Gunnerside is a typical dales village in Swaledale, settled by the Vikings, with a history of lead mining and hill farming. Now a great location for tourists to explore the northern dales.

View of Gunnerside village. Photo by David Boness.

Gunnerside village 1

Gunnerside is a small village in Swaledale, which is part of the Yorkshire Dales. The village grew up where the River Swale meets the smaller Gunnerside Beck.

It was the site of a major lead mining industry up to the late nineteenth century focused in Gunnerside Ghyll (or Gunnerside Gill), a smaller valley off Swaledale.


In brief

  • Tiny village in Swaledale, permanent home to c.100 people
  • Popular holiday destination for walkers and cyclists
  • Major lead mining history up to late 19th century
  • Farming and tourism provides the main employment for the area
  • Well known Gunnerside Fair held each October
  • Links to WW2 ‘Operation Gunnerside’ told in the Heroes of Telemark film .

A bit of history

The name Gunnerside comes from the Nordic ‘Gunnar’s Saetr’ meaning the ‘Viking King’s summer pasture’. The Vikings who settled and shaped large parts of Northern England, thus had an impact on Gunnerside and the surrounding area as well. There doesn’t, however, seem to have been an entry for Gunnerside in the Domesday Book so it would appear there was no noteworthy settlement in the area in 1086.

Lead mining

Bunton lead mining works and hushes. Photo by Gordon Hatton.

Bunton lead mining works & hushes 2

The real growth of the village took place in the 18th century when lead mining flourished in Gunnerside Ghyll, a secondary valley running off Swaledale, heading north. Most of the stone cottages in the village are from this period, built for the miners and their families.

By the late 19th century, the lead mines began to close as the seams ran out. People left the area to find work in the Durham coalfields or the cotton mills of Lancashire. Some emigrated to America and Spain.

Hill farming also developed in the area and remains part of the local economy to this day.


Methodism and celebration days

By the mid 18th century the village was large enough to draw John Wesley who preached here and left a strong Methodist tradition behind which has persisted ever since.

The exodus of miners following decline of mining resulted in one of the most important days in the Gunnerside calendar, Midsummer Sunday (the first in July). This was the day when many of the people who had left returned to reunite with friends and family and to hold a service of thanksgiving in the chapel, which would be full to overflowing.

The locals seemed to enjoy their celebrations, others of which included:

  • The ‘Shortest Day Festival’: held in December, believed to be derived from a pagan custom, and still taking place today.
  • Gunnerside Fair: still held on the third Friday in October. Originally a market, where people came from the surrounding area to sell their sheep and cattle, to browse around the market stalls and meet friends, the day was rounded off with a local concert supper and dance. The fair is still held but there is no longer a market.

Gunnerside today

The village today is small and quiet although the population trebles in the summer with visitors to the area. There is a traditional Yorkshire Dales public house, The King’s Head, which dates back to 1760, as well as a Methodist Chapel, a part-time post office (in the Literary Institute), a primary school and a working smithy/museum.

Clockmaking, hill farming, gamekeeping and construction provide the local jobs. The construction industry is focused on maintenance of traditional stone-built field walls, houses and barns.

The Old Working Mill and Smithy

The Old Working Mill and Smithy is a museum celebrating the villages lead mining history.

The Smithy itself dates back to 1795 and displays houses a collection of objects, all of which are from the smithy, collected over the years. Cartwheels were made by local joiners and hooped here by the blacksmith. Horses were used on farms until the 1950s and horse shoes were a mainstay for the blacksmith. The museum also displays items from the area’s lead mining history.

The current blacksmith, Stephen Calvert, is the sixth generation of blacksmiths in the Calvert family to work at Gunnerside. There is a shop selling items made at the Smithy and commissions are also accepted.

Opening hours: 11am till 5pm, Easter until the end of October. Closed on Mondays.
Entry prices: £2.50 adults, £1.50 children 5-16 years, Under 5s Free.
Tel: 01748 886577


Gunnerside Gill

View up Gunnerside Gill and Beck. Photo by Mick Garrott.

Gunnerside Gill and Beck 3

As well as being the centre of mining, the Gill also sheltered Catholics in the time of religious persection. Tracks from Gunnerside lead over the moors to Swinner Gill, the site of a cave where local Catholics reputedly held services during these dangerous times.

There is still much evidence of its industrial mining past in Gunnerside Gill. Streams were dammed, and the water released as a torrent to scour soil off the surface and reveal lead ore (galena) seams. The resultant scars are known as hushes (possibly derived from the sound the torrent made). All the hushes are named – Bunton, Friarfold, and Gorton hushes on the east side of the valley, North Hush on the west side. Spoil heaps from the mining activity cover upper Gunnerside Gill, and a number of buildings remain some of which are now scheduled ancient monuments.

Although the upper valley remains reminiscent of a moonscape, lower down towards the village of Gunnerside, the industrial scenery gives way to picturesque woodland and sheep pastures.

Operation Gunnerside

There is a quirky and interesting link between the village of Gunnerside and Operation Gunnerside , the World War Two operation to destroy a heavy water plant in the Telemark region of Norway. It is not clear why the operation was called ‘Gunnerside’ but there are a couple of options (there may be more). One is that the team of SOE (Special Operations Executive) operatives for the raid were trained in the area – unlikely as most SOE and commando training at that time took place in Scotland. More likely perhaps is that the Head of SOE, Sir Charles Hambro, visited the area to shoot grouse. This is possibly supported by the fact that the first of the operations to destroy this plant was called Operation Grouse.

Where to stay

Gunnerside is a small village and the accommodation options in the village itself are limited although there are plenty of options across Swaledale itself. Here are a few guest houses in Gunnerside to consider:

Dale Garth 01748 886275
School House B&B: 01748 886874
Brow Hill B&B: 01748 886067
Oxnop Hall Farm: 01748 886253

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1© Copyright David Boness
2© Copyright Gordon Hatton
3© Copyright Mick Garrott.
All photos licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.