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


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 smooth lemon shades shimmer against a backdrop of dull, brown, coal- and ironstone-ridden spoil heaps and disintegrating industrial features. In summer, the colliery yard is a wildflower meadow of honey-hued hawkweeds mingling with ox-eye daisies, whose immaculate, snow-white florets and yellow fractal centres glow amidst delicate clouds of quaking grasses and masses of sticky cleavers.

An Illustration and Interpretation Project

Coal, Collapse, Colonisation is an illustration and interpretation project inspired by the beauty of Hemingfield Colliery’s physical decline and by the resourceful plant species colonising the collapsing buildings, 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.

I felt that it was important to observe and record these plants and their diverse habitats because, inevitably, they will be lost as the site is cleared, the archaeology is unearthed and the buildings and features are repaired and conserved.

How the Collapse of Industry has Facilitated Colonisation by Plants

Since the demise of coal mining at Hemingfield, years of abandonment, periods of vandalism and outbreaks of fire have all contributed to the colliery’s degeneration, creating a variety of habitats and opportunities for enterprising plants. Cracks in the concrete winding headgear, damp nooks around rusting tanks, crushed bricks from tumbledown walls and the dankness of a long-defunct pumping shaft, have all attracted species of flora.

Woody nightshade clambers over the collapsed boiler house, swathing cold grey stones in garlands of dazzling red berries. Ragworts add sunshine-yellow splashes to the jet-black, fire-charred roof beams of the pumping house. The sticky stems of cleavers smother unslighty metal scrap heaps. Herb Robert flowers poke their delicate, pink heads through fallen, shattered roof slates. Yellow archangel daubs a mottled silver-green palette onto a canvas of umber- and ochre-tinted spoil heaps. 

YELLOW ARCHANGEL Lamiastrum galeobdolon by Amanda Willoughby (Copyright 2018)

Stony Beach or Boiler House Rubble? Mountain Scree or Collapsed Coal Screen? – How the Decaying Industrial Features Resemble Natural Plant Habitats

As well as exploring how the end of industry at Hemingfield Colliery has facilitated colonisation by plants, Coal, Collapse, Colonisation also looks at how the decaying buildings and industrial features are emulating natural plant habitats.

Woody Nightshade has found the collapsed boiler house an attractive place over which to clamber. This species of nightshade also thrives on sand dunes and stony beaches and the boiler house rubble, with its constituents of sandstone and pulverised mortar, resembles this natural habitat.

Cracks in the crumbling concrete winding headgear have been utilised by hawkweeds. A fundamental constituent of concrete is crushed limestone, so this lofty feature has qualities comparable to a limestone cliff, which is one of Common Hawkweed’s natural habitats. 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 ferns to its damp and shady depths.

HART’S TONGUE FERN Asplenium scolopendrium by Amanda Willoughby (Copyright 2018)

The Aims of Coal, Collapse, Colonisation

As Hemingfield Colliery offers a vivid illustration of nature’s ability to reclaim a human-made environment and utilise it to advantage, it is interesting to study and record the enterprising plant species colonising the different features of the site.

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

Amanda Willoughby – February 2017

About the artist: 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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