IT was Owd Tom who spotted them first as he sped across the face of Tup Fell on his quad bike: a group of official looking fellas wandering about hundreds of feet below in the depths of what had once been Beggarsdale Quarry. It was just after 6.30 am, early for officialdom to be at work.

The quarry has been shut these past 15 years or more - an event which changed the social and economic life of the Dale forever - but ever since, there have been rumours flying about its prospective future.

Just who owns the land - or rather, the big hole - is not known for certain. At one time, it was the property of the Hyphen-Hyphens from the Big House, but they are said to have sold it out to a multi-national company which promptly closed it down.

And as we rarely see hide nor hair of the Hyphen-Hyphens these days - they live on a yacht somewhere in the Med or the Caribbean, depending on the season - no-one's had the chance to ask.

However, there have been over the years many rumours: it is about to be re-opened, it is to be redeveloped for housing, it is to be turned into a fishing lake - all have been suggested, discussed, and often argued over.

But nothing has ever happened and the quarry has remained quiet as a ghost town whereas, once upon a time, it employed some 100 men.

Owd Tom hammered the brakes on his quad bike when he noticed the men in multi-coloured hard hats walking from a large white van and a couple of cars parked outside the rusting quarry gates in the valley below.

A first, he was merely curious. But when the big gates swung open, and the little convoy of vehicles drove through, curiosity turned to suspicion.

"Something's up," he muttered to himself and the lambs frolicking around him. "If they've got keys t'yon gate, they mun be on official business. Ah wonder what that business be?"

It took him half an hour or so to check out his flock and then make his away down the fell to the quarry gate. It had been closed and locked again, which seemed odd, too.

He dismounted and walked through the man-sized hole in the wire fence, which he had cut years ago on one of many excursions into the quarry with his fearsome ferrets in search of rabbits.

He walked past the queue of parked vehicles, stopped to read the sign on the van, then rounded a bend in the deep sunk track.

A bunch of men was clustered around a surveyor's theodolite. At various distances and points of the compass, he could see other men holding red and white striped poles.

"Morning," he shouted in a loud voice, which rippled and echoed round the walls of the great hole. "Ah take it that you gentleman ar'ere on official business?"

The men, startled by the sudden interruption, spun round on their heels. To Tom, there seemed something furtive about them, like shoplifters caught with their hands in the till.

The oldest man in the group, tall, thin and-red faced, finally stepped forward and confronted the old farmer.

"Could I ask what you are doing here, sir," he asked frigidly. "This is private property."

"Ah knows that fine well," said Tom. "But this is a Neighbourhood Watch village and ah'm just keeping a neighbourly eye on local property."

The man dropped his head and shuffled his feet in the limestone dust of the track. But he said nothing so Tom went on: "And what, I would like to know is what a van from the council's sanitation department is doin' in arh quarry?"

So starts another mystery that will keep Beggarsdale engrossed for weeks....

* The Curmudgeon is a satirical column based on a fictitious character in a mythical village.