February is as unpredictable as it is breath-taking in Cragg Vale, a village of cobbled streets and immense natural beauty in the sprawling West Yorkshire countryside. A week before I’d planned to trek a five-mile trail known locally as the Coiners route, Cragg Vale was battered by two storms that left flooded rivers and uprooted trees in its wake.
When I finally made it, however, the skies were clear blue and the hills glistened in burnt yellows and rich greens. This is an imposing landscape largely untouched by time, where a handful of wind turbines dotted along the horizon are the only obvious markers of modern life.
I’d come to Cragg Vale to walk in the footsteps of “King” David Hartley, who once forged a criminal empire in this part of Yorkshire, a county affectionately nicknamed “God’s own country”. I strolled up steep, forest-covered hills and meandered along bridlepaths lined with wildflowers. Hillside cottages were nestled within the valleys, cocooned from the outside world. Birds sang, brooks babbled and sheep grazed in frost-dusted fields.
These were the same views that inspired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and where the only Brontë brother, Branwell, worked the railways. On first sight, there was little to suggest that this expansive patch of countryside once harboured a gang known as the Cragg Vale Coiners, whose counterfeiting enterprise in the 18th Century took on the establishment and brought the Bank of England to its knees.
At the time, ongoing trade between England, Spain and Portugal meant both English and foreign coins were accepted as legal tender in England. In this, the Coiners found an opportunity, albeit an illicit one.