Along The Moors
Granville Nature Reserve
While the Weald Moors have been synonymous with agriculture for many hundreds of years, such bucolic activities did not hold always hold sway on the southern fringe of the moorlands, where many of the raw materials that fuelled the industrialisation of east Shropshire were extracted during the 18th and 19th Centuries. The area’s mineral wealth principally consisted of plentiful coal and ironstone reserves situated around Donnington Wood, although limestone (an important constituent of the iron-making process) was also quarried near to Lilleshall village. Evidence suggests industrial activity went on in the parish during the middle ages (a smithy was recorded near Waxhillgate in 1277, while a ‘Coalpit Way’ existed in Donnington Wood by 1592) but it paled in insignificance to the scale of operations that were established during the late 18th Century… all of which has left an unlikely legacy on the modern day landscape.
By the end of the 1600s, mining was a well established industry in the Donnington Wood area, although its scope was limited, both physically and financially, by the inadequate drainage of shafts sunk to exploit the coal seams. Many of the mines in the coalfield measured little more than 60 to 100 feet in depth and surface supplies of coal in the area were rapidly exhausted by the early 18th Century… creating serious problems for allied industries, such as lime-working, that relied on the mineral to fire its kilns.
While the Donnington Wood coalfield bore little resemblance to the Weald Moors, what the two seemingly incongruous areas did have in common was shared ownership. Both belonged, in large part, to the Leveson Gower family, whose reforming zeal was equally evident in the industrial quarter of their estate as it would later become on the moors. Due to poor drainage, none of the mines on the Lilleshall estate were able to turn a profit in the first half of the 18th Century, leading Earl Gower to go into partnership with his land agent John Gilbert (and his brother Thomas) in 1764, with the aim of utilising technological advances to improve the extraction of mineral reserves on his estate.
The Lilleshall Company
The presence of a rapidly expanding local iron industry hungry for raw materials meant there was little danger of Earl Gower’s venture not reaping major dividends and a period of unprecedented investment in mining followed. By the end of the 18th Century, the Donnington Wood coalfield comprised over 100 collieries, extracting ever-deeper seams of coal and iron ore for the needs of east Shropshire’s thriving industrial base. The scale of operations took another huge leap forward in 1802, when the elderly Lord Gower (then aged 81) relinquished his holdings to youngest son Granville Leveson-Gower, who dissolved the original partnership (as the Gilbert brothers were both dead) and formed a new company with the lessees of several ironworks and ironstone mines on his estate.
The Lilleshall Company, named after the family’s mansion near to the village itself, rapidly developed into the principal concern in the north of the coalfield, gradually taking over responsibility for the extraction of all coal, ironstone and limestone in the district; a position it enjoyed until nationalisation in 1947. The formalisation of the new partnership also established a blueprint for the company to develop into a fully integrated business responsible for all aspects of production, from the extraction of raw materials to the manufacturing of a wide array of finished goods, and it was through this strategy that it eventually found fame on a world stage. The vast amount of coal required to fuel these activities led to the sinking of even deeper mines in the Donnington Wood coalfield throughout the 19th Century, leaving a lasting impression on the modern day landscape…
By 1840, the Lilleshall Company held mining rights over 3000 acres of the east Shropshire coalfield and its interests became so extensive that the management of its collieries was eventually divided into geographical units. Although half a million tons of coal and ironstone were extracted from the area in 1871 alone, long-term decline set in from the early 1900s as older collieries were worked out and rising extraction costs precipitated the closure of others. By the 1930s, the company’s mining activities were centred exclusively around Donnington Wood and it was here, at the nationalised Granville Colliery (first sunk in 1860s), that extraction in the coalfield ended in 1979.
After the cessation of mining, the Donnington Wood area was subjected to a large-scale reclamation scheme. Although the ravages of intensive industrial activity left an indelible mark on the landscape, many acres of precious woodland, heath and wetland habitat had also grown-up there. While much of this was lost when the former coalfield was re-developed, a sizeable amount of land was saved and now forms the Granville Nature Reserve (managed by Shropshire Wildlife Trust) where many impressive remnants of the area’s industrial heritage can be seen…
At the northern edge of the Reserve, the ruins of Muxtonbridge Colliery (closed in 1912) provide a stark contrast between the decline of the coalfield and its regeneration as a habitat for wildlife. Cloaked by the woodland that has now enveloped the site, the imposing shells of the pit’s winding and pump-engine houses form a prominent reminder of the industrial scale operations that once went on here, while track from the extensive mineral railway system that served the mine and the wider coalfield can also be traced in the undergrowth nearby. Yet, at the other end of Granville, there is arguably an even more striking monument to the Lilleshall Company’s dominion over the area.
The Lodge furnaces, which opened in 1825, were once among the most productive in Europe and became famous for the quality of their cold-blast iron. The furnaces took their name from the Old Lodge, the former Leveson family home that previously occupied the site, which originally lay within the bounds of a medieval deer park that had belonged to the Abbots of Lilleshall Priory. The five furnace towers became a notable local landmark but closed in 1888 when production was switched to Priorslee. Despite their subsequent demolition, the huge sandstone walls of one of the charging ramps (where materials were tipped into the top of the furnace) has survived, while the basin of a canal branch that served the site remains in situ nearby. It formed part of the Donnington Wood Canal (the first inland waterway in Shropshire), which was constructed by Earl Gower in the mid-1760s to enable easier carriage of raw materials between the industrial sites on his estate and later became part of a network that connected the whole coalfield to the River Severn.
In the Reserve
While it is now sometime since mining and iron-founding in the Donnington Wood coalfield ended, the landscape of Granville Nature Reserve still bears the scars of its industrial past… in the form of many large pit mounds dotted around the area; the result of waste material brought to the surface through centuries of intensive mining. While this might not seem like the most promising environment for wildlife to thrive in, the spoil heaps have gradually been transformed into oak and birch woodland… after initially being colonised by mosses, lichens, grassland and scrub. The presence of calcareous clay in waste material from the mines also provides ideal conditions for wild flowers to grow. Diverse grasslands have developed at Waxhill Meadow and on top of the Barnyard pit mound, which contains species such as the oxeye daisy and hay rattle, the nectar from which supports rare butterflies like the Dingy Skipper and Green Hairstreak in early summer.
Other remnants of the area’s industrial past also provide a haven for a wide range of plants and animals. Toads, frogs and smooth newts have all made their homes in the basin of the branch canal that once served the Lodge Furnaces. Water birds, such as coots, moorhens and little grebe, also frequent the former waterway, while many plant species can be found around the edges of the canal, including water mint, gypsy wort and yellow iris. To the north of Lodge Furnaces, the water from the canal flows (via a series of ditches and culverts) into Muxton Marsh, a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest with a variety of wet and dry habitats, including a wildflower meadow, reed beds with abundant sedges and wet willow woodland. The nature reserve is managed by Shropshire Wildlife Trust, while ‘The Friends of Granville’ group has also been formed for those interested in helping to look after the site.