The Pioneering Plant Species Colonising the Decaying Industrial Features of an Abandoned Victorian Colliery


Amanda Willoughby Illustration - Pumping Shaft

Hemingfield Colliery is a kaleidoscope of colour as the seasons spin around and conjure up spectacular displays of natural beauty on this site of industrial decay. In autumn, shivering trees of sunset orange, nightshade berries of bright tomato-red and snapdragon flowers of pale lemon shades dazzle against a backdrop of dull, brown spoil heaps and grey industrial features. In summer, the yard is a wildflower meadow of honey-hued hawkweeds mingling with purple clovers and ox-eye daisies, whose immaculate snow-white ray florets and egg yolk-yellow fractal centres glow amidst delicate clouds of quaking grasses and masses of sticky cleavers.

Yellow Archangel fruit by Amanda Willoughby


Coal, Collapse, Colonisation is an illustration and interpretation project inspired by the visual beauty of physical decline at Hemingfield Colliery and by the pioneering plant species colonising the decaying buildings, walls, headgears, shafts, tanks and spoil heaps of the site during the period between its industrial life and its proposed regeneration into a mining heritage centre.

It is important that these resourceful, enterprising plants and their diverse habitats are observed, researched and recorded because, inevitably, they will be lost as the site is cleared, the archaeology is unearthed and the buildings and industrial features are repaired and conserved.

Amanda Willoughby Illustration - Cleavers

COAL, COLLAPSE, COLONISATION: How the Collapse of Industry at Hemingfield Colliery has Facilitated Colonisation by Nature

Since the collapse of industry on the site, the colliery has suffered years of abandonment, periods of vandalism and outbreaks of fire, which have all contributed to its physical decay. This degeneration has created a variety of plant habitats, allowing many species of flora to thrive.

The sticky stems of Cleavers smother unslighty metal scrap heaps and Woody Nightshade plants scramble over rubble, swathing the cold, grey stones in garlands of dazzling, red berries. In the damp and shady nooks and crannies around a rusty compressed air cylinder, tiny parachuted seeds cling to gaping Rosebay Willowherb capsules in fluffy, floaty masses, before being whisked away on the wind to colonise other areas of the site. Through shattered, slate-grey tiles that have fallen from the winding engine house roof, Herb Robert flowers poke their delicate, pink heads. Common Ragworts add welcome splashes of sunshine-yellow to the jet-black, fire-charred roof beams of the switchgear building onto which they cling.

As a host of plants establish themselves, splashing their striking beauty onto a canvas of umber and sepia, Coal, Collapse, Colonisation explores how the collapse of industry at Hemingfield Colliery has facilitated this colonisation and looks at how the decaying buildings and industrial features are emulating natural plant habitats.


STONY BEACH OR BOILER HOUSE RUBBLE?: How the Decaying Colliery Buildings and Industrial Features Resemble Natural Plant Habitats

Woody Nightshade plants have found the collapsed boiler house an attractive place over which to clamber. This particular species of nightshade also thrives on stony beaches and the boiler house rubble, with its constituents of sandstone and pulverised cement, in some ways resembles this natural habitat.

Many of the other tumbledown buildings and walls have species of chalk and limestone flora rooting in their disintegrating mortar. Nineteenth-century mortar is a mix of lime, loam and, sometimes, straw, cow-dung or coal-dust, so these enterprising plants may be taking advantage of this nutritious mix as the buildings weather away.

The cracks and crevices in the crumbling concrete winding headgear have been utilised by hawkweeds. Since a fundamental constituent of concrete is crushed limestone, this lofty feature has qualities comparable to a limestone cliff, which is one of Common Hawkweed’s natural habitats. Similarly, the winding engine house roof is home to several Mountain Ash trees, which may have found its elevated inclines an agreeable substitute for mountain slopes, and the pumping shaft has attracted cave- and gorge-dwelling Hart’s Tongue Ferns to its damp and shady depths.

Yellow Archangel leaves by Amanda Willoughby

COAL, COLLAPSE, COLONISATION: Project Aims and Constituents

As the changing seasons transform Hemingfield Colliery into an impressionist painting of colour, light and movement, offering a vivid illustration of nature’s ability to reclaim a man-made environment and utilise it to advantage, I am studying the enterprising plant species colonising the different areas and features of the site.

The project will comprise of a series of illustrations of plants through their entire life cycles, highlighting the qualities and features which enable them to thrive on and around the decaying industrial features of an abandoned Victorian colliery. In the photograph below, I am working on an illustration to show how Hart’s Tongue Ferns are able to thrive in the cool, dark, cave-like conditions of the pumping shaft.

I hope that the project will help to raise awareness of the important and varied research and restoration work being carried out by the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery, as the site is renovated prior to being opened to the public as a mining heritage centre and a tribute to the lives of the Victorian miners and their families.

Amanda Willoughby – February 2017


As well as working on Coal, Collapse, Colonisation, Amanda helped the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery with clearance work and archaeological excavation on the site throughout 2015 and 2016. She has also contributed to some FoHC Working Day blogs.








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