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Growth Industry
South Derbyshire

by Sarah Shuckburgh

A huge swathe of the East Midlands that was full of derelict mines and disused potteries a decade ago is slowly being transformed into the largest wooded area in England. Sarah Shuckburgh marvels at this root-and-branch rejuvenation in the National Forest.

Until last Christmas, I’d never heard of the National Forest. As a family, we had decided to give each other useful presents, so my brother bought me a goat (for an African village), my sister gave me a dozen Oxfam chickens, and my mother planted me a tree – in the National Forest. I knew about the New Forest, Sherwood Forest, Epping Forest – but the National Forest? My friend Electra and I decided to go in search of it.

Britain is the least wooded country in Europe, and ten years ago, this corner of the East Midlands was one of the least wooded parts of Britain. It was also arguably the grimmest region, a rundown area of derelict coal mines and gravel pits, disused potteries, polluted rivers and silted up canals, and urban sprawl encroaching on all sides - from Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Stoke on Trent. Unemployment here was high and morale was low. Few would think of going to this dreary place for a holiday.

But today, an extraordinary transformation is taking place and everyone we meet is excited. The ambitious plan, begun ten years ago, is to link two fragments of ancient forest - Needwood in the west, and Charnwood in the east - by planting millions of trees, which will soon cover a third of the land inside the forest boundary. This saucer-shaped area of 200 square miles will become the largest forest in England.

It is early days still – many of the saplings are only waist-high. But six million young trees already form 500 new woodland areas, with 700 miles of trails and footpaths. Some plantations have already grown to 15 or 20 feet, and the new woods, glades and wetlands have been colonised by woodpeckers and lapwings, barn owls and bats, water voles and otters. Crucially, the relics of the area’s industrial past are being incorporated, as pits become lakes, slag heaps become nature reserves, and furnaces and kilns become museums celebrating the unsung history of local miners and potters.

We have bought the National Forest book of walks, and on our first morning, we tackle the poetically rhyming Calke Walk. The gentle 4-mile circuit starts at the Staunton Harold reservoir – a beautiful stretch of water edged by tiny fields and hedgerows. Soon we see our first industrial archaeology – disused lime pits, first mined in the 15th century, and used until 1940. For centuries, this was a treeless terrain of noise, smoke and hard labour - teams of men toiled here, hacking out limestone chunks, tending coal-fired kilns, shovelling quicklime on to horse-drawn carts. Today, the pits are a peaceful wildlife haven, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) owned by the National Trust, with pools of deep, still water, surrounded by tangled undergrowth. We glimpse a heron standing by a pale limestone cliff, badger trails weave up a slope past an old brick arch which once carried rail-tracks for the carts, and lime-loving plants are thriving on the pond edges.

We walk on through the rolling parkland of Calke Abbey, beneath 300-year-old oaks, and across open pasture where fallow deer and rare Portland sheep graze. The cluttered, decaying interior of the house, which we visit later that afternoon, is utterly unforgettable - a fragile, crumbling time-warp, little changed since Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe died in 1920. On acquiring the house in 1985, the National Trust carried out major structural repairs, but decided to preserve, exactly as they were, all ceiling cracks and patches of mould, peeling wallpaper, broken chair legs, and the family’s astonishing jumble of antiques, stuffed animals and birds, books, toys and junk. The only things that look new are the Baroque bed-hangings of embroidered Chinese silk, which lay, unused, in their box for 250 years.

Leaving the Calke estate, the waymarks lead us through several newly planted woods, results of the National Forest Tender Scheme, which encourages landowners to plant trees and to allow public access. Vee’s Wood and Smith’s Wood are only four years old, but are already full of wildlife. Gangs of tits move noisily through the scrub in search of food, and a buzzard flaps out of a hedgerow tree. As we emerge into open countryside, fieldfares and other northern thrushes swoop up from a field of neaps and in the distance, clusters of tall chimneys remind us that this was once the heart of industrial England.

After completing our walk, we drive to Staunton Harold, a Palladian house overlooking a startlingly pretty lake, and enjoy a well-earned lunch at the tearoom in the stable yard. Pinned to a post, a friendly note from Staunton Harold’s new owners reports on recent improvements in the garden. Here, it seems, even stately home owners share the National Forest ethos of planting, restoration, and open access.

Next, we drive to Swadlincote, once a smoky, polluted town of coal-fired potteries making household pots and sewage pipes. The remains of one pottery – Sharpe’s, which closed in 1967 after 146 years - now houses an impressive new museum of the local clay industry. The exhibits include tough salt-glazed drains and gullies in shades of brown, cheap yellow household china, and the local speciality - mocha ware - with fernlike decorations achieved by dripping a mixture of urine and tobacco water on to wet clay slip. Edmund Sharpe himself patented the now-ubiquitous box-rim lavatory bowl, in which water flushes down the sides, and as ceramic water closets became popular following the 1848 Public Health Act, ‘Swad’ became a major producer of loos and drains for Victorian England, and abroad.

We are lucky – we have turned up on a day when there is a concert in the old bottle kiln, a huge smoke-stained brick funnel where stacks of sewage pipes, chimney pots and lavatory bowls were fired. We stay for the performance – a local all-women choir singing their hearts out - and share the audience’s delight at the regeneration of this derelict pottery.

On Sunday morning, we head for Leonard Cheshire's National Memorial Arboretum,150 acres of young woodland and enclosed gardens, on the site of a reclaimed gravel pit. This, too, has become a wildlife haven - several twitchers are busily training their tripods and lenses on a pair of black redstarts. We walk round with a guide, who describes the intricate symbolism behind each living tribute to victims of 20th century wars. One glade is dedicated to soldiers who were shot for cowardice in the First World War - a statue of a blindfolded boy soldier stands, his hands tied, and a disc hanging over his heart as a target for the guns; around him, stark wooden posts bear the names of 306 other deserters, shot at dawn. At 11 o’clock, our guide takes us to the chapel, where every day at this hour the last post sounds (on a tape recorder), followed by a two minute silence and the reveille. Sadly, the memorial has had to extend into the 21st century, with tributes to victims of the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland and Iraq. There are also some incongruous plots here, with nothing to do with war – for example, Roadpeace Wood, for car crash victims, or the Golden Grove to celebrate 50 years of marriage.

Back on the road again, Electra and I immediately get lost. This area is unused to tourists, and signposts just point to the next village, one or two miles away. Whichever way we drive, we find ourselves heading towards the same cluster of smoking chimneys – or are they different smoking chimneys? While Electra peers at the map, we drive through some beautiful villages, and pass thousands of sturdy young saplings – somewhere among them, surely, the very tree my mother gave me.

Finally, we reach Ashby de la Zouch, a handsome market town, with a dramatic ruined castle. By now it is lunchtime, so we pop into La Zouch teashop at the bottom of the high street. Middle-aged matrons with neat perms chat at neighbouring tables as we tuck into roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, gravy and all the trimmings, followed by homemade bread-and-butter pudding and lemon meringue pie, with custard and cream. The food is absolutely delicious, and the bill comes to £9 each.

Our next stop is the village of Moira, where a four-storey brick furnace has been saved from demolition, and turned into a museum with the slogan “A blast from the past, to fire your imagination”. The furnace, lime kilns and canal were built around 1804 by the penniless 2nd Earl of Moira, who hoped, in vain, that iron smelting would pay off his debts. Soon the buildings fell into disrepair, and the canal was filled in. Today the old Pit Prop Wood has been restored and extended, with wildflower meadows and cycling trails, and a narrowboat chugs up and down under the swing bridge and through the lock, on the reopened canal. We are shown round by a grey-haired local lady, whose father and grandfather were miners. She remembers their blackened faces, the midday sky dark with smoke, and the pervasive smell of coal. When the pits closed in the 1980s, her father told her that the village would die, as there was no other work. “I wish he could see Moira now,” she tells us proudly. “Life’s never been better.”

There are teething problems with this magnificent project: the Forest cuts across county boundaries, and local councils are reluctant to promote anything outside their territory. So, because Rosliston Forestry Centre, where we are staying in a snug log cabin, is just inside South Derbyshire, there are no signs to it in East Staffordshire. The people at the Arboretum can’t tell us about opening times at Moira Furnace in North West Leicestershire. Traditional loyalties are still strong, but as the trees grow, perhaps pride in being forest-dwellers will override county rivalries, and life may become easier for visitors.

On our way to the M1, we stop at Sence Valley Park: a far as the eye can see, a beautiful landscape of rolling hills, ponds, woodland, river and meadows. In 1994, this seemingly timeless scene contained an enormous open-cast mine and slag heaps.

Our weekend witnessing the progress of this extraordinary and far-sighted scheme has been an intensely satisfying antidote to our normal lives of immediate gratification. Already, just ten years after its first tree was planted, the National Forest is breathing new life into the heart of England. It is a thrilling place to visit, and I shall return soon, to see how my tree is growing.

The best of the 500 woods: all free admission

- Calke Park and Lime Pits, Ticknall 01332 863822 www.nationaltrust.org.uk
- Bradgate Park and Swithland Wood: ancient woodland and rocky outcrops 0116 236 2713
- Rosliston Forestry Centre, trails, ponds, meadows, crazy golf, play areas, and wonderful falconry
    demonstrations 01283 563483 www.south-derbys.gov.uk/rosliston
- Donisthorpe Woodland Park, a reclaimed colliery tip on the Ashby canal
- Willesley Wood: the first trees planted in the National Forest in 1994, now looking mature, and full
    of wildlife
- Sence Valley Park, Ibstock: reclaimed opencast pits 01889 586593
- National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas: elaborate planting schemes to honour victims of war
    01283 792333 www.nationalmemorialarboretum.co.uk
- Jackson’s Bank and ancient Needwood, at Hoar Cross, where there is also a lovely Victorian memorial
     church in Gothic-revival style.
- Trent Washlands: woods, wetlands and meadows 01283 508730 www.enjoyeaststaffs.co.uk
- Beacon Hill Country Park: craggy landscape overlooking ancient Charnwood Forest 01509 890048 

First published by the Telegraph

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