors would sink a simple shaft into the ground where they had reason to believe there was coal to be found, then they would gradually mine out a small underground room and hoist the black stuff to the surface by basket. When the bell-shaped pit assumed dangerous proportions, they would simply abandon it and move down-seam by sinking another shaft a few dozen yards away. They would back-fill the old pit with the earth taken from the new one.
In the centuries that followed mining techniques developed considerably, of course. But odd remnants of the bell-pit system remain dotted around the region – and two such shafts were unearthed here at Street Gate by the Woodland Trust during deep ploughing work when they were preparing to lay a wild flower meadow. Two circular ‘gaps’ in the underlying boulder clay were noticed (each about six metres across), and investigative work revealed them to be evidence of our most basic of early industrial activity.
Studies of old maps pinned the dates down to at least as early as the 1630s, but such activity would most likely have stretched back in the area to perhaps the 14th century. Such was the significance of the discovery that it was decided to launch a campaign to mark the spot in some way, and in October 2007 the revamped site together with a plaque/plinth was officially unveiled amidst great pomp and ceremony.
The full story (with lots of pics) can be found here.
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