Restoration – Retaining Wall

As a volunteer group, the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery have stewardship of a remarkable site: an 1840s colliery, part of Earl Fitzwilliam’s Elsecar collieries complex. That it has survived into the twenty-first century when the vast majority of the UK’s mining and industrial landscape has been erased from the map is a mixture of two things:

function – it became used as part of a regional mine pumping and drainage scheme in the 1920s:

fluke – local and mining historians recognised its rarity and stepped up to try and save it.

As the UK’s mining sector disappeared, in the 1980s and 90s, Hemingfield’s future was in increasingly in doubt. Operationally it became redundant as local deep mining ceased. Kept on as a satellite site, on a care and maintenance basis, at the close of the twentieth century, subsequent vandalism, arson and metal theft mean that it has just barely scraped through into the twenty-first. Neglect and decay over many intervening years have certainly left their mark.

Nowhere was this more clearly the case than the large section of collapsed retaining wall at the rear of the site, looking over the canal basin and the heritage railway line.

1970s view of Hemingfield Colliery from George Beeden Collection. Note lack of trees and open ground from the canalside. Also a ghostly chimney at the right indicates Elsecar Main at work just down the road.

The retaining wall has been a huge, slightly unexpected challenge, and this page provides some snapshots of its condition over time, the ongoing efforts of the Friends and regular volunteers, not to mention our friends from Elsecar Heritage Railway, and in particular the significant repairs made by volunteer labour during 2019 and 2020 – even during a global pandemic!

Early glimpses

Much of the lower terrace and lower part of the retaining wall were hidden by trees and bramble, and years of fallen leaves and rubbish. The Friends took possession of the site in June 2014, but we begin here with some images from a wintry January 2015.

View from the upper headgear looking down across the lower terrace on the snow-covered railway. Notice the large amount of tree cover up to and around the wall and undergrowth somewhat hiding the true picture, 24th Jan 2015

View of lower terrace at Hemingfield Colliery, looking down on broken wall and over retaining wall down to snowy railway, 24th Jan 2015

Clearing the way

2015 was a year of manually clearing the site; refinding the paths and removing the self-seeded undergrowth and invasive trees. The wall along the top of the regaining wall was partly collapsed at this stage. Possibly this was due to root growth destabilising brickwork, but some certainly appeared to be ‘man un-made’.

21st March 2015 – foot in the door on the lower terrace. Fighting to get around the back.

21st March 2015 – volunteers clearing through the lower terrace. Trees and damage to top wall here is more evident

Clearance work continued on into 2016. The regular volunteers bringing tools, new energy, and good humour to the steady slog. The site began to emerge again from at least the previous 30 years of neglect. We also worked closely with partners at the Elsecar Heritage Railway, to start to do some lineside clearance, which the railway required, and which would remove self-set trees blocking in the rear of the site, by the retaining wall. This really opened up the view from and of the colliery – let there be light!

16th April 2016 – good weather and trackside tree clearance by the Elsecar Heritage Railway made a real difference at this time.

Big picture

Thanks to a local resident, we were able to capture some unique images of the site in a period of transition. Drone images conquer the geography of the site and allow the shafts and buildings to be seen in their wider landscape context.

19th March 2016 – Drone view of the Hemingfield Colliery site from the rear. Trees still obscure wall. (Photo credit: James Marshall)

New hopes – roof restoration

In late 2016 and the winter through to 2017, the Friends were successful in applying for funds to repair the severely damaged roof of the winding engine house. To read more a out that project, see the Roofing restoration project page.

View of the regaining wall and scaffold going up for the winding engine house roof repairs, 23rd Oct 2016 (Photo credit: Andrew Jones)

The excitement and energy this visual transformation brought to site is difficult to adequately express several years on, but felt like a salvation of sorts; a spur to the Friends and volunteers to see that change and improvement was possible, and also that all should be ambitious in the pursuit of saving this heritage.

High view of rear wall from roof scaffolding, 21st January 2017. Not quite a drone shot, but quite high enough thanks!

A closer look

The roof work going on was also a nice opportunity to get up close to the state of the retaining wall, with permission from the railway for access.

26th November 2016 – a bit of a worry! but the trees still effectively fenced off the collapsed retaining wall making direct access difficult.

In the Winter of 2017-18 further work took place on removing damaging tree growth from the site and around the wall (and in the top of one of the retaining buttresses!)

27th January 2018 clearer view of the terrace with surface muck removed to reveal some stone blocks in surface. A complicated picture of reuse of earlier materials and rubble filled rebuilding late in the life of the coal winning years.

12th May 2018 note the small height of top wall without upper courses or topper/copings in the middle and upper right.

Precipitous parapet

In 2018, as some of the closest trees were removed and the retaining wall could be seen at last, it was immediately clear that the damage from the collapse of the face of the stonework was more widespread and severe than had hitherto evident.

28th July 2018 inspecting the task ahead. The brick wall at the right over the collapsed stone retaining wall is effectively floating. The brickwork at the left has been severely affected by tree root movement.

28th July 2018 a series of collapses and much eroded facing stonework need attention!

28th July 2018: the access challenge. Stepping back from the wall, it is clear that getting up to the wall is itself a physical challenge.

Nowhere was this clearer than when looking at the thin air support for part of the top red-pressed brick wall. To make it safe, and get at the eroded rubble fill, the top rows would need to be removed altogether.

Nothing to build on. 28th July 2018. Action was needed to make things safer before anything further could be done.

The summer of 2018 was a dispiriting time as no-one wants to take things apart, but the retaining wall represented such a danger and an obstacle to repairs that it was necessary to make it safe by lifting the top courses of brick wall. In doing so a bigger hole emerged, and it was clear the lower terrace at that point would not have lasted much longer – it certainly bears comparison with earlier years!

28th July 2018

Removing the top wall rows of bricks where there was nothing beneath was a challenge! Equally, to work at or around the edge without causing further loss or slips, it was important to dig the embankment fill down and away from the edge. Removing the wall allowed all of the tree roots to be exposed, and gave cause to marvel at Nature’s strength and strange beauty.

25th August 2018 Getting to the tree roots at the top of the wall. The stump showing where it has grown up under the line of brickwork, completely lifting the wall itself.

Removing this stump without power on site was an epic slog, so when finally moved it was a minor triumph in itself!

17th November 2018 – bigger holes but clearer task ahead.

Taking down to build back

Over the winter of 2018-19, concerted efforts were made at digging down from the top edge of the retaining bank to try and prevent further collapse and to make it easier to begin to think about how we might do some repairs to the loss of rubble fill below. A thorough recce of the whole wall was made early in the new year.

Long way to go – the scale of the retaining wall collapse is much clearer now, and so is the sheer amount of work the Friends have to do! 26th January 2019

With access to the foot of the retaining wall, the state of this left-hand section was also clear, 26th January 2019.

9/2/19 work continued to dig back the top edge of the lower terrace, to remove weight to the thickness (from the original face) of the stone.

22/6/19 removing this extra weight at the top and bottom of the wall, and taking off top rows of unstable brickwork also revealed some subsurface drainage features.

August beginnings

For a good while this removal work to make safe did seem to feel like a one-way process, with little immediate prospect of having the hours, people, materials, tools or skills to assess and rebuild.

However, in August 2019, with the help of a specialist heritage building surveyor and builder, things began to change.

Providing information and on-the-job skills training, in the scorching heat of August, a real sense of energy and excitement began to grow; a feeling that major progress on volunteer restoration efforts was perhaps just about to begin.

Small beginnings 26 August 2019. Essential scaffold and tools, with repair materials for a lime mortar wall.

Preparing the ground. Years of dumped and bulldozed debris hid the damaged base of the wall. In order to build back the wall, you must find a solid point from which to spring. 26th August 2019.

Meanwhile at the left hand side, repairs were rapidly underway. Old eroded materials were removed and a steady start on repairs was underway, with lime mortar mixing and new (reused) stonework being fitted, and renewed drainage included in the wall 26 August 2019.

The flow of materials and mortar. Things really started to pick up pace. Did we mention that it was scorchingly hot? 26th August 2019.

Cement mixer hard at it on lower terrace mixing lime mortar. Cement was also used as a rubble infill binder for collapsed sectionsMixing it up with the best of them. 26th August 2019

Day 2 of the heat, 27th August 2019. An early start. Repairs continue and excitement on site was palpable as it began to feel like real progress was being made in undoing years of decay.

Looking worse before getting better, clearing out rubbish and muck on the right of the concrete buttress to make clean and stable bonding surfaces to build from. Props in place for safety. 26th August 2019.

Multiple scorching days of effort over the August Bank Holiday in 2019 showed their worth. 31st August 2019.

Panoramic delight – a view of the work area at the base of the wall by the end of the first ‘assault’ of restoration work.

31st August 2019. Bank Holiday rebuilding bonanza.

Skin deep

Below, a photo showing a section through the collapsed retaining wall. Facing stone angled back with rubble fill behind, topped with a red pressed brick wall.

31st August 2019. Section of the retaining wall rubble fill and facing sandstone blocks.

After an unforgettable 2019 August Bank Holiday surge of effort to kickstart the rebuilding and repair of the retaining wall, in the following weeks and months, the Friends and regular volunteers had the bit between their teeth and emulated the left-hand side repairs by making definite progress on the bigger challenge of the right-hand collapsed section.

Inspecting progress 14th September 2019. Temporary wooden props in place as substantial rubble reinforcement was inserted into the lower left section.

Some new lime mortar and block work 14th September 2019

Eyes in the sky

At another key transitional point in the restoration of the site, a couple of drone operators kindly took overhead images of the pit, showing the buzz of activity and progress around the rear retaining wall in 2019.

August 2019

Drone shot of 2019 August Bank Holiday repairs to retaining wall (Photo credit: John Irwin)Top of the wall, 14th September 2019

Concrete reinforcement of the rubble fill ready for facing stonework to be built up, 14th September 2019

December 2019

Drone image of work in progress with blue sheet covering rebuilt stonework with lime mortar on retaining wall 7th December 2019 (Photo credit: Chris Thomas)

2020 vision and a global pandemicAs the weather worsened in 2019, progress on the retaining wall paused for the winter. In Spring 2020 everyone was looking forward to getting stuck in again, so we could return our focus to the Pump House Cottage project, Hemingfield’s Hidden History but then the Coronavirus epidemic of 2019 appeared. In March 2020, the United Kingdom officially entered what was referred to as lockdown, and the Friends and volunteers also stayed safe. Silence on site.

Over the following months of 2020, as the rate of transmission decreased, but then increased, little activity took place for some time. With the switch of spring into summer, with outdoor exercise encouraged, some snaps of the site ‘on pause’ were taken:

Canal basin and trackside view – 25/5/2020 all was still at the retaining wall.

The Return

In July 2020, more than half a year since major work on site, the Friends and regular volunteers carefully arranged for a return to the pit, working being closed gates, distanced and enjoying the outdoors, following government and local public health guidance. It was a balm after a crazy period.

11th July 2020 the return to site and making up for lost time. Safe, distanced, and outdoors!

Thanks to the Tesco Bags of Help scheme, the group had more tools and equipment to take on this challenge, including a fantastic scaffold tower. Everyone was so keen to make up for the lost days of 2020 by returning weekly for this mammoth task, and starting earlier in the day to make the most of the changeable weather.

Bared face of the retaining wall. A lot of rubble fill to be filled and facing stone to be found and rebuilt, 1st August 2020.

Heritage volunteers in action during the global pandemic. Healthy outdoor exercise with a purpose and driven by a shared spirit, 1st August 2020

Next level stuff. Rubble consolidation and new facing stonework being rebuilt, 8th August 2020.

8th August 2020. Filling the holes.

22nd August 2020, start of the day

The work was steady and heavy. Scaffold building, mixer and generator out and running. Water fetched. Sand and lime and, where necessary, cement fetched. Work commenced. More mixing, more stone located and sized before being fixed in place.

29th August 2020. Mixing mastery in progress.

22nd August 2020. More stone please. Reusing reclaimed stone from the site.

End result = progress 🙂

By 22nd August 2020, at the end of the day.

More sand please

For the volunteers concerned, the competitive spirit of the Great British Bake-Off was as nothing to the keen focus on the consistency and rapidity of the mortar and cement mix supply to the wall rebuild effort. Humour and exercise are good for body and mind during the bizarre dangers of the global pandemic. So much progress was made that we needed a top-up of grit sand for the mortar mix.

29 August 2020 delivery and deliverance for the repair work.

A year on from the first repairs, the gaps remaining were rapidly shrinking. Knocking back the cured lime mortar pointing from the previous week started the day, followed by a further session of rebuilding. When the right-hand wall had been re-filled and attention moved to the left-hand hole, because this had already been reinforced, the remaining stonework was somewhat more straightforward, not to mention much easier to reach!

29th August 2020 props in place as the gap to fill rapidly shrinks.

After the August Bank Holiday, the weekly sessions continued onto the 5th September to finish the last push to complete this section of wall.

5th September 2020 – just about there, waiting for the mortar to cure.

September reflectionsDropping back to fortnightly sessions, the 19th September 2020 was a day to stop and (after knocking back) admire the completion of the main bulk of repair work. Wow. For a small group of volunteers this is a significant achievement, and one to be celebrated.

19th September 2020 – job done – for now!

Plenty of smaller repairs and lots of repointing, but hopefully the retaining wall spared from imminent collapse for now, and the Friends can focus on other activities, saving the site comes first, but sharing it with others is next in line!