The tower, the tourists and a new lease of life for heritage that crumbled away

If you're travelling through Barnsley Metropolitan Borough and you pass from Wombwell through Hoyland towards the M1, you go by a mysterious and lonely stone tower set back from the road.

It looks a little forlorn, a bit of an anachronism as we slip towards the second decade of the 21st century in a splurge of glass and brick. This building that time forgot is Hoyland Lowe Stand, said to be the highest point in South Yorkshire, higher even than the moors around Penistone.

The structure has had an honourable past and a neglected present with weather and vandalism taking their toll, but things may be looking up for the future of this crumbling slice of history. The recently-formed Friends of Hoyland Lowe Stand have taken it upon themselves to try to develop it as a tourist destination, as a heritage site with a viewing gallery and a tearoom, and as such it's part of the ever-changing face of a shut-down coalfield, an area that's trying to reinvent itself to stop history passing it by.

To try to make sense of these changes I should look back a bit, to when I was a lad living in a village full of pits.

From the mid-1960s onwards our family used to go twice a year to my Uncle Jimmy's house in Peebles in the breathtakingly beautiful Scottish Borders. Peebles seemed to fit our idea of a holiday destination perfectly because it was nothing like Barnsley.

Barnsley was mines and dirty air and, to my young mind, nothing to look at that you might call picturesque; on the other hand you could get calendars and postcards of Peebles and it had a river that sparkled in the sun and throbbed with trout, unlike the Dearne that flowed near our house and bubbled with suds of pollution from Houghton Main pit.

In Peebles, we went for walks and took photographs and my dad went fishing and the rest of us sat in cafes because, well, we were on holiday and that's what you did. In Barnsley you only went to cafes because you were hungry or because you'd missed the bus.

Every now and then Uncle Jimmy and his family would come to stay with us and I found that quite odd; I asked my mam what on earth they would find to do in Barnsley and she said they could maybe go to Doncaster on the Yorkshire Traction one day and one of the days I could take them to Darfield park. Then the rest of the time we could go to acceptable places for a break, like the Peak District or the Dales. There was a kind of unspoken agreement that the South Yorkshire Coalfield wasn't the kind of place you came for your holidays.

The decades passed and times changed. Twenty-five years ago, the miners' strike redefined many things but after it endedthere was a realignment of the public perception of an area like South Yorkshire; suddenly it became possible to come to Barnsley to look at things, to take part in that new buzz experience, appreciating heritage.

I remember, towards the end of 1985, seeing a group of what looked like tourists walking down from Wombwell station into the main street. They looked lost, so I asked them what they were looking for. Their leader pointed to a map: "Cortonwood," he said. "Heritage."

Of course the Industrial Heritage movement had begun much earlier; on our honeymoon in Shropshire in 1979, my wife and I had visited Ironbridge in Staffordshire, and a lot of us can remember Bradford's campaign from the early 1980s "Bradford, A Surprising Place!" with its posters of Lister's Mill chimney. In Barnsley though, a short while after the battle of Orgreave, it felt odd to be on any kind of tourist trail. Who would want postcards of Goldthorpe, we asked ourselves?

And now, in 2009, attitudes really have shifted. We accept that the appreciation of heritage is part of our cultural map; recently my wife and I took our grandson Thomas to Brodsworth Hall, near Doncaster; it's a perfectly preserved example of a Victorian country house that I remember glimpsing through the trees from the top deck of the bus as I came back from Doncaster 20 years ago with my Scottish cousins, and over the last 20 years it's been developed until its now the jewel in English Heritage's crown.

Which brings me back to Lowe Stand, dominating the skyline of Hoyland like a message from the past and an image of what a post-industrial future in South Yorkshire can be.

The structure was built about 1750, probably as a hunting lodge for the Marquis of Rockingham, one of a clutch of landed gents who shaped the landscape of this part of Yorkshire before and just after the Industrial Revolution. It towers 600 feet above sea level, and local myth has it that you can see York Minster on a clear day, of which there are more round this part of the world than there used to be.

In recent years, the stand was owned by the Water Board, and was then transferred to the local Urban District Council and part of the nearby land was used for the construction of a huge underground reservoir, which still splashes around under the stand today.

For years I thought that the stand, if I thought about it at all, was something to do with water, was a water tower or a water pumping station, and maybe that's part of the problem

with old and unglamorous buildings in areas of industrial decay: they feel like part of the townscape, like rusty tractors at the edge of a field that look as though they've been there forever.

Now the Friends of Hoyland Lowe Stand are trying to

restore the tower and turn it

into the kind of place I might want to take Thomas for an afternoon out. Their first task is to raise awareness about the building, and the second and perhaps more urgent job is to ensure the building's long-term survival.

As the Friends say on their website: "We simply want the landmark to be still standing in a hundred years time, still accessible to all, not blocked in by industrial development and floodlit at night to mark the landmark to all."

They're fund-raising like mad, organising race nights in local pubs and stalls at the village events that still flourish in an area that has a

long history of collectivism. There's a long way to go, but perhaps part of the journey is building on an experience of community activism that can stand places like Hoyland in good stead.

I'm hopeful about the prospects for Lowe Stand because in my own village of Darfield I have the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre as an example. When he died, Maurice left his corner shop to Barnsley Council as a museum; a group of volunteers and enthusiasts took on the task of turning these hopes into reality and now I can take Thomas there for an interactive examination of the past and a splendid toasted teacake.

With luck, and perseverance, Hoyland Lowe Stand can become another stop on the nascent but expanding South Yorkshire Tourist Trail.