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  • Julie Muller

SALTWELLS NATIONAL NATURE RESERVE (DY2 0AP) Rest after Ravages of the Industrial Revolution

It is always a surprise to us dogs where Julie chooses to walk us and today, in early February, we found ourselves in Saltwells National Nature Reserve (NNR) which is close to Dudley in the middle of the Black Country.

Here in the heart of the West Midlands, a highly advantageous geology has produced layer upon layer of rocks which gave rise to so many of the raw materials necessary for the Industrial Revolution. These included rocks such as limestone, coal, ironstone, and clay. All of these rocks were created over many millions of years during which the land experienced a succession of different climatic conditions.

As a young woman, Julie worked here as a warden, and at the time she didn’t realise just how special Saltwells National Nature Reserve is.

When we arrived at the car park, there were lots of people milling around - pushchair pushing parents, lunch break taking workmen, toddling toddlers, afternoon amblers and lots of canines leading their humans out for probably their second walk of the day.

We were eager to leave the hubbub of the car park behind us and explore. There was a choice of four waymarked trails to follow and Julie decided to follow a combination of them in order to see as much as we could.

Despite the season, the woods seemed quite shady as many of the trees were festooned in rich green ivy. The ground beneath them was covered in a thick carpet of last autumn’s leaves which crunched beneath our paws, brambles which sent out snake like shoots across the ground and honeysuckle which, competing with the ivy, scaled the tallest trees they could to reach the light.

As we trotted along the paths, we came muzzle to muzzle with a large brightly coloured metal dragon recumbent against one of the trees. which is one of the many sculptures dotted around the reserve.

Two sheep dogs investigate a metal dragon which is leaning against a tree in Saltwells Nature Reserve near Dudley
Shep and Bruno explore the sculpture trail at Saltwells Nature Reserve near Dudley

Despite its size we were not fazed by its presence – unlike a pair of small wooden monkeys, innocently sitting in the bushes ,which sent Bruno into a frenzy of barking. Why? - I have no idea.

Throughout the reserve, there is an amazing sculpture trail to follow but today, Julie was determined to find out why this place is so special, so she led us up a flight of steep wooden steps as we went in search of Doulton’s Clay Pit SSSI.

At the viewing platform overlooking the pit, we came across a dog and it’s human, so we trundled down a steepish scree covered slope to reach the bottom where we looked up at a steep cliff face that boasted many different layers of rock. A large metal dragonfly occupied part of the rock face. It looked nearly as big as Bruno!

The rocks that we could see were deposited over 310million years ago in Carboniferous times. At that time, the climate was hot and humid with swamps and trees growing to over 45 metres in height. These swamp-like conditions encouraged certain animals to leave the water, for at least part of their lives, and make their home on land. Consequently, some humans have called this geological period ‘the age of the amphibians’. Before this time, the area was covered by shallow tropical seas populated with numerous shellfish whose skeletons sank to the bottom to form rocks such as limestone.

However, after this time, when the trees died, they were compressed into layers that formed rich coal seams that were absolutely fundamental to the Industrial Revolution.

We could clearly see thick layers of shiny black coal high above our heads but actually these layers are only a tiny vestage of what was once here, as enormous quantities of coal had to be mined to fuel hundreds of blast furnaces.

Within the other rock strata other precious raw materials, such as ironstone and kaolin(clay), were found, which were essential to the industrial processes of the time. The limestone, ironstone and coal were used to produce countless iron products and the clay was used for making pots, sanitary ware and drainage pipes.

Eventually the swamps dried up as the climate became hotter and drier, and reptiles – including dinosaurs – became the dominant species. Later still, the temperature plummeted again, ice sheets covered the area and mammoths roamed freely.

The exciting thing about the rock strata found here is that geologists are able to read the rockface like a storybook, beginning at the bottom and working their way to the top. Indeed

the geology is so special that the site has been given protection as a UNESCO Global Geopark along with only seven others in the U.K.

A sheep dog stands at the bottom of a rock face at Dou lton's Clay Pit in Saltwells Nature Reserve near Dudley - dwarfed by a large metal dragonfly
Shep surveys the rock face at Doulton's Clay Pit SSSI watched by a large metal dragon fly

As for us dogs, it was so exciting for us to explore the pit. There were signs that humans had been hard at work. The ground was quite wet and soggy beneath our paws and large cuts had been made into it to prevent flooding. Bulrushes waved their sausage-like heads in the breeze, their bottoms ragged where the wind had whipped the feathery seeds away. I went to examine a blackened circle of bonfire ash whilst Bruno went to investigate a small pond occupied by four noisy mallard ducks who swam away well out of his reach. He watched them disappear into the reeds before coming back to bother me.

A squadron of yet more giant metallic dragonflies seemed to hover above the reed bed. I am glad that today’s dragonflies are somewhat smaller!

A sheepdog rests by the water dwarfed by a squadron of three large metal dragonflies - size of insects alive in Carboniferous times
Shep rests by the water - alongside three large metal dragonflies

Just two hundred years ago, this area would have been riddled with coalmines and iron foundries. The air would have been black with soot and choked with smoke and at night-time the glow from the forges would have been seen from miles around.

Where once, the air was thick with smoke and the ground devoid of life, today it is a haven for wildlife. It offers peace and tranquillity for humans and canines alike despite the constant roar of traffic hurtling past on the busy main road.

We left Doulton’s Clay Pit SSSI behind us and made our way back to the main track. There were lots of wooden steps and bridges to negotiate and I couldn’t resist getting my paws wet.

Julie was keen to see how the area had changed since she worked here all those years ago and so we followed the Murray Grey trail which followed the course of the Black Brook up towards the canal.

The trees were alive with the chirrup, twittering and calls of so many birds and there were lots of bird and bat boxes in the trees to encourage them to breed.

The path took us over a busy road before wandering through the woods again. Fields of ponies stared at us as we walked but I resisted the desire to shout at them. There were too many lovely smells to breathe in and nooks and crannies to investigate.

Eventually the path climbed up and over a canal which would once have been used to transport all of the resources mined here to places where they were needed. Today the canal was peaceful, and only a few ducks dabbled at the water’s edge.

As we approached the canal, Bruno started to bark again - this time at a group of shaggy brown ponies peacefully grazing on the lower slopes of Netherton Hill. Above them we could see the steeple of St. Andrews Church – the parish church of Netherton which, though considered a village today, was once a really thriving community.

Coal was still being mined here right up until the 1960’s and it was particularly volatile in nature – so much so, that it was known to spontaneously combust and send plumes of smoke and fiery flames shooting up in-between the graves in the churchyard!

We followed the path along the bottom of the hill and started to climb up towards the church. As we climbed, the ground became wetter and more poached up by horses, cycles , foot and paw fall. The grassy slope was clothed in rose briers, yellow gorse and broom. In places, purple heather punctuated the hillside which was interspersed with carpets of white lichen.

Two sheepdogs stand on the top of grassy Netherton Hill overlooking there factories and retail outlets of Merry Hill, near Dudley
Bruno and Shep survey the Black Country

We picked our paws through the mud below the church and turned back down the hill to see the length and breadth of the Black Country stretching out before us - grey and black smoke- belching factories rubbing shoulders with the brightly coloured retail units of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre.

As we trotted down the hill, the muddy terrain became more difficult for Julie to negotiate. I was so glad that Bruno and I had four-paw drive!

The trail took us off the hill and across a busy road at a place where it crossed over Brewin’s canal. Just like at Doulton’s Clay Pit, the rocks here reveal the history of coal mining in the area and so it is recognised and protected as another Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Across the road, a large expanse of silver water glinted in the afternoon sunshine. Noisy grey gulls glided across the open water sending gentle ripples towards white billed coots patrolling the vegetated banks.

Bruno and I were mesmerised - every time a bird took off or landed, the peace of the lake was momentarily shattered and seemingly disapproving birds loudly voiced their disgruntlement.

The banks of the reservoir were edged with spiky topped willow and reddish coloured alders both of which seemed happy enough to dabble their roots in the ice-cold water.

Bruno and I were reluctant to leave the birds behind us – but our path soon took us back into the nature reserve and we headed towards the car.

It was late afternoon, the sun was sinking lower in the sky, the car park had emptied and there were very few dogs and their humans for Bruno to meet and greet.

It felt just as if we had journeyed through time.

For so many years, Saltwells Nature Reserve played its not insignificant part in the Industrial Revolution as it natural resources were necessarily but carelessly exploited.

Now, nature has been allowed to reclaim the land and it has become an amazing wildlife refuge, as well as a peaceful, and tranquil place that we can all enjoy – dogs and humans alike.

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