What made this so galling, though, was that it wasn’t in some little-known wood in a far-flung corner of the borough, but right on my own doorstep. I walk the dog in Tinker Bank Wood every day and wrote about it extensively in the introduction to the book. I had spoken to everyone I could think of about the history of this wood, and I’d even been told by an elderly neighbour that there was a cross base here. She identified it at the junction of paths lower down, where there is a curious carved stone that has been half dug out to expose its shape. It doesn’t look anything like a cross base, but I took her at her word and marked it as a cross base in the book and even sketched it. However, such are the half-truths of popular oral history that, although there is a cross base in the wood it was not where she had been told it was.
This is one of the main problems for any guidebook writer – no sooner has the ink dried on the paper then it is out of date. Last week I ventured out to Judy Woods and Coley to check out a couple of problem areas. Firstly, there is a large field by Coley Hall that until a few months ago was beautiful open pasture, but now is carved up by half a dozen new fences and a large vehicle track. It bears no resemblance to what I had drawn on Route 1 in the book, with the public footpaths now picking their way awkwardly across and around the fencelines – six gates and a stile where there was none. At least you can still get through and educated guesswork ought to lead you to the right corner of the field in the meantime before the book is reprinted.
This duly remapped, I went to meet Denis Waudby from the Friends of Judy Woods, who I had not managed to speak to before publication, but whose thorough website (http://www.judywoods.org.uk) has provided a wealth of useful information for my research.
Judy Woods is one of the most beautiful areas of woodland in West Yorkshire, yet is also particularly marked by industrial history. It was as popular this morning with volunteers mending bridges and clearing leaves as with the dog walkers whose vehicles lined Station Lane. Ten yards into the wood I was directed to an impressive coppiced oak, four apparently unconnected trunks that are part of the same tree that was cut systematically for centuries. A few yards further on, there is the first of many hollows in the ground. For a long time it was assumed that these were all pits used to mine the coal and ironstone buried 150ft beneath the wood. However, Denis is now convinced that this and many others are simply sinkholes, where underground passages have collapsed.
‘If you look at them on a map they’re all in a straight line to the pit head’, he explains, painting a picture of the complicated web of tunnels beneath the whole area.
As we progress through the wood, we find many more similar depressions, varying greatly in size and depth. There are some that Denis confidently declares were sinkholes or the pit shafts to which they lead. Two large holes not marked at all on my map are surrounded by heaps of spoil and were marked as shafts on a 1780s map that I have not seen.
‘The coal would have been brought to the surface here and dropped straight into trucks waiting below this raised area for transporting’, Denis tells me, and it seems so obvious now.
I ask about the older bell pits, a more primitive form of coal mining that involved sinking a shaft and working in a fairly tight radius around it until it was unsafe to go further.
They can be identified by a doughnut-like ring of spoil surrounding a central depression where the shaft has compacted down. I have marked several of these on my map, particularly along the top of Royds Hall Wood.
‘We aren’t sure,’ says Denis. ‘The most obvious way to dig coal on a hillside is to dig an adit from the bottom of the slope. It’s much easier to dig an angled tunnel down than a vertical shaft, but how else do you explain some of these holes?’
Though they might be sinkholes, they are very regularly spaced and not always along the line from the pit head. Apparently bell pits were often dug in a chessboard-like grid a set distance apart.
Denis explains: ‘The story goes that once they had filled in one pit, they would get the strongest man to fling a shovel full of soil as far as he could and wherever that landed they would sink the next pit.’
On hilly ground, though, it would be difficult to maintain that grid and in the trees it is hard to get a sense of the overall layout.
As we talk, slowly a better sense of the wood’s industrial history emerges in my mind. Mining in some form is recorded here as early as the 12th century, probably just shallow adits. Through the Middle Ages, bell pits are likely to have been dug to access further areas of the coal and iron seams. In the 18th century, larger shafts were sunk in and around the wood with long passages crossing the whole area. By 1820, mining within the wood is thought to have been finished, as large-scale planting of beech took place to replace the oak that was felled during the Napoleonic War. Nearby collieries operated until as late as 1960, with a well-preserved trackway across Low Wood used to transport coal to the Low Moor Ironworks, but the wood was largely left to develop into the great playground it is today.
The more Denis explains, the more I realise how hard it is to map the individual features of the wood with any certainty. ‘This whole area was a Victorian tip, so some holes may just be the result of those searching for antiques. We get a lot of that,’ says Denis.
We find a large crater Denis had not seen before, then what I had identified as a charcoal hearth, but starts to look anything but – it is too large and has a faint lip on the downslope side. We can find no obvious charcoal in the soil and Denis suggests an alternative: ‘There’s a picture on the website of a lot of miners scavenging for coal in 1912 during the coal strike. They were digging an adit into the hillside. Perhaps that was here and the hole further up was a collapse on that tunnel. You could work it out by comparing the trees, which of course had been planted by then.’
I checked later and it wasn’t this hole but another in the wood, but it does highlight the problem of trying to produce a definitive guide to this inherently complicated wood. So, although there are definitely things I originally got wrong in the book, it is very hard to claim that I have now got them right.
The writer and scientist Jared Diamond summed it up: ‘Neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.’ Denis and I, and many other countryside researchers and writers, know that many of our conclusions will be flawed. But we present our findings for future generations to build on – whether that means knocking them down altogether and starting again, or using them as the foundation for further research.