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Not long ago I wrote about the former coal-mining area of Speedwell in urban Bristol, along with the ways the present vegetation helps to reveal its unsettled history. In this post, I’m going to explore a very different post-mining landscape. Priddy is a small village on the Mendip Plateau in Somerset. Lying just a few miles north of the cathedral city of Wells, this quiet location was important for its lead-mining from as far back as Roman times until 1908. And whilst wildlife in Bristol’s Speedwell district has to find space for itself in the small margins left between warehouses and garages, the area known as the Priddy Mineries has been completely relinquished to nature. First, though, a quick look at the area’s history.
A Brief History of Priddy Mineries
The Mendips are a range of limestone hills running in a roughly north-west to south-east line south of Bath. They are designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and consist of plateau, steep gorges and gentler wooded slopes. The area is rich in human history as well, with a large number of Neolithic and Bronze Age barrow graves. Archaeology also shows that people have been mining lead here since Roman times, possibly longer. Local knowledge must have informed the Romans at least because they were active in the area just six years after arriving in Britain. Although later works have destroyed much of the Roman infrastructure, investigation has uncovered a number of settlements around the site. These show they were extracting lead on a reasonably large scale, in particular during the 1st century AD. The works centred on a valley a mile and a half from Priddy village.
Mining then continued to a greater or lesser extent over the centuries following the Romans’ departure. The two most active spells were the late Medieval period and the 19th century. By the Victorian age, the area consisted of two lead works. Local bigwigs, the Waldegrave family, owned the Chewton Mineries to the north. St Cuthbert’s Lead Works lay at the southern end of the valley and were apparently operated at one point by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Neither of these two outfits extracted new ore, however. Instead they used improved techniques to rework existing slag heaps. As lead became increasingly unprofitable, both works struggled to stay open. The northern works closed in 1883 and St Cuthbert’s in 1908.
From Lead Mining to SSSI
The site is now a nature reserve and much of it is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). As such, to the untrained eye there is now no evidence of the area’s industrial past. The landscape does give some hints to its former life, however. The ground is very uneven, called ‘gruffy’ in the local Somerset dialect. Specifically, this refers to ground pitted with old mine shafts. The reserve also contains a number of low mounds that are the remains of the old spoil heaps. These spoil heaps and some of the surrounding ground still have a high lead content. This results in what is known as calaminarian grassland, an unusual nutrient-poor habitat where only certain metal-tolerant plants can grow. Two large pools once supplied water for processing the lead. Both of these are now full of wildlife, although the more northerly one does tend to dry up a fair bit in dry weather.
Priddy Mineries gets its SSSI designation partly because of the abundant fauna it now supports, but the distinctive habitats and geology are also a feature. Valley mires are one of the important habitats here. These are peaty areas that form in valley bottoms or in the depressions left by mining activity. Acid dwarf shrub heath and the afore mentioned calaminarian grassland dominate the drier slopes of the valley. In terms of geology, the southern end of the former mining area lies over limestone riddled with swallets (sink holes) and cave systems. Indeed, St Cuthbert’s Swallet, which is within the SSSI, leads to a cave system that is the second longest in the Mendips at seven kilometres long. All of this makes the site a fascinating place to visit, especially in spring and summer. But what can you expect to see?
Heavy Metal Fans
Where the soil still has a high lead content, in particular on the remaining spoil heaps, there is some very specialist vegetation. Not only do these plants have to cope with low nutrient levels, but they also have to be able to tolerate the toxic metal itself. Two such species present here are alpine penny-cress and spring sandwort. Both are nationally scarce. However, their tolerance to heavy metals means that old mines are good places to look for them. The most toxic areas support a bryophyte with the common name of lead-moss. This moss, Ditrichum plumbicola, usually grows on bare ground where almost no other species can survive because of the lead levels. Some of the other plant species are genetically altered from their usual forms in order to cope with the conditions. These include thrift and bladder campion.
In areas with less lead content in the soil, the plant species present depend on how wet or dry the area is. The peaty, valley mire sections support plants such as bog asphodel, cottongrass, soft rush and cross-leaved heath. There are also a number of sphagnum mosses, typical of boggier habitats. Drier areas up the slopes of the hill contain bell heather, ling, yellow rattle, gorse, tormentil and lady’s bedstraw. Grass verges full of wild thyme, yarrow, tufted vetch and germander speedwell line the network of footpaths through the site, with a few dog violets here and there. Heath spotted and southern marsh orchids are also present.
A few pines are dotted throughout these drier regions, as well. Typical wetland plants grow around the two ponds. These include common reed, bulrush and soft rush. Willows grow near the southernmost pond and along the bottom of the valley where it is wetter.
In spring and summer, the reserve’s insects are the biggest draw. Butterflies and day-flying moths are abundant across the grassland areas. The small pearl-bordered fritillary is one of the stars of the site. This small but beautiful fritillary is on the wing between June and August and prefers the damper areas of the reserve. The species has declined sharply in England and is now a UK BAP priority species. More common is the large skipper. This striking orange butterfly also flies between June and August. Meadow browns, common blues, marbled whites and ringlets are just a few of the other butterflies recorded.
Moth highlights include a number of day-flying species. Chimney sweepers have black wings, edged with a thin white border, hence the name. Mother Shipton moths, meanwhile, are named after a 15th century Yorkshire prophetess who supposedly had a very pointed chin and nose. A pattern very like a crooked woman’s face is on the moth’s wings. Foresters and six-spot burnets are also present.
The pools attract dragonflies and damselflies, with at least 15 different species recorded at the site. The downy emerald is the most sought-after. Although it is widespread in the UK, it is uncommon in the south-west. Other species here include four-spotted and broad-bodied chasers, along with emperors, ruddy darters and southern hawkers. Damselflies include common blue, azure, red-eyed and emerald damselflies. June and July are the best months to visit for all of these species. A host of other insects are on the site, as well. I saw common green grasshoppers, dock bugs and various hoverflies on my last visit.
Birds and Beasts
Last but not least, Priddy Mineries is home to a number of resident and migrant birds and animals. The two pools between them support good numbers of all three of the UK’s newt species: great crested, smooth and palmate. Great crested newts are our rarest newt species and another BAP priority species as a result of serious declines over the last 40 years. Habitat loss is the main cause so sites such as Priddy are increasingly important. Common frogs and toads are also abundant around the pools. The reserve is also a good place to look for common, or viviparous, lizards on a sunny day when they can be seen basking in the open. The same also applies to grass snakes and adders.
The pools are also a good place to see reed buntings. Some probably stay all year round although they may also disperse to nearby farmland and gardens in winter. In the summer months, sedge warblers breed in the reeds and scrub around the southern pool. They are usually easier to hear than see. They do perform brief display flights from the vegetation, though, from time to time.
Other migrant warblers using the willows and scrub are willow warblers, blackcaps, chiffchaffs and whitethroats. A few tree pipit pairs also breed in the open, grassy areas. Although they nest on the ground, they sing and display from the tops of the few pines dotted about the site. As an aside, the adjacent Stockhill plantation has breeding nightjars and long-eared owls.
Where once humans toiled to extract lead from this landscape, skylarks, tree pipits and warblers now sing. In summer, butterflies, moths and dragonflies fill the air and on sunny days, snakes and lizards bask in the sunshine. Nature has reclaimed Priddy Mineries, and only a few subtle clues are left to its former life. Some of the species present are only here because of that past industry, however, being specially adapted to the high lead content of the soils. This is a site to remind us that there is hope that wildlife will find a way to recover despite our actions.
For more on the history of the lead mining industry around Priddy, see the Historic England designation here.
Having explored mountains, old pathways and the words used to describe the countryside, Robert Macfarlane’s Underland visits a range of underground sites around the world. He starts his journey in the limestone caves of the Mendips and visits Priddy Mineries as part of the trip. Macfarlane is always a wonderful guide and this book is no exception.
This guide to 40 Somerset walks includes a number in the Mendips and one around the drove roads surrounding Priddy. The mineries and Stockhill Wood are easy detours from these, as are trips to some of the numerous Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows in the area.