Fifteen miles of new path
St Aidan’s Nature Reserve was (at last!) opened to the public on 25th May 2013. The nature reserve covers 400 hectares (988.4 acres) on the south eastern outskirts of Leeds near Great Preston and Swillington, and was formerly a huge opencast coal site. Local residents are already enjoying a huge recreational resource on their doorsteps. As the site matures, ramblers from further afield will increasingly want to include it in their walks.
A few days prior to the opening of the reserve, a large list of former rights of way on the site were extinguished and a new set of paths giving around 12 miles footpath and 3 miles of bridleway were created (and there are further permissive paths created in 2012). The construction of these routes was substantially completed several years ago and the layout of paths had been commented on by the local parish councils, the Leeds Local Access Forum, and the Leeds Group of the Ramblers, among others. Last minute holdups relating to negotiations between landowners and UK Coal, who had restored the site after coal extraction, led to a long delay in the final release of the site. The land technically belongs to Leeds City Council vested in a Trust, but has been let out on a 99 year lease with a token rent to the RSPB who will develop the site as a major nature reserve. When I walked part of the the site the day after the public opening it was already filled with walkers and cyclists scattered over a large area.
As a restoration project after mining it ranks as one of the biggest. Because the River Aire broke through into the opencast working in 1988, flooding the huge hole up to a depth of 70 metres,and requiring the complete reconstruction of the former river and Aire and Calder Navigation channels in what was in effect a combined channel, there was an opportunity to create a vast new wetland site with a series of large pools after coal working re-commenced and the coal eventually worked out.
The works required were so complex that they required the passing of the Aire and Calder Navigation Act 1992. The pools will play a major role in the Aire Valley Flood Alleviation plans, as they are designed as washlands to accommodate huge quantities of flood water in times of high rainfall. If on a very wet day you have walked at the RSPB site at Fairburn Ings a few miles down the valley, you may have been advised to leave the site as the river level is about to rise above the paths, and the low parts of St Aidan’s will play a similar role.
Not all the St Aidan’s site is low flood plain, as it takes in the higher ground in the Astley area, where a sizeable wood has been added to the Leeds Forest, so there are good views to the south over the river and canal towards Methley and Mickletown, though these may disappear as the trees mature. When first created the landscape was a vast mud-coloured plain interspersed with pools, but already the vegetation is softening the re-created land.
The Trans-Pennine Trail passes along the southern ‘towpath’ of the navigation which loops round the south side of the site. There are access points through the fence at the three bridges (Fleet Bridge at Lemonroyd, Shann House near Methley, and Caroline Bridge) so that the network of paths on the site connects with the Trans-Pennine Trail and also the Leeds Country Way which passes over Fleet Bridge then past Lemonroyd and along the waterside route to Mickletown.
On the northern side of the site, the RSPB has created a car park at the information point accessible from Astley Lane, near the huge BE1150 Dragline excavator (nicknamed “oddball”) which was left on the site as an industrial archaeology monument after coal extraction ceased. For public transport, Woodlesford Station is quite close, and there is a reasonable bus service to the Mickletown area, though less good to the Great Preston / Allerton Bywater area on the other bank. Cars can also park in the Lemonroyd area giving access to the site from the south west.
Improvements to access at Skelton Lane, just upstream and adjacent to the M1 are also in train with the creation of a new crossing from Rothwell Country Park. Downstream lies the whole Fairburn Ings area with reasonable public access, so one can now say that a very large section of the Lower Aire Valley has become conservation and recreational land. Looking back at maps of the area as recent as the 1950s tells a very different story, with a criss-cross of mineral railways and several coal mines. There are now excellent prospects for bird watchers, as families of bitterns have been found on the St Aidan’s site already.
The RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/s/staidans/ gives full details of opening times for the centre and activities at the site.