As National Volunteer Week comes to an end today, PETER BARRON pays tribute to two guiding lights who have spent decades keeping the spirit of ironstone mining alive at a North-East tourist attraction…

WITH 173 years between them, Janette Holt and Alan Chilton are still digging deep in the Land of Iron, where they both might easily be described as a mine of information.

Janette is 83, and Alan reached his 90th birthday earlier this year, but they show no signs of stopping as dedicated volunteers at the wonderful little tourist attraction that has grown from an old ironstone mine, at Skinningrove, on the Cleveland coast.

And, having spent so long in the darkness over more years than they care to remember, they surely deserve their place in the spotlight as National Volunteer Week comes to an end today.

“I’ve made a lot of good friends as a volunteer here – Alan among them – so I want to carry on as long as I can,” says Janette.

“This place is what keeps me going,” adds Alan, who was presented with a birthday cake in the shape of a hard hat by museum colleagues when he hit the 90 mark.

Mind you, he’s having a bit of a break from being a guide, with very good reason. He’s had two heart attacks, four new knees, one new hip, and he’s waiting for the other hip to be replaced.

“I don’t walk past a magnet,” he smiles, with a wink.

The Northern Echo: Alan Chilton, 90, and Janette Holt, 83, still going strong as volunteers at Land of IronAlan Chilton, 90, and Janette Holt, 83, still going strong as volunteers at Land of Iron (Image: Peter Barron)

Alan, who lives a few miles away at Easington, started volunteering at the museum 34 years ago after he retired from nearby Boulby Potash Mine, where he was stores supervisor for 16 years.

“I kept seeing the sign for the museum, so I thought I’d have a look. I popped my head round the door and I’ve been here ever since!” he explains.

Alan’s title at Land of Iron is deputy mine manager, in charge of health and safety and guiding.

“I love meeting people, especially the schoolkids, and telling them the story of ironstone mining to keep the heritage of the area alive,” he adds.

Janette might be seven years younger, but she’s put in an even longer shift as a volunteer. Clocking up 44 years as secretary and a guide, she’s been part of the attraction since the beginning.

Ironically, the reason Janette settled in the area is because her dad worked for the Ministry of Labour and there was a vacancy in Loftus to deal with the impact of the local mines closing.

The family moved from Durham City to Guisborough when Janette was 14, and she went on to be chief executive of the Cleveland Youth Association in the 1970s, during a period when unemployment was crippling.

A public meeting was called at Loftus Youth Club to come up with ways of creating work. That led to the creation of the East Cleveland Employment and Training Group, and one of the more creative ideas to emerge was for a museum on the site of the ironstone mine, which had closed in 1958.

“It was seen as a good opportunity to celebrate the industrial heritage of the area,” recalls Janette – and, right on cue, Alan can’t resist immediately leaping into guide-mode and taking up the story…


“It all goes back to September 1847 when a man called Samuel Okey, who worked for an ironstone mine on Tyneside, came to Saltburn to pay men who gathered ironstone nodules from the beach to be shipped to Newcastle.

“He was spotted by a local landowner, Anthony Lex Maynard, who took him up the valley, parted the bushes on his land, and revealed ironstone that was nine feet thick.

“He offered Samuel a contract to develop the mine, but he declined because he already had a job. Instead, Samuel proposed the contract was offered to his friend, James Burlinson, on the basis that Maynard would be paid 6d per ton for the ironstone that was mined.

“A year later, Burlinson, having done nothing, sold the rights to the mine to the Roseberry brothers for two glasses of brandy, and that’s how it became the first ironstone mine in east Cleveland.

“Over the next 20 years, another 80 mines opened, thousands of miners from all over the country descended, and Cleveland became the centre of ironstone mining in Great Britain.”

After four years spent clearing the site, and with Janette acting as co-ordinator, the museum opened in 1983. Initially only opening for a few hours on a Sunday, it was named The Tom Leonard Mining Museum, after an Evening Gazette reporter who had donated his collection of mining relics.

The name later changed to Cleveland Mining Museum, it got its first paid member of staff in 2000, and it gradually developed as an attraction.

At the start of this year, it was renamed Land of Iron, with £2.4m of Heritage Lottery funding paying for a new building, complete with an exhibition room, new offices, staff room, and two classrooms to accommodate school visits.

The bright new era for the museum dawned just weeks after Redcar’s blast furnace was demolished, symbolising the end of the once-mighty steelworks that grew from the discovery of iron ore.

It’s all the more reason for the 40-strong team of volunteers – including Janette and Alan and other long-servers such as Ian Wilson and Eleanor Cuthbert – to keep the embers of history burning.

The Northern Echo: Alan Chilton, 90, and Janette Holt, 83Alan Chilton, 90, and Janette Holt, 83 (Image: Peter Barron)

Indeed, marketing manager Nick Wesson, describes the volunteers as “the most important part of the museum”. And with plans to continue developing Land of Iron, he’d love to add to the volunteers ranks.

“We don’t want to be a stuffy museum. We want to be part of the community, a place where people not only have a good time but learn something,” says Nick, who was brought up in Skelton, and whose grandad, Ronald Wesson, was an ironstone miner at nearby Liverton.

“Exhibitions, events, talks, and live music are all planned, and, without our amazing volunteers, we simply couldn’t do what we do.”

The Northern Echo: Janette Holt and Alan Chilton who have clocked up decades of volunteering at Land of Iron

The museum is open every day except Thursdays and Sundays, although the ambition is to open for a full weekend if more volunteers can be found.

The North Drift section of the mine is temporarily closed for essential maintenance work at the moment, but tours still include other fascinating aspects of the mine. The North Drift will reopen later this year and the volunteer guides, including Alan with his new hip, will resume taking visitors 90 metres underground.

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The Northern Echo: Digging deep - Alan Chilton, 90, and Janette Holt, 83

At the bottom, the story of the “trappy lad” will be told with the lights out. At just 12-years-old, it was his job to spend 12-hour shifts in total darkness, listening for the ironstone tubs approaching, so he could pull a rope, and let them through a ventilation trapdoor.

“So many people have no idea about what went on here, or what this area did for the world,” adds Nick, with all the pride of a local lad. “The Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Tyne Bridge – you name it, the iron came from round here.”

It’s a story as old as the hills. And Janette Holt, Alan Chilton, and their Land of Iron friends are determined to go on telling it.