IN the latest in our series on Yorkshire nature reserves, we look at Old Moor, which has transformed an industrial wasteland into a magnet for visitors. Andrew Vine reports. Pictures by James Hardisty.
IT takes a huge leap of the imagination to picture this place as it was not so very long ago.
A blighted, blasted post-industrial landscape of dereliction and hopelessness, the remains of pits, coking plants and railway marshalling yards known locally as Hell’s Kitchen because of the number of fires that broke out there.
It was not just the grimmest, poorest part of Yorkshire. It was Europe’s biggest industrial wasteland. The Dearne Valley became the symbol of what happened when a single industry relied on by whole communities collapsed.
Here, in the heart of the Yorkshire coalfield, the death of coal took a terrible toll. As pit after pit closed down in the wake of the bruising year-long miners’ strike of 1984/5, the valley took on an air of desperation. There were no jobs, and for a while, seemingly no future.
To those who had toiled underground and above it, and wondered what the future held, it would have been simply unthinkable that the wreckage left behind could be transformed. The idea that Hell’s Kitchen could attract just shy of 100,000 people a year in search of fresh air, relaxation and the sights and sounds of wildlife would have stretched credibility to its limit.
But 20 years on, that is what has happened. One man-made landscape of redundant pithead gear and chimneys has been replaced by another, a kinder, softer, more inclusive and infinitely more hopeful place. Where there were broken-down buildings and rubble, now there are meadows; where there was decay, now there is growth.
A visitor who never knew it as it was would have no clue that this was once a powerhouse of industrial Yorkshire, still less that a wooded hillside was once a spoil heap.
Nor could they guess that wetland full of birds was once criss-crossed by railway lines, or that a café and visitor centre was once a farmhouse without electricity.
The greening of the Dearne Valley has been one of the most astonishing stories of urban regeneration anywhere. As new industries have been tempted in, so hand-in-hand has gone a drive to create a breathing space for residents and visitors alike along the river.
At the heart of it lies Old Moor, close to Wath-upon-Dearne and Wombwell, a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which has transformed former industrial land into a haven for wildlife and a family-friendly visitor attraction.
Creating it hasn’t been easy, and there have been setbacks, but rising visitor numbers – 96,000 last year – are testament to its success. With luck, the progress so far is a step along the way to the further opening up of the valley for nature-watching tourism, as satellite reserves linked by the route of a long-gone railway line are made accessible.
Old Moor’s 250 acres are just a beginning. Down along the river, there are six more sites waiting to be opened up, Edderthorpe Flash, Wombwell Ings, Gipsy Marsh, Bolton Ings, Little Houghton Marsh and Adwick Washland.
It’s not only about giving visitors the chance to explore new places, according to the site manager, Matthew Capper. It’s about the continuing regeneration of the area.
“There’s no denying that the Dearne Valley has an image problem. People think of Kes or Brassed Off, but that’s one of the things that’s starting to change,” he said.
Hoteliers from the surrounding area are soon to visit, and will promote Old Moor as an attraction to their guests.
It’s about getting people in and getting them involved. This isn’t a place where there is a hushed silence in the birdwatching hides; Matthew wants children to come and enjoy themselves.
“This reserve is a bit of a trailblazer, because to look at it from a people perspective was quite new.
“I grew up in a village next to fields and a river, and I used to go outside and play. When tea time came, my dad just called my name, and in I came. One of the things we’d like to do here is encourage natural play, even if it’s just logs that children can climb on. We want people to come and enjoy it.
“What we have done with this site is to zone it, and design each zone as much for people as for birds. If you’re a first-time visitor to somewhere where people sit in hides and watch wildlife, it can be a bit scary, but there are windows on the outside of the hide so you can see what’s going on inside, and it takes that scariness away and eases you onto the site.”
Matthew, 37, took over as site manager two years ago, three years after jumping out of a temporary job as a civil servant in Sheffield that turned into 11 years.
“Up to the age of seven, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. After that, I wanted to work on an RSPB reserve, and to be able to do that is fantastic. There are many bits of knowledge that I picked up as a civil servant that stood me in good stead.”
Though unrecognisable from its former life, Old Moor is linked inextricably to the history of the coalfields. As with so much of South Yorkshire’s landscape, coal shaped this place. Mining subsidence in the 1930s created a wetland, which was colonised by birds, including those which migrated along the route of the Dearne. Within 20 years, Wath Ings, as it had become known, was a magnet for birdwatchers, many from the mining communities close by, who began lobbying for the site to be protected.
“This was their escape, this is where they came after work,” said Matthew. “They built a hide and fought for it to be safeguarded for birds. A lot of Yorkshire birdwatchers cut their teeth at Wath Ings.”
The site is an integral part of the reserve, but the rest of it was created not by the ground sinking into coal workings, but by earth-moving equipment and hard graft, paid for using regeneration funds from Europe. The wetlands and mud banks visited in winter by ducks, geese, swans, and as many as 8,000 golden plovers, are made in part by the soil scraped away from the old industrial sites. Silt taken from one part of the main lake has been used to create new mudflats in another, bringing wild birds closer to the hides so that visitors, especially children, can get a better view.
It was Barnsley Council that first developed the site into a fledgling nature reserve, and later went in search of a partner to run it. The RSPB took over in 2003. Funds were also put in by Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, and the National Lottery, to create an education block now used by 3,500 children a year.
In 2009, Old Moor won the National Lottery award for best environmental project. The site pays for itself, partly thanks to the café, which is a magnet not only for visitors, but for the people who work in the offices and industrial units that have sprung up in the surrounding area.
The Environment Agency handed over the patches of land which will become the new areas of the reserve. Matthew said: “We have a vision for the valley which includes the old railway line which would link the sites, with Old Moor as the main visitor hub.”
There have, though, been setbacks, notably the 2007 floods, which took a terrible toll on Old Moor. A plank, lifted 10ft from the ground and left lodged in the topmost branches of a tree stands as eloquent witness to how high the waters rose during five fraught weeks when staff had to rescue water voles marooned in the tops of bushes after being swept upwards in the deluge, which sent more than 70m tonnes of water surging into the reserve.
The Dearne is prone to surges, and the reserve is a safety valve against flooding in the valley, usually capable of soaking up whatever the river throws at it.
But this was exceptional, a once-in-a-lifetime flood. Lives in the surrounding areas were turned upside down as homes were wrecked, and the reserve staff turned out to help.
They had their own problems as well. With nestboxes flooded out, birds, including large numbers of tree sparrows, fled to the surrounding areas.
“Most of our birds disappeared”, said Matthew, “and we had people ringing in and saying ‘There’s a tree sparrow in our garden’, and we were saying, ‘Can we have them back, please’?”
Only now, four years on, is Old Moor recovering fully. Wild orchids that were decimated by the waters are starting to reappear, and the grasslands are recovering well. Steps have been taken to minimise the threat of a repeat of the flooding, including clearing the river’s channel of vegetation.
With every passing year, Old Moor looks more and more like a landscape that has long been part of the Dearne Valley. Its industrial past has all but vanished, and in another step that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago, increasing numbers of people are arriving by bicycle, along the Trans-Pennine Trail, which runs along the reserve’s southern edge.
For a long while, the people of the Dearne Valley had little enough to celebrate or be optimistic about. All around them were reminders of what had been lost. This green space, a place for children and families, has become a bright spot in a corner of Yorkshire that is looking forward once more, and its people are showing their appreciation.
“There’s huge local pride in this place,” said Matthew. “When we won the Lottery award, we had an event to celebrate, and it was just manic, it was so well-attended, and it was the people from all around who had voted for us to get the award. That was great.”
* RSPB Old Moor’s website is www.rspb.org.uk/oldmoor. Tel 01226 273835.