From Earth, Light: back to Sutton Manor’s Dream

From Earth, Light: back to Sutton Manor’s Dream

I’m writing this on a morning when the seasons seem to have shifted on their axis.  Summer heat came late to these parts this year: we had to wait until September for the warmest days.  Last night I lay in bed listening to the pounding of a terrific rainstorm, and this morning a brisk breeze is blowing, the temperature has dropped by ten degrees, and it is raining hailstones.

So uploading these photos taken only last Saturday feels like looking back to another season.  I had some business to attend to in St Helens, so I thought I’d take the dog with me and go for a walk afterwards up to Dream at Sutton Manor.  It’s been more than three years since I last went up there – soon after Jaume Plensa’s sculpture had been installed following the successful pitch by a group of former miners to Channel 4’s Big Art competition.

It was a hot afternoon – it felt like the hottest this year – as spaniel and me wound our way along the paths that wind uphill through the 230 acre site where once there were enormous slag heaps.  Now it is an evolving park of young woodland managed by the Forestry Commission.  At the summit there are expansive views across to the Pennines and the Clywdian hills.  Plensa’s elegant, luminous sculpture stands at the centre of Bold Forest Park, itself part of the Mersey Forest, the evolving network of woodlands and green spaces being created across Merseyside and North Cheshire.  The paths wander through maturing woodland and wild flower meadows (apparently, in spring, there are great displays of Bee orchids).

Sutton Manor Colliery was the only St Helens pit to be opened in the 20th century, and it was the last to close. The first shaft was sunk in 1906, followed by a second, with the mine fully functional by 1912.  Driving along the newly built M62 motorway into Liverpool in the late 1970s and 1980s, the great slag heaps and winding wheels of Sutton Manor were a visible marker that you were nearing your destination.  The mine’s closure came abruptly in 1991, leaving a great amount of coal still underground, and only a year after it had reached its all-time productivity record.  A year later, the buildings were knocked down and equipment removed.  The land became a bare wasteland. Many of the miners had to leave the village to find new jobs. It was the end of an era.

Plensa’s sculpture honours the human heritage of a site where miners toiled and many died deep underground for nearly a century.  But the artwork also symbolises the optimism that spurred a group of ex-miners to visualise the post-industrial transformation of the site, which has now become something of an iconic landmark which it is hoped will generate economic and environmental benefits, help preserve a community’s collective memory, and enhance local pride.

At the time of its installation, there were some who grumbled that Plensa’s sculpture didn’t literally represent the mining past. In fact, Plensa’s first design, thankfully rejected by the miners themselves, was for a giant illuminated miner’s lantern. The design they chose represents something more powerful and inspirational: a young girl reflecting, perhaps, on the past, but also looking to the future.  At the time, Jaume Plensa commented:

My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance.

But since I was last here new artworks have been installed across the site: six flame-like structures grow from the ground, containing poems dedicated to the memory of miners past and present who worked at the pit at Sutton Manor. Entitle From Earth, Light, the flames, which start close to the old colliery gates can be seen at various locations.  They were created by pupils from Sutton Manor Primary School, in collaboration with local artists Collette and Bernadette Hughes and the Shining Lights Heritage Group.  It all dates back to 2006 when the primary school successfully applied for a £34,000 Heritage Lottery Grant to produce a project about the former colliery. They immediately involved a small group of ex-miners and borrowed a wide variety of artefacts which were exhibited at the school in June 2007. Two DVDs were produced that featured ex-Manor miners being interviewed by the schoolchildren about their lives in the pit.

Older voices echo deep
in this world-within-a-world
And in stone dust and darkness
We trace and retrace
The footsteps of our fathers

Where shattered men no longer drink
A flask of tea, or have a sleep;
Where the birds have fallen silent
We remain, and we remember
And blink the dust from our eyes.

Beneath us there’s a labyrinth
A tangle of forgotten pathways.
We walk alone in dreams
Among the twisted, rusted shapes
That litter memory’s lanes.

We make our own pathways
They disappear into serenity and sunlight
For beneath this world lies another
Filled with dreams and scattered memories
The footsteps of our fathers.

There is wisdom in our bones,
In our aching backs and blistered feet.
We blink the dust from our eyes
Every time we awake
And because we remember, we remain.

The former motto of St Helens and Sutton Manor was ex terra lucem – ‘from the earth comes light’. The miners dreamt of seeing the light again at the end of their long shifts working underground. Dream represents the idea of dreaming of a new future for the site and for the area.

See also

Nothing very special

Nothing very special

Blue skies and unseasonably warm weather means that the park will be thronged with picnickers and men labouring over barbecues.  With food everywhere and people sprawled on the grass it’s no place to take a cavalier for a walk – too much hassle as she circles the blankets snuffling for scraps and making the occasional dash to grab a sarnie.

So I do what I usually do on days like this: go for a walk through Childwall woods and fields.  It’s a place I love, though it’s not pretty or kempt, particularly at this time of year, with the trees bare and winter-worn brambles sprawling through the browned-off remnants of last year’s grasses.  But it is wild, alive with wildlife and birdsong.  Today, a large fox crossed the path a few yards in front of us and stood some distance off and watched us, alert with ears pricked.  A kestrel circled, watching for movement in the scrub below.

It’s a surprisingly large area of open land for an urban area, and still has the abandoned air of a former landfill site.  A short walk offers a variety of micro- landscapes, from the dappled shade of the woods to the expansive views from the fields across the M62 motorway to the hills of  Lancashire and east to the Runcorn Bridge.

Every time I walk here I think of the vulnerability of this open space.  Though the wood is a Local Nature Reserve, and the open fields have been  planted with native deciduous trees as part of the Mersey Forest project, these days, it seems, anything can be sold to yield a profit.  As someone wryly remarked in a letter to The Guardian the other day, after privatising the NHS and schools, and proposing toll roads, why not privatise pavements and charge to walk them?

In the Autumn 2011 edition of the National Trust Magazine, there was a thought-provoking article by Simon Barnes, a journalist wildlife writer, suggesting that we need a new conservation movement: the Society For The Preservation of Nothing Very Special.  His case was that, while we treasure special things that are rare, unusual or not the sort of thing we bump into every day, Not Very Special places (such as Childwall Fields) are taken for granted.

As Simon Barnes remarks, protecting these Not Very Special places is becoming a matter of urgency ‘because the bad news is that these places are becoming more special by the minute’.  He continues:

That’s why the SPNVP is so important, it seeks to protect living things and living places before they get special. While we still have the privilege of having them on a routine take-’em for granted” basis; while they are still part of the daily life of this country, rather than something you make a pilgrimage for. The country is full of little patches of this and expanses of that, places where you can find small brown birds and not very special butterflies…just the place for running a frightfully quick train or putting up more houses. Why worry about these places? Plenty more where they come from.

Barnes observes that the country is full of  places a bit like Childwall Fields:

little patches of this and expanses of that: places where you can find small brown birds and not very special butterflies and buzzing insects and caterpillars and stuff like trees and grass and the odd flower – just the sort of place for running a frightfully quick train or putting up a few more houses. Why worry about these
places? Plenty more where they come from.

Childwall Woods and Fields may appear nondescript, but at least 60 species of bird inhabit the site, with Grey Partridge being notable in this urban area.  Kestrels and Sparrowhawks regularly nest in the woods along with Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.  Herons can be seen in the marshy wet areas of the fields and in the autumn Long tailed Tits and Goldcrest flit through the woodland treetops.

Year after year, though, ‘not very special’ places like this disappear, overrun by development.  And as the land is submerged beneath houses and roads, wildlife expires, too.  Barnes writes:

Five per cent of British butterflies went extinct in the last century and 71 per cent are in decline. Moths – considered even less special than butterflies – are doing just as badly: 75 species have declined by more than 70 per cent in the last 35 years. Bumblebees are not special at all: six of the 25 British species have declined more than 80 per cent in the last 50 years, and the short-haired bumblebee has gone extinct.

Barnes concludes:

When we think of the Natural World …we think with our ancient atavistic selves: as if we were still at war with hostile nature and had to fight every step of the way to keep civilisation on track. We won that war a long time ago But we are continuing, almost without noticing, a frightfully fast programme of destruction and extinction. And always, the first places to go are Nothing Very Special.

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Childwall Fields: safe from the developers?

There’s a place I like to go sometimes with the dog, an open space of wildness and natural beauty that comes unexpected in the suburbs of a large city.  Childwall Woods and Fields is a Local Nature Reserve, and I was out there the other day enjoying the current spell of warm, fine weather.  In high summer there are expanses of swaying grasses, shading from golden to purple, dense clumps of blackberries and the brilliant red splashes of mountain ash berries.  I like this place because it is not kempt – although some agency keeps the main paths mown, there are dense, impenetrable swathes of nettles and brambles, visited only by butterflies and bands of gossiping finches swooping to grab seeds.

But yesterday, on the Today programme, I heard Dame Fiona Reynolds, the National Trust director general, talking about the government’s proposals to simplify and relax the planning application procedures in order to encourage economic development.  Alarm bells rang – is this lovely open space safe from profiteers?

Fiona Reynolds said, ‘What people think of when they think of places they love is very often the bit of green space, the local countryside, which often is not designated, but which has been protected by the planning system’. She gave as examples of designated areas green belt, areas of outstanding national beauty, and so on.  She didn’t mention Local Nature Reserves.

The National Trust is warning that the government proposals to change planning laws in England will favour business too much, and could lead to unchecked and damaging development. The new rules will let the public and conservation down by undermining the planning system’s ability to protect nature outside internationally-recognised wildlife sites.

Most controversial is the presumption in favour of ‘sustainable development’ – a major change in emphasis from the current system which sees planning officers weighing up a range of concerns before making a decision.  Instead, the default assumption will be that development proposals will be approved.

Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director, commented:

The planning system is what protects the England we all hold dear – our iconic landscapes and our wildlife-rich habitats. It is there to represent the interests of the public in the face of complex decisions, and it will fail us all if one factor – economic growth – is set higher than any other.

So, is a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) like Childwall Woods and Fields (shown on map, above) designated? I don’t know.  All I can discover is that a LNR is a statutory designation made under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and amended by Schedule 11 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, by principal local authorities.

According to the Natural England website, there are now more than 1400 LNRs in England. They range from windswept coastal headlands, ancient woodlands and flower-rich meadows to former inner city railways, abandoned landfill sites and industrial areas now re-colonised by wildlife. In total they cover about 35,000 ha. This is an impressive natural resource which makes an important contribution to England’s biodiversity.

Natural England state:

Because Local Nature Reserve is a statutory designation, it is a very clear signal to a local community of the local authority’s commitment to nature conservation. An LNR can be given protection against damaging operations. It also has protection against development on and around it. This protection is usually given via the Local Plan, (produced by the planning authority), and often supplemented by local by-laws. Unlike national designations, the level and type of protection afforded an LNR is decided locally, and varies from site to site.

The history of this place is interesting.  The area we know as the Fields today has virtually the same boundaries as it did a century and a half ago, as can be seen from the first Ordnance Survey map of 184 (below).  But during that time the land use has changed. Originally the land sloped gently from what is now the Woods down to Childwall Lane.  The area was open, with only a sparse covering of trees and the only one building (on the land opposite the Childwall Cross on Childwall Lane).

Through the 1960s and early 1970s, the area was used as a landfill site and the land was re-shaped into three ascending levels, then left to re-green as grasses, bushes and trees gradually established themselves.

Now the area of the Fields and the adjoining Woods has been named a Local Nature Reserve,with sixteen species of trees in the Woods, and further planting of native deciduous trees in the Fields as part of the Mersey Forest project.  The site is valued because of its wide range of urban wildlife, now supporting a wide range of species, including at least 60 kinds of birds, including Kestrels and Sparrowhawks that regularly nest in the woods along with Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.  Sixteen species of butterfly have been recorded on the Fields, including Small Blue, Small Copper and Red Admiral. The grasslands are home to Bluebells and Common Spotted and Southern Marsh Orchids in early June.  Bats, grey squirrels, voles and foxes are also regularly seen in the area.

The view from the Fields on a clear day is superb, looking across the Lancashire and Cheshire plain towards the West Pennines and Pendle Hill to the north east. In the foreground the Widnes Runcorn Bridge crosses the River Mersey  at the narrowest point in the inner estuary.

There’s a place that I seek when I need somewhere to hide 
It’s a place that I go when I need some peace of mind …

When the city’s back is turned it looks a lot like this 
When a mind begins to burn it needs a place like this

– Emily Barker, ‘The Greenway’, from Despite The Snow by Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo

We need places like this.  They should be protected from the developers and profiteers.

Update: excellent article by Simon Jenkins – This localism bill will sacrifice our countryside to market forces – in The Guardian 28 July.