It all started a long time ago – some 4.5 billion years ago, when the earth was formed, with a single mass of land and the rest, ocean. Over those billions of years, different parts of the world became established as massive ‘plates’ which moved, almost imperceptibly – some away from each other and some towards each other – floating on the earth’s molten core. This is known as ‘Continental Drift’. (When you look at a map of the world you can see how, during this process, South America and Africa have drifted apart.
But I want to leave the earlier times and look at the Carboniferous Period which occurred some 330 million years ago, because what happened then was to shape the lives of many present day inhabitants of the village. In the Carboniferous Period, England (as it was eventually to become) was located near the equator, where the climate matched that of today’s tropical rain forests. Without interruption, trees lived, died and decomposed and that process was repeated innumerable times. Then the decomposed forests were submerged under mud, silt, sand and lime, according to the land erosion and the deposition that was taking place at the time. The decomposed forests were gradually pushed down to great depths which pressurised the measures into coal, mudstone, siltstone, sandstone and limestone – but not necessarily in that order. Then the strata were pushed up to the surface, forests again flourished and the process repeated several times to form a series of coal seams.
The process came to an end because continental drift had moved the land mass away from the climatic area where rainforests could develop: England was gradually moved into a temperate climatic part of the world. Contrast this with the coalfields that are present in Antarctica: Other land masses moved into the favourable equatorial climatic areas – as, for example, the coalfields of China and Australia which were formed in the Permian Period which followed the Carboniferous Period. Other coalfields have developed in more recent geological periods.
When continental drift causes two of the earth’s plates to move together, the surface of the abutting zone is elevated to form mountains, and when they move apart, deep ocean trenches are formed. Present day examples of plate abutment are: the Himalayas, the Alps and the Rocky Mountains, and there is a corresponding deep ocean trench in the Pacific.
In areas where the strata is pushed up, lines of weakness are induced where part of the strata is pushed over (or under) the adjacent strata causing ‘faults’ to occur – often a cause of much hardship to our coal miners!
Again, where the land masses collide, earthquakes and volcanoes occur, the latter injecting valuable minerals from the earths molten core into planes of weakness in the nearby strata and the minerals so deposited have been used to shape the industrial development of this country. Similar things take place in the depths of the oceans where the continental plates move apart. These things are happening today, but on a very, very minor scale, for we live in a time of extremely quiescent geological activity.
The last major uplift of strata in this locality was the formation of the Pennine Chain. The forces of erosion over millions of years wore away the top of the Pennine Chain, leaving the separate coalfields of Lancashire to the west and Yorkshire and the East Midlands coalfields to the east. As a result of the Pennine uplift, the Yorkshire coal measures dip towards the east and as a result of subsequent erosion some of the coal seams became exposed at the surface. Coal at, or near, the surface began to be mined before the 14th century. In Methley, most of the workable coal seams had to be accessed from shafts sunk from the surface, but others were sufficiently shallow to permit a small but significant amount of opencast mining.
Rainwater on the Pennines ran off into rivulets, merging into streams and ultimately forming the local Aire and Calder rivers, which eventually discharge into the Humber estuary. The physical structure of the locality was finally shaped (in a minor way compared to what had happened before) by the erosive effects of the Ice Ages, the last one some 12,000 years ago, when the massive ice floes and savage meltwater movements scoured the landscape – particularly the river valleys. To the later benefit of the local inhabitants, sand, gravel and clay brought down into the river valleys would constitute valuable resources for the present day building industry.
Over the years, as the Aire and Calder rivers developed their meander plains and deposited alluvium, vegetation flourished with an abundance of heathers, bushes and trees into which the reindeer, fox and hare ran, themselves pursued by hunters. It is not known when the hunters changed their mode of living and became settlers – clearing the tracts of rich, fertile land to form the basis for the successful arable farming in Methley today. Perhaps it was the Stone age, for flint tools for hunting and working the land from these times have been located on Methley Mires.
As a result of travelling between settlements – and further afield, trade developed and ideas were exchanged such that the innovations of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age were incorporated into the lifestyles of the Methley settlers/farmers. Eventually, the local settlers/farmers were overrun by Celts from Europe giving us the early Briton.
Until the Industrial Revolution, little changed – but much did then. The Aire & Calder Navigation Canal was cut through Methley for the barge transportation of woollen goods from the factories in West Yorkshire to the Humber estuary ports for onward trading around the world, for coal to fuel the factory furnaces and for export, and for the movement of machinery for use both in England and abroad. Mine shafts were sunk in Methley from which millions of tons (tonnes) of coal were raised.
In recent years, economic forces have had a profound effect on the village. The mines have closed, and their surface supporting facilities removed, together with the pit waste tips.
Old crops are no longer cultivated in the fields: a fact that is not widely known is that the soil in the Methley area was particularly conducive to the growth of liquorice, and it was one of the few areas in England where this crop could be grown commercially. It helped to sustain the extensive liquorice sweet manufacturing industries in the nearby towns of Castleford, Pontefract and Normanton. Rhubarb was another special crop in this area. Now coal, liquorice and rhubarb are all imported on grounds of cost.
The village, then, has more or less returned to its pastoral roots – to arable farming and with little evidence of its part in the industrialised past.