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Grinding stone production

The archaeological record dates from the Mesolithic Period through the Iron Age, Romano-British and Medieval to the industrial period.  The northern part of the reserve is of national significance for its Iron Age and Romano-British grinding stone (quern) industry.  This is thought  to have given rise to the present name, as Wharncliffe is derived from the Anglo-Saxon “qwoern-clif”). Two Romano-British enclosures are present on the Heath, of which little surface evidence remains. The area of quern production  has been declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

Clearance of the Heath is presumed to have occurred around the time of the earliest quern workings (around 7500 years ago) and the industry is thought to have been quite intensive.  The hard Grenoside and Wharncliffe Edge sandstones are cross laminated and are distinguished from the older millstone grits in being more uniform and fine grained. Adopting stone for grinding cereals was an important step forward in human society. Like flint, grinding stones have been found considerable distances from their source and arguably, iron age Wharncliffe may have been the first major exporter of an important industrial product from Sheffield. Examples of blanks from these quern stones can still be found on the heath.

The northern section of the heath (referred to as ‘Long Heath’ on 19th Century maps) is expected to have been periodically burned to expose the quern working surface and to facilitate extraction. Thus the open landscape at the northern end of the heath, whilst it may have reverted to trees periodically during periods of abandonment, may be of great antiquity. The name ‘Long Heath’ suggests that heather and bracken may have been cut for local use.


Part-worked quern sitting on top of a finished disc quern. Courtesy of David Buttle


Charcoal burner's hut, Sheffield, early 1900s. Courtesy of collection of Ian Rotherham

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Invoice for delivery of four casks of pyrolignous acid from the Deepcar chemical works, dated 1843. Courtesy of John Hunter

Coppicing, charcoal production​ and tanning

The woods in and around the reserve contain a variety of tree species and ages, with some clear evidence of coppicing among older stands of broadleaf trees. Trees were coppiced by cutting them down to stumps, to promote regrowth of small stems.

A very wide range of trees have been coppiced. For example, hazel and chestnut were used for fencing, ash for tool handles and beech for furniture. The cutting cycle was determined by product, the tree species and growth rate.  It could vary from 2-5 years to the 50 year cycle required to obtain oak timber products.

The southern of the reserve was originally woodland and known as ‘Haystack Coppy’ (coppice) until perhaps the early part of the 20th century.  It probably provided fuel for local smelting industry; the coppiced nature of the older birches possibly reflecting this use.

Charcoal is carbon produced from wood by controlled combustion of coppice wood with a very restricted supply of air.  The ‘burning’ of wood to charcoal was achieved by building a tent-shaped wood fire with a central chimney shaft.  Coppice wood was stacked round the fire to form a dome-shaped pile, sealed with a layer of clay, soil and turfs; a ‘pitstead’, leaving only limited air ports at ground level. After a suitable period of controlled heating, the pitstead would be doused with water and dismantled to remove the charcoal.

Charcoal was of major importance for smelting and working metals. It provided both the high temperature and chemical means to reduce iron ores. As ironmaking expanded and the blast furnace was introduced, so did the demand for the fuel. The availability of woodlands was a major factor in the location of iron production.  Coke was demonstrated to be a replacement for both coal and charcoal in the blast  furnace  in 1720.  This led to a decline in the demand for charcoal, but it was still used in Yorkshire for ironmaking into the 1760s.

The charcoal burners would move through an area following the cycle of coppicing through the woods.  Examples of pitstead bases can still be seen at various sites in and around the reserve.  These are visible as patches of levelled ground, identifiable by layers of charcoal found around them beneath the undergrowth.

Oak bark used in the tanning industry was also taken from local woodlands and possibly also from trees on the reserve. This bark was ground and dried before being shipped to tanneries where it would be steeped in water to prepare tanning baths, within which animal hides were converted into leather. 

Production of pyrolignous acid

Timber products harvested from Wharncliffe Woods were also used at a chemical works in Deepcar where pyrolignous acid or 'wood vinegar' was produced through the destructive distillation of wood. This substance comprised an optional reagent used in the production of white lead (lead carbonate). White lead was principally used to make paint but which also had other uses. 

Ganister and fireclay extraction

During the end of the 1800s and start of the 1900s, Wharncliffe Woods was the site of a number of small mines, located in the hilly woodlands on the outcrops on the western-facing slopes of the River Don. The purpose of these mines was to mine ganister and other types of fireclay found in the coal measures rock series, with adjacent beds of coal also exploited. These clays were used in the steel making process due to their ability to withstand intense heat due to their high silica contents. A number of companies which specialised in the manufacture of bricks made from ganister were located adjacent to Wharncliffe Woods, notably including Lowoods Ganister Brick Works, formerly on the opposite side of Station Road from the Lowood Club.

The remains of workings, related to the mining of ganister and coal, may be seen in the Western Enclosure of the reserve, above the electricity pylon line and accessible from the third gated entrance from the pylon clearing.

The impact of the railway

The former Great Central railway line between Sheffield and Manchester forms the western boundary of Wharncliffe Woods.  Deepcar station was opened in 1858.  One immediate effect was that it provided easier access to the Wharncliffe area for Victorian leisure visitors. The crags in particular were popular, with some of the individual rock features being given romantic names. Sir Walter Scott seems to also have been attracted to the area, giving it mention in his novel Ivanhoe.  Visitors have left legacies in the form of graffiti incised into the rock of the crap top path.

To gain an idea of the impact of access to a new country landscape upon a Victorian traveller, we can look at the words of a visitor to the Samuel Fox’s Stocksbridge Steelworks.   After travelling from Sheffield’s Victoria Station in July 1888. He wrote: ‘...A ride of ten miles through beautiful countryside and past the famous Wharncliffe Crags ends at Deepcar, where an engine was waiting to take us to the works.  Imagine if you can a little railway winding through the hills, through banks of rhodedendrons in all the glory and beauty of full bloom.’ The mention of rhodedendrons remind us that the area was in the hands of wealthy men and was, in part, sculpted by them.  The legacy is a scattering of that very persistent non-native species across the current reserve.

Up until the end of steam haulage in 1955, sparks from the engines, dealing with the stiff climb to the Woodhead Tunnel, could cause summer fires on the heath.  It is probable this made a significant contribution to maintaining the open heather areas, by periodically burning off the more vulnerable bracken.

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A sample of ganister. Courtesy of John Hunter

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Postcard of Wharncliffe Crags c.1900 by Scott Russell and Co. Ltd, No. 7. Courtesy of 

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The Great Chimney at Wharncliffe Crags being climbed by J.W. Puttrell and W.J. Watson in 1902.  Courtesy of 


Wharncliffe Crags was significant at the beginning of British outcrop climbing, with pre-World War I climbing legend James W. Puttrell, a pioneer of access rights in the Peak District,  a regular visitor to the crags from 1885 onwards. During this time J. W. Puttrell pioneered many early routes, notably including Puttrell's Progress, which lies within the reserve. By 1900 Wharncliffe was probably the most popular cliff in the country, due to the nearby railway line. Nowadays Wharncliffe is seen as a more quiet climbing site within which to escape the crowds found at other outcrops in the Peak District.

Purchase by the Forestry Commission

During the 1950s Wharncliffe Wood (including the Heath) was purchased by the Forestry Commission and much of the area planted with conifers. The heath was not planted. The Forestry Commissions current vision for Wharncliffe Woods involved the long-term replacement of conifer plantation trees with mixed broadleaf planting.

Mountain biking

Wharncliffe Woods is also notable as  a key training ground of professional downhill mountain biker Steve Peat, a triple World Cup champion and nine-time British champion, who competed professionally from the 1990s through the early 2000s. The area is still popular with mountain bikers although there are no marked trails in the reserve, with all such trails in the southern part of Wharncliffe Woods..

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