Amidst the smoke and the steam there was a round of applause; then the crowd slowly dispersed. The Monckton Coke and Chemical Works had made its ‘last push’, after over 130 years of operation. The 15th December 2014 marked the end of one of the last remnants of Royston’s industrial past.
Beneath the works’ towers spreads the Rabbit Ings Country Park. Its 66 hectares covers woodland, wetland (the ‘ings’), football pitches and a prominent rise, carved from the Royston Drift Mine spoil heap that had once been the site’s purpose. The park has been lovingly worked and cultivated by the Land Trust, its owners, and our Groundwork in South Yorkshire team, led by Head Ranger Mick Birkenshaw.
“What I didn’t expect was the silence,” says Mick. “All of us – the staff, the visitors, the wildlife – have been used to the background noise, the fans and the banging. That’s gone now. It’s going to be strange getting used to the sound of silence.”
Mick was a miner himself. Nine members of his family have worked in the industry near Royston, ever since his grandfather walked from Birmingham in search of work. Most poignant for Mick about the closure are the job losses.
His assistant, Tom Gorman, is also sad about works shutting down. “It helped define the park – the view, the smell, the sound. There’s a lot of people put out of work, and it’s the last chapter closed on a big part of England’s industrial heritage.” For Tom, there wasn’t a conflict between the park’s industrial heritage and its growing population of wildlife. “So much of the wildlife has settled here already, with the coke works – we’ve even had Little Owls nesting in next door’s pallet yard!”
Yet there will be a change on the site, as South Yorkshire moves further from its industrial past. As the crowd gathered at the works, another watched at Rabbit Ings for a Black Redstart. The park has become home to a whole host of wildlife, including Great Crested Newts and all five species of owls native to Britain.
As the park has been developed over the years, there has been a strong partnership between Groundwork and the coke works.
“We were very well supported to run the park,” Mick says, “They let us use their car park for our gala.”
Hargreaves, the operators, will also honour their commitments to make further improvements to the park. In the New Year they will put up several nest boxes for the famous owls, and dig out a new pond for the newts. Meanwhile, the coke works will be demolished. Once the ovens are shut down and start to cool, the bricks crack. It makes it uneconomical to mothball the site, and the land will instead be reclaimed for future use.
The Rabbit Ings Park has been shaped by the industry that once took place there. From the air you can see how the boundaries of the park follow the old railway line. The hill, emblazoned with a white rabbit, was of course the spoil heap.
There’s real sadness at the loss of more jobs and the loss of heritage. It gives the sense that the park is entering a new era after a period in which old industry and the new parkland existed side-by-side.
“The park’s become well-loved,” says Tom, “We’re going to carry on working hard to make it even better.”
Could you volunteer at Rabbit Ings? Could your company form a partnership to make the park even better? Contact Groundwork in South Yorkshire on 01226 74 00 77 to find out more.