HISTORY FEATURE: Old Moor RSPB reserve returns to the middle ages

OLD Moor in the Middle Ages would have looked much like Old Moor today — but that gives little clue about the vast changes in between.

OLD Moor in the Middle Ages would have looked much like Old Moor today — but that gives little clue about the vast changes in between.

This 220-acre slice of the Dearne Valley is currently celebrating 20 years of being a nature haven — the first urban reserve taken on by the RSPB.

But over the centuries, Old Moor has played its part in war efforts, hosted flying circuses, fuelled the industrial revolution with mountains of coal, and had a hand in the establishment of the famous St Leger horse race.

Growing reed beds and installing different water levels in the past two decades have brought obvious changes since 2003, with plenty of wildlife returning.

But this wetland is how the area would have been during the Middle Ages — only this time the environment is man made.

Julian Mayston, visitor experience manager at RSPB Dearne Valley, said: “The clock is turning back to how this area would have looked back then, when there was wet grassland, reed beds, pelicans, storks, cranes, spoonbill and raptors. Some of those are coming back.

“We’ve had otters in the past five years. They are feared in certain places over the fishing stocks, but they are very good at controlling their own populations as they are fiercely territorial, unlike something like the American mink.

“Other species appearing here in the last three or four years include the marsh harrier. In this country in the 1970s and 80s you could count them on two hands, but now they are here breeding in the Dearne Valley. Last year we had about 11 of them.

“There’s bitterns too, which in the 90s and late 80s you would have only had the chance of seeing in Norfolk. They’re right here, between Rotherham and Barnsley.

“Nature is in crisis. Everyone understands that now. But with a helping hand, nature can still not just survive but thrive.”

Volunteer Alvin Hickling, a genealogist, has done much of the legwork for an exhibition about Old Moor’s history, which is open now.

“It’s taken months,” he said. “We’ve gone way back beyond the 20 years, right back to when this was occupied by the Old Moor farmhouse in 1755.

“There is evidence of a wooden structure here previous to that. Some of the timber used in the farmhouse could be from as much as a couple of centuries before that and was reused on the roof. “So either there was a previous building here on the site or the wood was brought here from a building somewhere else.”

Old Moor is described as enclosed land in a 1516 survey, when it is mentioned as part of the 1,120 acres owned by Roger Wombwell.

The last male heir, William Wombwell, died in 1733, after which it passed to his daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth and eventually to their respective husbands, Colonel Anthony St Leger and Charles Turner.

Col St Leger trained horses at Old Moor from about 1770 to 1776, the year when the first annual race in his name was organised.

This two-mile race for three-year-old horses was held on Cantley Common — the oldest of the five British Classics — and the first was won by a horse owned by former prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who was a keen breeder.

The Brooke family’s occupancy of Old Moor begins when George and Ann move to the farm at some point between 1780 and 1784.

The Ordnance Survey maps show that there was very little change at Old Moor from 1850 to 1901, but the 15 years after that saw dramatic change.

“There was coal-mining, the railways and First World War fleets that needed fuelling,” said Julian. “What is now the Trans Pennine Trail was one of the two rail links, that one was with Manchester and even as far as the 1950s and 60s was taking so much of the coal needed for Manchester’s industry. The line became known as Hell’s Kitchen because of the fires that were breaking out all the time.”

Subsidence scars due to coal-mining are beginning to become visible on the 1916 map — a time of high levels of coal activity to boost the war effort. Anti-aircraft barrage balloons floated in the air above as a defence.

Also during the First World War, Old Moor was one of the aerodromes used by the 33 Squadron (Home Defence) Royal Flying Corps, which was responsible for protecting Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the North Midlands when German airship raids were a threat.

Following on from its use by the squadron — and between the wars — the airfield at Old Moor was used for a series of spectacular flying circus shows.

“Before, it was almost folklore as to whether they had taken place,” said Julian. “Now we’ve been able to find the hard evidence.”

At the Don & Dearne Aero Week in 1930, visitors were able to take a flight in a 14-seater Imperial Airways Cross Channel Liner for four shillings.

During the Second World War there was a POW camp close to the runway at Old Moor, and the prisoners would be sent to farm the land and collect milk to take back.

From 1939 to 1998, Old Moor was farmed by Willis and Alice Gascoigne. Daughter Gwynneth Wood said: “It was an organic farm, naturally fertilised with manure from the animals. No pesticides were used.

“All crops grown were used to feed the animals which were cattle, pigs and hens.”

The farmhouse and other buildings on the land had no electricity until 1968, so rooms had to be lit by gas lamps.

Gwynneth recalls miners coming off their night shift and going to Old Moor to help thresh the corn in exchange for a hearty breakfast.

She added: “All the threshed corn was ground down as feed for the animals through winter.”

The 20th century subsidence actually made Old Moor well suited for wetlands, much like it was home to several centuries earlier.

Alvin said: “Around the time of the pits closing, this was known as the most polluted area in Europe. Wath’s was the biggest marshalling yard in Britain. It’s gone from that to a Site of Special Scientific Interest.”

The land was capped with topsoil and was opened as a nature reserve in 1998. Barnsley Council had offered the site to the RSPB the previous year but the bird charity had not been looking to take over new projects at the time.

Lottery money was invested in the meantime, before the RSPB officially signed to take over Old Moor on March 30, 2003, and has continued to enhance and develop the site ever since.

Features of Old Moor through the centuries remain today, for example the pig feeders built into walls outside the mid-18th century farmhouse.

Dozens of carvings at the site are thought to have been done much more recently — about 30 years ago.

They include likenesses of a bear, a farmer, a duck, bats and a human ear.

But the stonemason responsible remains a mystery — and the Old Moor team are keen to hear from anyone who can shed any more light on the matter.

Julian said: “The conservation movement in Yorkshire started here. Old Moor, and Wath Ings in particular, was the start of that revolution and we’re really, really proud of that.

“You would be mistaken to think that nature has done all this, because it’s all manmade. It’s definitely a story about the people, from the early days of ornithology to what we have now.

“Nature has returned but it’s had a bloody good helping hand.”

A motto of the RSPB is “giving nature a home”, which is exactly what the staff and volunteers have done at Old Moor.

Julian said: “It’s easy to get depressed about the environment but Old Moor shows that we can make a difference.

“There’s a corridor of nature reserves in the Dearne Valley, with the likes of Carlton Marsh and Denaby Ings.

“We have marsh harriers here — 100 miles from the coast, which is incredible.

“We have Cetty’s warblers in winter as a direct result of global warming because the boundary of where they migrate to has moved further north. We’ve only seen those in winter in the past five or six years.

“We have more dragonflies too, which is another example. There were three new species just last year.”

Water management is a key part of what has been created at Old Moor in recent years. Different levels mean the efficient movement of water within the site to better accommodate the widening variety of wildlife.

“Across this micro-ecosystem, different species of birds have different requirements,” said Julian. “It means we can have small wading birds at the same time as heron or cormorant, for example.

The exhibition is open at Old Moor until April 15. Staff are hoping to hold an annual heritage event, and would welcome any further information about the history of the land.

Julian said: “It has been a real journey of delving into the past. A lot of the information was out there, but it’s never been all in one place like this before.

“This is only the start. We would like to have a heritage event every year, with contributions from the community. We could focus on different aspects each time, such as the coal-mining.”

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