Britain was once the centre of the world where heavy industry was concerned. Coal mines, steel mills, iron works and chemical plants dotted the landscape and employed thousands of people. Those days are now gone, the factories and foundries long since closed down, but in some places the chimneys, slag heaps and rail yards have been replaced by flower-filled meadows, green fields and wetlands teeming with wildlife. It shows how nature can adapt and thrive in the most unlikely situations and also provides some handy everyday escapes in the middle of grey, urban areas. Here’s six former industrial sites that now provide a chance to get back to nature in the middle of an urban environment.
Spike Island – near Widnes
Widnes, in Cheshire, was once the centre of the UK’s chemical industry and Spike Island played an important part as it was the site where the Sankey Canal met the River Mersey. Widnes and the surrounding areas were once heavily polluted with smoke from the factories and by-products of the chemical industry but as the industry declined, the land around Spike Island was gradually reclaimed and today it is a large grassy area containing parkland and woodland. There are great views across the river estuary including the Runcorn Bridge (once one of the largest bridges in the world) and the new Mersey Gateway bridge. There’s an abundance of wildlife too including swans on the canal and water birds which make their home on the estuary banks. Signs of the industrial past can still be found strewn around the site. Clamber over the pyrite kilns, spot the remains of barges in the river mud or stroll along the Sankey Canal which used to bring coal and iron ore from Lancashire to Liverpool. The old office buildings of the Gossage soap company, which at one time was the largest of its kind in the world, now houses the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre. This is a museum and archive devoted to the chemical industry and the social history of the area.
Camley Street Natural Park – King’s Cross/St Pancras
A real oasis in the middle of central London, Camley Street Natural Park was once a coal yard for the railways into nearby King’s Cross station but has since been reclaimed and turned into an urban nature reserve. Walk up Pancras Road and across Goods Way to find the entrance gate. There are woodland, grassland and wetland areas which provide a habitat for amphibians, insects and birds as well as flowers, plants and fungi. The park lies alongside Regent’s Canal and makes the perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of inner-city London.
Port Sunlight River Park – Wirral
Located on the former site of Lever Brothers’ Bromborough Dock, Port Sunlight River Park is a nature reserve and wildflower meadow which commands spectacular views across the River Mersey. Bromborough Dock, which was once the largest private dock in the world, served the Lever Brothers soap factory in nearby Port Sunlight from 1931 until it closed at the end of the 1980’s. The site was then used as a landfill until 2006 and all that rubbish is still there, beneath your feet! The landfill was covered over and now forms a 30 metre high mound where grass, trees and plants have been allowed to grow. There’s a small car park at Dock Road North which is just off the A41 Chester Road, this is probably the best place to start. Follow the path around to the riverfront, then climb the steep path to the top of the mound. You’ll be confronted by an open meadow of rough grassland, wildflowers, trees and shrubs. Best of all, from this height you get a great view across the river to Liverpool where you can spot both cathedrals and the Liver Building. You may even see aircraft taking off from John Lennon airport. Follow the path down to a wetland area which is full of water birds and gives great views across the mudflats. Despite all this scenery and greenery you’re always reminded of the area’s industrial past; there are still working docks on this side of the river and across the mudflats there’s Cammell Laird shipyard (where Boaty McBoatface, sorry, the RRS Sir David Attenborough is being built!)
Teesmouth National Nature Reserve – near Middlesbrough
Teesside was the heartland of industry in the north-east of England and played a major role in the Industrial Revolution. The first railway was built between Stockton and Darlington and the River Tees carried coal from mines in County Durham to the North Sea. As the steel, oil and chemical industries grew around Middlesbrough, the river provided an outlet for British industrial products to be shipped around the world. Although industry on Teesside has declined there are still chemical plants at Billingham and Wilton, a large oil depot at Greatham and Teesport near the mouth of the river is the third largest port in the UK. Amid all this industry you can still find nature and quietude at Teesmouth National Nature Reserve. Located at the mouth of the river where the Tees meets the North Sea, the reserve features marshland, sand dunes and tidal mudflats. When the tide is out you’ll be able to spot harbour seals and grey seals basking on the sandbanks and wading birds pecking through the mud. If you visit “Seal Sands” during the summer you may even see some baby seals as this is the only regular breeding colony on England’s north-east coast.
Centenary Riverside – Rotherham
South Yorkshire was once the centre of the UK’s steel industry and Centenary Riverside stands on the site of one of the largest foundries in the area. Investment in a flood alleviation scheme for the River Don has produced this wetland area which lies next to an engineering works, a motorway and a railway. The lagoon area has formed around islands made up of slag heaps from the foundry and is home to birds, mammals and bugs. There’s a fully accessible path network including boardwalks and picnic areas as well as art installations to remind you of the site’s industrial heritage. The most famous is “Steel Henge” which is made up of giant cast iron ingots found on-site. There’s also seven deckchair sculptures made from reclaimed railway sleepers which symbolise the seven chimneys of the Templeborough steelworks.
Nidderdale Greenway – Harrogate
The Leeds to Northallerton railway closed in 1969 but a short stretch outside Harrogate has been preserved and converted into a cycle track and walking route. The Nidderdale Greenway runs from Harrogate to Ripley and also connects to nearby Knaresborough and may eventually go as far as Pateley Bridge but it is currently a four mile route through the picturesque North Yorkshire countryside. There are lovely views across wheat fields and farmland but the path also winds through wooded areas that feature wild flowers like bluebells and wild garlic. One of the highlights is the viaduct which crosses the river gorge near Bilton. Since the railway closed the viaduct was uncared for and crumbling but has now been restored to its former glory and gives great views across the River Nidd and the woods that line it’s banks. Along the route you should be able to spot a range of wildlife such as butterflies and woodland birds and maybe even a red kite which can sometimes be seen circling the adjacent fields. The Nidderdale Greenway is a great way to get out into the countryside and explore nature but is just a short walk from Harrogate town centre.