Mountains of colliery waste were once a blot on the South Yorkshire landscape, but now they are a haven for wildflowers. Roger Ratcliffe reports from the Hanging Gardens of Grimethorpe
The long whale-backed ridge extends north to south along the Dearne Valley, and on clear days there are views from the summit deep into the Peak District National Park.
On one side the main A6195 road runs down towards the RSPB’s showpiece bird reserve at Old Moor, and off it leads a signposted footpath which climbs up the hill’s steep western face. This is as green and rolling as any escarpment you’ll find in England, but as yet it does not appear on maps. The hill’s tight contours have been omitted, and it has not even been blessed with a name unless, that is, you count the two big words which have been printed over the blank space on large scale maps by Ordnance Survey cartographers: “Disused Workings.”
Therein lies a clue to the hill’s origins, for this one wasn’t sculpted by ice-age glaciers and meltwater like most of the Yorkshire landscape, but by a century of hacking out coal from 1,000ft underground. This hill used to be just about the highest coalmine tip in Britain, the depository of millions of tons of slag from nearby Grimethorpe Colliery, famous for its brass band and as the location for the film Brassed Off. But two decades on from the colliery’s closure the tip has been taken over by nature, so much so that the noted Yorkshire botanist, Jeff Lunn, and a fellow editor of the recently published South Yorkshire Plant Atlas, John Rodwell, have coined a new name for the hill.
“After the colliery closed in 1993 and the tip was pretty much left to itself, like a sort of blank canvas for nature to start recognising,” says Jeff. “Within a few years it had developed a really lovely flora. That’s when we started calling the tip the Hanging Gardens of Grimethorpe.
“One of the biggest surprises was our discovery of great patches of sea campion growing on the slopes. It’s a real mystery how it got there because the nearest place that sea campion is known to grow is on the cliffs of Flamborough, over on the Yorkshire coast. Yet we found it thriving in abundance not just here but also on a tip at Thorne Colliery to the north-east of Doncaster.”
Lunn’s day job is a manager with the government’s countryside agency, Natural England, but in his own time he has been studying Yorkshire’s flora for more than three decades. He was the first botanist to survey the plant life of colliery tips, doing so more than a decade ago for a degree dissertation at Sheffield Hallam University.
Since the discovery of ‘The Hanging Gardens’, the vast heap of colliery waste at Grimethorpe has had its more unsightly aspects smoothed over and, in the process, lost about 50ft in height. Around three and a half miles of public footpaths have been laid down, and the village which has become synonymous with brass is now virtually surrounded by grass and flowers.
What first drew Lunn to the flora of colliery tips was the realisation that he was seeing as rich a variety of plant species in the traditional one-metre quadrat used by botanists to sample a patch of ground as he would expect to find in a rural area.
In the Dearne Valley, he says, far from sterile colliery shales and “rubbish land” that people told him could not possibly produce a diverse range of species, he found that the ground was actually producing rich communities of plants.
He demonstrates this in the shadow of the Hanging Gardens, on land once occupied by neighbouring Ferrymoor Colliery. He points out grasses like creeping bent and Yorkshire fog, which are the first plants to take root in the bare ground, providing what he describes as “a fabric, like the material on which a lady might do embroidery.” Bit by bit, into the grass fabric is woven flowering plants like red clover, dandelion and early ragwort, and gradually there builds a rich plant community.
He points out a bright yellow flower known as bird’s-foot trefoil, food of the Common Blue butterfly’s caterpillars, and a delicate rosy-white plant called haresfoot clover, so named because it looks like a furry paw. There’s also wild carrot and great swathes of a beautiful pale-pink flower, common centaury. And - another oddity - there are clusters of a small yellow flower called kidney vetch, a plant usually found in sand dunes, chalk grassland and coastal cliffs.
“It’s all really quite stunning,” says Jeff pointing to the thick growth of grasses and flowers growing out of what was once a colliery tip. “There’s no way you could say this was an ugly patch of ground. It would stand out even if you were walking in the Yorkshire Dales or the North York Moors. In any location you’d consider the richness of this flora a real find, but to see it thriving in an industrial site is extraordinary.”
How coastal plants like kidney vetch and sea campion get so far inland is a mystery. Jeff believes the seeds could be simply blown by the wind, brought by birds or even carried on the tyres of lorries.
The jay’s habit of hoarding acorns is thought to be the reason why oak trees are now sprouting from some former waste tips. One site near Barnsley, Jeff says, has been covered by birch and oak and begun to resemble the mound at Glastonbury.
Up on the top of the old Grimethorpe tip, some new planting by landscapers has covered over some of the naturally regenerated plants, but a few have begun to recolonise. He points out sand spurry, which has little purple-violet flowers, and pink-tinged flowers called spear-leaved orache, a good source of food for finches and buntings.
This is another aspect of the flora. Although unthinkable a quarter of a century ago, the old colliery sites are now supporting birds like grey partridge, quail, little-ringed plovers and lapwings. “After the great miner’s strike,” says Jeff. “The attitude in his part of South Yorkshire was that once the pits closed they needed to sweep away the legacy of mining. No-one wanted to see old pitheads or winding gear or these huge tips any more. The received wisdom was that an industrial landscape was ugly and to be avoided.
“I can understand that, of course, but my regret is that by the time people realise there’s more to these places as regards their flora and fauna than meets the eye, they will have all gone. The land will have been restored and the tips will have been absorbed into fairly bland restoration projects. I would really like to see at least one of these colliery tips preserved for the future.”
The South Yorkshire Plant Atlas edited by Geoffrey Wilmore, Jeff Lunn and John Rodwell is published by the Yorkshire Naturalists Union and Yorkshire and the Humber Ecological Data Trust.