Wednesday 19 November 2014

Winlaton Mill - from iron foundry and coke works to nature conservation

Looking at this scene at the Derwent Country Park at Winlaton Mill near Gateshead, it's hard to imagine that this was once the site of Crowley Iron Works foundry. 

The original foundry was established in the late 17th. century, using water power from the river Derwent via nine water wheels. Its main product was wrought iron. Ambrose Crowley also built a model village here to houses his workers and the whole enterprise eventually became the largest of its kind in Europe. Next to it lay the Derwenthaugh Coke Works, which was closed in 1986. 

For pictures of the coke works, click here and here

Since then the site has been landscaped to become the Derwenthaugh Country Park and most of the scars have been healed by nature, with wetlands, meadows and miles of footpaths. The wooded river Derwent valley that passes through the site was chosen as the location of the highly successful red kite reintroduction programme.

You can download a walkers' guide to the park by clicking here

You can find more information about the industries that once occupied this site at:

Wednesday 20 November 2013

A Cornish Pumping Engine in Northumberland

This is the sight that greets you when you follow the track down from the delightfully-named Pennypie cottage towards Blanchland, at the mining hamlet of Shildon (not to be confused with the town of Shildon in County Durham) which is a mile north of Blanchland. All that's left of this community, that in its heyday numbered over 150 people, is a couple of cottages and this old engine house, together with some mine shafts in the hillside.

The engine house was built in 1806 by mine owner John Skottowe, to house a Boulton and Watt steam engine that was built to pump water from the underground lead mine shafts and tunnels. Waterwheel-driven pumps were no longer up to the job so he imported the latest technology from the tin mines of Cornwall. It's the only Cornish-style engine house in North East England.   A contemporary account describes how 'a steam-engine of great power was erected, the cyclinedr being of 64 inches in diameter, and the main beam weighing upwards of nine tons'. 

It should have solved Skottows' problems especially as he owned coal mines across the border in County Durham, but the steam engine turned out to be uneconomic and he reverted to waterwheel driven pumps, dismantling the steam engine and transporting it to Backworth colliery. There was no rail access to Blanchland when the mine engine was installed and even when a rail link did arrived (in 1834) the line ended at Parkhead, five miles away.

The likely reason why steam-driven pumping was abandoned is that this little valley is so remote. Even today, the roads quickly become treacherous after a snow fall and two centuries ago, when they were less well maintained and transport depended on horses and wagon wheels, they must often have been impassible in winter. 

After the steam engine was removed the building was converted to miners' accommodation, with the addition of three floors inside, and it became known locally as 'Shildon Castle'. The mine went into decline, unable to compete with imported lead, and many of the miners emigrated - you can read fascinating accounts of some of them by clicking here

This is the slit in the wall where the beam of the steam engine would have rocked up and down. At the top of the slit you can see the fireplaces that were installed when the building was converted to workers' flats.

You can see more photographs of the site, before its recent restoration, by clicking here

There was a vigorous exchange of mine workers and mining technologies between Cornwall and Northumberland in the early 19th. century, which you can read about by clicking here

You can download a useful pdf guide to the geology and landscape around Blanchland by clicking here

You can download a detailed report on Blanchland and its surround area by clicking here

The engine house site has recently been cleared of the tangle of vegetation that threatened to engulf it and has been stabilised, so you can have a close look at the site. The disturbance has led to the germination of some interesting plants that would have been familiar to the people who once lived and worked here. There are some exceptionally fine specimens of common mullein or Aaron's rod, Verbascum thapsus, that often thrives in disturbed ground. 

The plant produces a few new flowers each day along its tall flower spike, so blooming continues for several weeks in summer.....

.... and provides a constant supply of pollen for bumblebees over a prolonged period. It's easy to spot these visitors because their pollen baskets are always full of orange pollen.

Mullein is a biennial and produces a beautiful rosette of densely hairy leaves in the first year, that look particularly fine when they are covered with dew on sunny autumn mornings, then in the second year the flower spike elongates. The dense hairs were once shaved from the leaves, dried and used for making lamp wicks and tinder that ignited easily with the slightest spark. A mucilaginous extract of the leaves, boiled in milk, produced a medicine that that was used to treat coughs. It's tempting to think that the who worked in the constantly damp conditions underground here might well have used mullein plants for these purposes.

Mullein produces vast numbers of seeds but as Sir Edward Salisbury, former Director of Kew Gardens and author of the classic Weeds and Aliens discovered, most fall within about 12 feet of the plant and so it tends to occur in locally dense, self-seeded patches - as it has at this location.

According to C. Pierpoint Johnson in his treatise on The Useful Plants of Great Britain, published in 1863, the tiny seeds "are said to intoxicate fish when thrown into the water, and are used by the poachers for this purpose".

This musk mallow Malva moschata, growing in amongst the mulleins, is also a mucilaginous plant whose extracts were used as an emollient to treat pulmonary complaints.

It's tempting to speculate that this local concentration of plants with medicinal properties is not here by chance, but might have been used by the local miners when they were the amongst the few treatments for their ailments that were available to them. Maybe they are survivors from gardens of houses that have long since vanished .....

Thursday 31 October 2013

Coal Coast Revival

It's difficult to believe now that this beautiful landscape was once so devastated by industrial pollution that it was chosen as the set for the movie Alien 3. For much of the 20th. century coal mine waste from Dawdon colliery on the cliff top was carried via conveyor belts and dumped directly onto Blast beach where, along with blast furnace waste , it converted the sand below the cliffs into a black, sulphurous moonscape. Then, in 1991 the mine closed and at the millennium the clean-up began. Since then, nature has rapidly reclaimed the landscape: marine life is returning below the tide line, sea birds nest on the cliffs and there are wild flowers at the top of the beach. It's an inspirational transformation.

The limestone cliff-top  flora at some locations along this stretch of coastline has always been famous, with drifts of wild flowers like this bloody cranesbill .......

....... and thickets of coconut-scented gorse, but now that this stretch of coastline has come under National Trust stewardship the floral display extends for miles.

The fast eroding magnesian limestone cliffs are good nest sites for birds ......

....... and on most days you can watch kestrels riding the updraft .....

.......... and find stonechats in the cliff-top thickets ...

..... but it's down as sea level that the real transformation has taken place, with sand rapidly replacing the barren wastes of coal and rock that once made the beach impassible.

The whole award-winning  Turning the Tide enterprise has been a superb collaborative effort and the source of enormous local pride.

Who wouldn't be proud of a coastal landscape like this?

If you look hard enough there are still traces of the industrial past - like this brick stamped with the Marquess of Londonderry's name. It was he who, in 1907, opened Dawdon colliery that gave employment to hundreds of local people but whose waste materials poured out onto the beaches.

There are still traces of coal amongst the rocks and pebbles on the beach, but every high tide washes more of it away.

There are other, prettier artifacts too. A glass bottle factory once stood on the cliffs here, using local coal and sand from the beach to produce glass that was exported to London. The bottle works closed in 1921 but waste glass that was thrown into the sea and is still washed ashore .......

......... as sand-polished glass pebbles that are highly prized by local jewellers..

At the top of the beach there are still strange mineral deposits and incrustations that are a legacy of past mining ....

... and have a weird beauty all of their own .

.......... staining the rocks with iron deposits ...

........ but every year more wild flowers appear at the top of the beach, like these harebells ......

.......... hundreds of primroses that flower in spring where the cliffs have collapsed onto the beach

........... and yellow-wort that flowers in the short grassland under the cliffs.

One of the interesting botanical features of this beach is the Phragmites reed bed under the cliff......

.....this is growing in brackish water but depends on the protection of the raised beach formed from former coal dumping. When this eventually erodes away salt water will reach the cliff base on high spring tides and the reed bed will most likely disappear.

Hawthorn hive, the next bay to the south of Blast beach, suffered similar pollution from Blast beach's colliery waste that was swept along the coal and deposited there, filling the bay with a raised beach of concreted coal dust, crushed rock and sand. .......... but the flora and fauna at the top of the beach on the right of this photograph is rather special. The cliff provides shelter from prevailing south-westerly winds and is a sun trap for much of the day, so this spot is warmer than most places along this coast.

It's a long climb down the cliffs on steep winding steps that descend .......

... beside wooded ravines.

The view back from the beach reveals the extent of the tree cover ....

.......... and in spring there's a dazzling display of blackthorn blossom.

But it's the calcareous grassland below the cliffs that is most fascinating.

It's covered in orchids in early summer........

...... alongside classic seaside flowers like this sea pink that clings to the cliff .....

........... thickets of wild roses .....

.......... and also some colourful and unusual garden escapes, like this Montbretia.

The warmth and shelter make this a particular good place to find unusual sun-loving insects, like this iridescent ruby-tailed wasp that nests in the sand .......

........ while more than a dozen species of butterfly can be found here, including common blues

........ and peacock butterflies.

The irony is, though, that the survival of this cliff base flora and fauna depends on the raised beach created by mining waste pollution from the past. It breaks the force of the waves and without it salt water would reach the base of the cliffs during high spring tides reinforced by north-easterly gales, destroying all the flora and fauna in its path.

Now that mine waste dumping no longer occurs, every tide washes away a little more of the raised beach, revealing mining artefacts from the past. Twisted metal .......

.........and materials from the 20th. century mining industry.......

.......... including sections of conveyor belt that once carried the mining waste onto the beaches.

With rising sea levels, the day will come when the sea will finally wash away this raised beach and with it the butterflies, ruby-tailed wasps and orchids at the top of the beach ............. and then it will eat into the cliffs themselves, eroding them .... but for now, by accident, the pollution from the mining industry has created a sheltered haven for some exquisite wildlife.

For more pictures of wildlife along this coastline today, click here and here