Here, Robin Longbottom examines how lead mining was once an important and thriving industry in South Craven

ISOLATED on a hilltop above the village of Cononley stands a round tower.

It is a prominent feature in the landscape and particularly visible if you are travelling from Skipton towards Keighley.

Whilst it is easy to imagine that it was an ancient watch tower, or a 19th-century folly, it originally had a more practical purpose. It is in fact a chimney, a remnant of our industrial past.

It was built to expel the smoke and poisonous fumes from a lead smelting mill that once stood on the far side of the hill and was connected to it via a long underground flue.

A short detour by car from Cross Hills and along Lothersdale Road will bring you to a view familiar to those who have visited Cornwall. It is of a tall, narrow, roofless building with an even taller chimney alongside it and is reminiscent of the ruined tin mines that are dotted along the Cornish coast.

The ruinous building was an engine house, probably built in the 1840s, for a steam engine that once pumped the water out of the mine deep below ground.

The chimney was attached to a long-gone boiler house that provided the steam.

The smelt mill has also gone but the remaining buildings are surrounded by barren spoil heaps of waste left after the lead ore had been extracted.

Lead had been mined in Cononley and in neighbouring Glusburn since Tudor times. When a rich seam was found there were busy periods followed by long intervals of inactivity until a new seam was discovered.

The Cavendish family of Chatsworth in Derbyshire held the mineral rights in Cononley, whilst the Garforths of Steeton Hall controlled those in Glusburn.

The 19th-century mine in Cononley had the benefit of good communications by both canal and rail and was able to bring in coal to power its steam engine and to fire the smelt mill.

However, when a rich seam of lead was discovered in Glusburn in 1728, the villages of South Craven were more isolated and communications were poor. The mine was on the Glusburn side of the Gib, the hill with the chimney on it. Smelting the lead where it came out of the ground was not a viable option as there was no source of power and no readily-available fuel.

Therefore, the ore was sorted at the mine head and then transported two miles to Lumb Clough in Sutton.

The Clough had a steep, fast-flowing beck to provide water power and an abundance of trees that could be cut and turned into charcoal for fuel. A level area high up the Clough may well have been used for charcoal burning.

A small smelt mill was built just above the present footbridge that crosses the beck for the footpath to Bank Foot Farm and West Lane.

The beck was dammed and water diverted into a small mill pond to power a waterwheel. The wheel drove the bellows that brought the charcoal up to temperature to smelt the ore.

Richard Braithwaite was the steward of the lead mines and lived in Sutton at this time, perhaps at Wood Vale Farm above Ellers which is still known locally as Smelt Farm.

The smelt mill was excavated in the early 1970s by the Northern Mines Research Society and the remains of the hearth stones, mill pond and a key hole hearth can still be seen in the undergrowth.

Today the chimney on the Gib, the engine house on its lower slopes and the overgrown ruins in Sutton Clough are all that remain of a once important, but now largely forgotten, local industry.