Pleasley - preserving its heritage to create a place of beauty
PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 October 2015
On the north-east border of Derbyshire community action has preserved Pleasley’s heritage and created a place of beauty for all to enjoy
Ken Lomas had invited me to join him on a walk through the higher reaches of the country park that covers much of the hillside above the village of Pleasley. When we reached the summit, Ken pointed to the western horizon, where we could pick out Hardwick Hall, one of Derbyshire’s best-known landmarks and the county’s most significant survival from the Elizabethan period. Our short walk had begun at the surface buildings of the former Pleasley Pit, an equally dominating presence in the landscape and one of the most significant survivals from Derbyshire’s more recent past.
Ken is the Chairman of the Pleasley Pit Trust and a member of Pleasley Pit Nature Study Group. As he acknowledges, without the determined campaigning and on-going commitment of the local community, neither the iconic pit buildings nor the adjacent Pleasley Pit Country Park would be in existence today and Derbyshire would have been deprived of two priceless assets.
In the community café that sits alongside the pit buildings, I met key members of the various groups that have been working with boundless enthusiasm to make the most of these two sites. One of those enthusiasts is Peter Chambers, the treasurer of the Friends of Pleasley Pit, who took me through the actions that have taken place since the colliery’s closure as a working mine in 1983. The pit had produced coal for 110 years and had been Pleasley’s major means of employment ever since its foundation on land owned by Florence Nightingale’s family – it is claimed that it was Florence herself who had turned the first sod when the shafts were sunk.
Peter told me: ‘When local people discovered that there was a proposal to create a landfill site on the large area that was covered by spoil heaps and waste rock excavated from the pit, they formed an action group to fight the scheme on environmental and health grounds. The group waged a very effective campaign, which succeeded in blocking the plan for a landfill site and resulted in Derbyshire County Council taking over the area and converting it into a country park.’
The Pleasley Pit Nature Study Group was formed in 2000. As well as helping Derbyshire County Council’s Countryside Service with site management and conservation work, its members keep records of the different species of bird and plant life in the country park. On our walk, Ken Lomas had shown me the bird hide on the edge of the main pond, where sand martins had been spotted nesting for the first time in 2012. He had also told me that 19 different species of dragonfly had been identified in the smaller ponds in the park and that various species of orchid were thriving in the magnesium limestone soil of the grasslands.
Returning to his account of the community actions, Peter Chambers said, ‘After putting a stop to the plans for a landfill site, local people began to turn their attention to the surface buildings of the former pit, which were deteriorating rapidly. Trees were growing out of the engine-house roof, part of which had collapsed, and there was considerable damage to the chimney.’
The Friends of Pleasley Pit was formed in 1995 with the aim of stopping the demolition of the buildings and restoring them as a heritage site. Their Chairman, Robert Metcalfe, is a former Coal Board engineer who has brought extensive engineering experience and great enthusiasm to the restoration project.
Recalling the first days of the Friends group, he said: ‘The local people who had fought to stop the landfill scheme now gave 100 per cent support to the new battle to save the pit buildings, of which they were immensely proud. I was able to make British Coal aware of the depths of local feeling and persuade them to abandon their plans for demolition and turn their attention to preservation. English Heritage then helped the cause by making the site into a Scheduled Ancient Monument and contributing to the cost of repairing the engine house roof. Celebrity steeplejack Fred Dibnah scaled the chimney and made an immediate assessment that it could be restored for £30,000.’
When the East Midlands Development Agency was disbanded, the responsibility for the on-going well-being of this wonderful heritage site passed to the Land Registration Trust, later rebranded as the Land Trust, an organisation which has oversight of 60 sites around the country, with the Pleasley Pit being the very first group of buildings to be included in their portfolio. Charles Langtree, the Trust’s estate manager, has given invaluable support to the Friends by helping them to acquire funding and to harness the passion they have brought to the project.
After the roof had been fixed and the chimney and the headgear had been renovated, attention switched to the two historic winding engines, which had miraculously survived but were in need of extensive restoration. The south winding engine had been installed in 1922 by the Markham Company of Chesterfield and the north winding engine had been manufactured by the Lilleshall company in 1904, but had been given a new braking system in 1966 by the Markham company, whose design for the system was highly innovative and was copied at mines throughout the country.
Members of the Friends group have now completed the restoration of the north winding engine, which is a magnificent piece of mining engineering that is now visited by many groups, including school parties, U3A groups and heritage societies. Work is still taking place on the south winding engine. Photographer Steve Uttley has recorded the progress of the restoration in a series of images that feature on the group’s website. Steve is also the public relations consultant for the Friends.
Expressing pride in what has been accomplished in Pleasley, Robert Metcalfe says, ‘I do not know of any community anywhere that has achieved so much in preserving and enhancing their heritage. What is more, the restoration work will not stop when the work on the south winding engine is finally completed. Although the two shafts and all the underground fixtures were lost after the mine was closed, we have plans to create a simulated underground mining experience for visitors in the basement area below the engine house.’
One person who does have first-hand experience of working underground at the mine is 81-year-old Denis Jason Hall. Recalling the day in 1947 when he first came to the pit, he said: ‘I can remember leaving the house on a Saturday morning with my mate Pete Wathall to look for a job and hearing my father shout after us: “Don’t be going up that Pit Lane looking for work”. However, we did end up going up Pit Lane, because the Labour Exchange had told us that the pit was the only source of work.
‘I recall being taken to the pit baths after signing on and being given the locker number 1092, which I kept until the day I left when the pit closed. We also had to buy a soap tray and a block of soap by using money deducted from our wages. I worked at the pit-top in the first instance but I later went underground. To get paid, we had to dig out 16 tons of coal on each shift. In later years, I did a course at Nottingham Trent University and ended up as Senior Overman, a post I held for 22 years.
‘When I first started at the pit, I had to mash tea for the miners. Nowadays, I come to the café and tell visitors about my experiences and help to serve tea. After 68 years, I’ve become a tea lad again.’