The restored 400ha St Aidan’s opencast coal site a few miles south east of Leeds near Woodlesford was opened to great acclaim four years ago on 23rd May 2013. That date also marked the confirmation by Leeds City Council of the order creating over 12km of footpaths and bridleways across the restored site and extinguishing the old path network that existed before opencasting, and the opening of the RSPB’s visitor centre and car park. At the time, it was understood that the transfer of the land from UK Coal to the St Aidan’s Trust (of which the sole trustee is Leeds Council) was imminent.

However, despite this auspicious beginning, within a couple of months the RSPB had closed the visitor and car park, and withdrawn from the site as the land had still not been transferred to the St Aidan’s Trust. The RSPB’s withdrawal as precipitated by UK Coal going into administration in early July, creating significant uncertainty as to when the land transfer and subsequent lease of the site would take place. Understandably the RSPB having no legal tenure could not continue to operate the car park and visitor centre on the basis of goodwill alone.

Over the subsequent months a number of issues arose which caused further significant delays to the land transfer. The site has been designated as a washland in times of flood to protect downstream communities, and it was used to full effect following storm Eva in December 2015. The threat of legal action from an adjoining landowner for potential losses from such flooding meant that Leeds Council was reluctant to take on ownership of the site. This matter was eventually resolved. The receivers, keen to get some financial return, proposed the development of a solar farm on part of the site. As it did not meet the terms of the Trust Deed, this proposal was not accepted by the Council. As a designated washland, the site has to comply with reservoir legislation and so had to be inspected and signed off by a reservoir panel engineer.

Resolving these issues all added up to a significant delay in the land transfer, which eventually took place in December 2016. The signing of the lease with the RSPB – a 99 year term at a peppercorn rent – soon followed. The visitor centre and car park, newly surfaced and marked out, opened on 10th April in time for the Easter holidays, almost 4 years after the initial opening.

Although the site and the public rights of way have been open and fully accessible during this time, and the RSPB have been carrying out essential maintenance from time to time, it will be good to have the RSPB staff and volunteers as a regular presence on site.

If you have not visited St Aidan’s, the jewel in the crown of restored mining sites in the lower Aire Valley, it’s well worth exploring. Not only is there plentiful birdlife (amongst many other things, it’s one of the few places where you have a good chance of hearing the cuckoo – a common sound of late spring until recent years), the flora is also a delight and it’s good for orchids. The level, hardcore paths provide miles of easy level walking. The visitor centre and car park is nearest to Great Preston, but there is also easy access from Woodlesford, Oulton, Wood Row, Mickletown and Woodend. One of the Ramblers’ walks in the recent Leeds Festival of Walks went through several miles of St Aidan’s, the walk starting and finishing at Kippax.

There is also the added bonus of seeing “Oddball”, the 1,200 tonne Bucyrus Erie walking dragline, one of two such draglines used when the site was in full operation. Built in the USA to run on 60Hz electricity supply, it was shipped to the UK in the early 1950s and adapted to the standard UK 50Hz supply – hence the name “Oddball”.

Mike Willison