This is the time of year when we make every effort to keep ourselves and our families nice and warm and cosy, whether it is by an open fire or gas burner, a radiator, or simply by putting on lots of layers of clothing.
Years ago, peat, a product of decayed vegetation found in boggy moorland, was the only fuel for many people in the dale. Farms far from public roads were dependent upon it, as they either never saw the poor quality coal of Nidderdale or could not afford it, and they relied on peat for heat and for cooking. The fires in their cottages or farmhouses were kept constantly alight, smouldering with two or three peats placed within the kitchen range and never allowed to go out. At night a really dry lighter peat was preferred, and just a few big peats were placed flat on top of the fire to burn slowly and safely. Then from the remaining embers, the following morning’s fire was rekindled.
Peat or turf sods have been cut or sliced for centuries on the moors and in the Museum’s archive there are a number of old photographs showing adults and children cutting and transporting it all home to store in a specially built peat or turf house. It was hard work requiring specialist skills handed down from generation to generation.
Nearly the entire peat supply of a typical household could be cut in one day, and local teams worked together, over a few days or weeks, cutting the annual peat supply for the whole community.
From Museum records we know that peat was burned domestically on isolated farms in Nidderdale certainly up to the 1950s, and one volunteer said she had seen it being burnt in Blacksmiths Cottage Middlesmoor in 1975. Some properties probably still have their turbary rights, allowing them to cut peat, but they would be rarely exercised these days as it is such hard work and ecologically unsound. One dalesman, however, said that he does still cut some peat. He dries it and puts it on his barbecue each year simply for the lovely scent it emits – but he does not place it in his fireplace indoors.
Along with peat, locally dug coal has also been used as a fuel from the earliest times in Nidderdale. Workable seams of coal found near Smelthouses and Felbeck were generally poor quality and shaley, and people often mixed it with peat to help it go further in domestic use. It was also used in lime kilns where the poor quality and slow burn was less of a problem. But there were productive mines near the dale head with better quality coal, and it is possible that it was sought for use in the smelting mills. The mines in the upper dale were worked consistently in the middle of the 19th century, but competition set in when the coal was brought in by rail. Nevertheless, those homes and businesses far from the stations continued to rely on peat for their household and commercial purposes.
Thankfully, keeping warm these days is easier for us, though whether it is cheaper is another matter!