Flat out – volunteer work at Hemingfield

Chasing the clouds away. The main headgear at Hemingfield Colliery

Sun shine after the rain

After a week of, well let’s say ‘changeable’ weather, the Friends and regular core volunteers were keen to recoup some of the time lost to site maintenance since March and the beginning of the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this an extra Saturday when the weather looked set fair was seized on 11th July to continue the weeding, cleaning and tidying the site so that it is back in good order for what the future may bring as the world, or the UK at least, takes its first steps back towards a new normal.

Like all sectors, the heritage sector has been issued with guidelines on keeping everything safe, and in our case the preparations are going to be slow and careful. Focused on our core volunteers and ensuring the due maintenance is brought into good shape. Still taking things slowly, the pit gates remained closed, but plenty of activity is in hand now to bring life and love back to Hemingfield Colliery. And what a lovely day it was!

The Great (and healthy) Outdoors

Tripping the fantastic light. Crisp summer sunshine over the pump house cottage

Site Manager Glen opened the gates to regular volunteers Paul, John, Keith and Chris. It was great to see everyone back, almost ‘to normal’, although everyone had caution at the forefront of their minds, and stories of the challenges that the pandemic had brought out; the serious economic and political consequences for the folks working on through the epidemic, and those on furlough. Serious times, though spirits remain high and everyone agreed it was great to be back on site and enjoying working outside.

The back yard: not a bad view down over Elsecar Heritage Railway

Preparations for future volunteer working parties are important after several months’ worth of productive weekends with amenable weather have been lost to the crisis. First things first, a quick check on the state of the line mortar stone repairs to the rear retaining wall. Removing the covers and assessing progress. It was heartening to see how solid the work remains, and everyone was eager to move things on to the next stage.

Repairing. Inspecting to the work from previous wall repair campaigns

Levelling up

Next, in separate groups, the volunteers continued with the weeding and site tidying work, but also in undertaking an important future stabilisation activity: the levelling out of the lumps and bumps from 6 years of site clearance, tree stump removal, and rubble reclamation.

Moving mountains: shifting mounds from earlier clearance work and levelling up some holes

Beginning at the lower terrace, where much earth-moving remains to be done to improve the site after 40 years of gentle neglect, there are a number of lumps and bumps. It doesn’t need our current Prime Minister to pronounce on the dire need of ‘levelling up’ this area, both from an ankle-twisting avoidance perspective, but also with an eye on simplifying future access and maintenance requirements. The volunteers began by clearing a mound of earth from the left hand wall and levelling up the surrounding ground as well as filling in prominent holes closer to the pumping shaft.

Where stumps and rubble were previously numerous, now is the time to make the site easily traversable again and simpler to keep the grass in check for future maintenance.

Rotten to the core: only took 3 years to remove this stubborn stump!

Next, on to the mounds blocking the bottom of the ramp. Four years ago much tree clearance activity started on site and with everything being done without the advantage of power on site the going was tough, and many a stump could not be inched or indeed winched out. We simply had to bide our time and the passing of the seasons as the stumps rotted down and softened out, finally making them susceptible to ‘persuasion’ as regards getting out of the way.

With shovels and picks, barrows spades and rakes, the mounds on, and at the base of the ramp were also cleared away. The ramp proving interesting as it revealed more of the concrete base which was associated with a fuel storage for powering what may have been a diesel engine.

Tidying up the ramp and old diesel fuel area

Baking in the deceptively cloudy heat and tanning as only farmers can, the volunteers ploughed on with the tidying. Spirit levels were not required, merely a good eye and a sturdy boot or two.

Pausing for an outdoor lunch break, with suitably socially-distanced seating, right next to the top headgear, everyone discussed how COVID-19 had affected their lives, their home, family and friends. It was a good-humoured conversation, although everyone knows just how serious the threats are to our nation’s health – both human and economic.

Tidy. Levelling finished for the day

Picking up the pace after luncheon, the levellers moved on up, to the top side of the pit, and attacked the very sizeable mound where the top level meets the ramp. Here be not dragons but bricks galore. Demolition rubble from the old boundary wall (Kilnhurst bricks for the detail inclined), as well as sundry debris from the old toilet building.

Taking the rough with the smooth: evening out the lumps and bumps

Evening-out the lumps there, by filling up the old mini-craters from previously-uprooted hawthorns, and one great crater from the ‘battle of the mighty tree’ where saws, axes, winches and spades did battle, and where chainsaws did fail. Finally, sweating in the sun, the workers did prevail.

All of this levelling is contributing to making the site easier to access and more convenient for visitors, part of our commitment to improve access to and accessibility throughout the unified colliery site, including Pump House Cottage which is one of the aims of our Hemingfield’s Hidden History project, funded by National Lottery players via the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Wild life

Often taken for granted when visiting the colliery, the amount of fauna (flora can wait) in the immediate vicinity means there’s always something to find, or to look up and see. This weekend was no different.

Buzzard above

Soaring majestically above us, the buzzard appeared; silhouetted against the bright sky, it swooped and hovered, swung low and flew high, its huge wingspan clear to see. Marvellous to behold.

X marks the spot? Worms crossing during clearance

Back down to earth, the work on site revealed worms and slugs galore. Healthily-sized earthworms stretched and surged along, crossing paths and, momentarily, meeting, x-marking the spot, and disappearing underground once more.

Crouching toad, hidden, erm toad

Down deeper still, in hidden holes and drainage pits, lurking in the damp and darkness, toads and even frogs. Wide-eyed small-footed marvels, looking and keeping cool as the sun’s rays moved the mercury and brought out hats and caps to protect the volunteers from the heat of the day. July indeed, although the downpours of the previous week would not have reminded anyone of summertime.

The hole truth: three frogs in a hole

Onwards, ever onwards. Stay safe everyone!

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