We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, sisters, wives, ex-wives, ex-husbands and occasional daughter and father. The WARTS walking group: wonderful friends one and all.
The above group photo was taken during a walk to St Aidan’s RSPB nature reserve near Castleford. The photo below shows how we can happily brave blizzard conditions on Bolster Moor.
From open-cast mine to RSPB reserve
St Aidan’s reserve is a fascinating area. It was once an open-cast coal mine (a sunshine mine, dug from the surface, not through shafts dug into the ground). The River Aire and the Aire and Calder Navigation once ran alongside this vast mine, but one night in March 1988, due to previous deep mine subsidence, the banks of the river Aire broke, allowing the whole of the river between Castleford and Leeds to flood into the mine. Over the next four days, an estimated 3.7 million gallons of water left the river, and at one time the Aire and Calder flowed backwards, in effect uphill, until the mine filled. Luckily, it all happened overnight and no-one was injured. It resulted in a 250-acre lake nearly 250 feet deep.
The Aire and Calder Navigation survived but was then very vulnerable. An act of parliament was needed to divert the river and canal, and for the next few years, work was carried out to re-route almost three miles of both the river and canal 200 yards further south, creating a single new navigation.
Work was then started on pumping all the water back into the river. In 1998, the mine re-opened, but only produced coal for a few more years, and in 2002 the mine was closed altogether. It was then allowed to flood again, and in 2013 it became an RSPB nature reserve.
An ‘Oddball’ sight at St Aidan’s
This section of the Aire and Calder Navigation is a very pleasant area to walk in. The new Lemonroyd Lock was built during the re-routing work, and close by is a steel, box-section, bench that must be the most uncomfortable, fully functioning bench in the country. Every time we visit this area, we have to remind ourselves how uncomfortable it is. I’m sure the bloody thing fights back.
St Aidan’s is a wonderful place both for twitchers (bird watchers) and just for walking aimlessly along the seven and a half miles of footpaths.
During its time as an open cast mine, a monster 1,200-ton drag-line excavator was used, and it’s still there as a permanent exhibit. Nicknamed ‘Oddball’, it was manufactured in the US in the late 40s and shipped to Britain during the Marshall Plan era of the early 50s. It was at that time the largest excavator in Europe.
This is Oddball. The blue and white structure on the right is approximately 100-feet long and 50-feet high.
The bucket is big enough to drive a car into and capable of scraping 25 tons of earth or coal with every bucket load. Oddball could actually walk on its huge feet, but only backwards and at about 0.2 miles an hour, about the same speed as a tortoise at full gallop. Although I don’t think a tortoise can walk backwards at all. Could be wrong again – I await further education from a learned zoologist or ‘vetnry’.
The Marshall Plan’s effect on farming in Britain
The Marshall Plan was similar to the earlier ‘Lend-Lease’ system, whereby the US sold, loaned, gave goods, food and material to many countries around the world to aid the fight during WW2 or the recovery from it afterwards. This system, and the fact that the US was not attacked or invaded on its mainland, meant that it was unimpeded in retaining, indeed vastly increasing its manufacturing capacity and productivity. This went a long way towards ensuring the US’s position as a superpower.
One of the small but significant changes made in Britain during the Marshall Plan was in farming. Before the war, much of the heavy lifting and pulling on farms was done by the horse. Under the Marshall Plan, thousands of tractors (mostly second-hand, I believe) were sent from the US, each able to do the work of several horses, but more quickly and much more efficiently – and a tractor didn’t get tired. Many of the soldiers had learned new mechanical skills necessary for modern warfare and transferring these skills onto the tractor and other agricultural work was fairly straightforward.
The WARTS guide to local cafés
We carry out our walks on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The Tuesday walk tends to be about 10 miles, whereas the others are shorter, but all will include a café. We have become connoisseurs of the café, favouring the ones that provide banter and conversation, and of course good grub. The ones that try a gimmick often fail. Trying to be posh by serving food on dods ‘a’ wood (a wooden plate) never works for me; internet and game cafés don’t do it either.
However, the proprietor who enters into some banter and/or abuse definitely cuts the mustard. One such is in the centre of Castleford, first visited after our walk around to St Aidan’s. On entering, we immediately noticed a wallpaper border running all around the café with every type of coffee known to man proudly printed on it.
Our corporal was excited, for he is picky about his coffee. He asked for ‘A flat white, please’. The salt-of-the-earth local lass looked at him with a glare that could kill at twenty paces and said through gritted teeth, ‘We do white coffee and we do black coffee’. The corporal meekly pointed at the wallpaper border. She must have been impressed by his bravery, or more likely felt sorry for him, and actually entered into conversation. But it didn’t last long. It went something like, ‘I’ve been here five years and you are only the second person to ask that’. She didn’t go on to explain what happened to the first, but she seemed to forgive the corporal after an acceptable period of grovelling and cowering under the table.
Tasty quiche and tasty tales in Todmorden
Another notable café is in the Todmorden area. The owner was just shutting but as there were five of us, she asked us in and locked the door. It was more like a deli shop than a café, but the fine lass provided chairs, coffees and the biggest slab of the best hot quiche I have ever had. She quickly ascertained that we had two doctors in our party that day and must have thought it fitting to describe her time as a health visitor in Leeds.
One of her regular visits was to a brothel. It may be a surprise for some to know that there is a brothel in Leeds, possibly even more than one. Anyway, she went on to describe one of her visits. The madam asked her if she wanted a cuppa, and then shouted in a madam sort of tone ‘GEORGE, TEA’. Eventually, in shuffled a gentleman carrying a tray of tea and biscuits, completely naked save for a frilly pinny.
There were other stories even less suitable for delicate ears but if we bump into you on one of our walks, and if you’re of a sound disposition, we will be easily persuaded to share them with you.