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Working in the Urban Design and Heritage department at Bristol City Council, my brother Pete has done a lot of digging (sometimes literally) into the history of Bristol’s various neighbourhoods. One he has recently been working on is Speedwell in east Bristol. This area once had a number of small coal mines, part of the Kingswood Collieries. During a casual conversation one day about its history, the two of us wondered if Speedwell’s plant life reflects its industrial history at all.
The fact the area shares its name with the common family of flowers added to the allure of a proper investigation on my part. Urban wildlife and the ways nature manages to thrive in some of our most industrial landscapes also fascinates me. So, earlier this year, I set out to explore this part of Bristol with a view to finding out how Speedwell’s plant life revealed its history. This post is the result of that deep dive into Speedwell’s botanical character. It adapts a version I put together for Pete and the council’s Speedwell Story of Place project.
Speedwell’s Industrial Past
It is hard to imagine now, but there were once a number of coal mines in Bristol. The Easton, Ashton, Bedminster and Kingswood areas all had mines. The three biggest pits in Speedwell were Deep Pit, Belgium and Speedwell. Narrow seams meant the mines in Bristol generally weren’t as profitable as larger, easier to work ones in Wales, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Nevertheless, mining extracted coal in Speedwell between the early 1700s and closure in 1936. There were also coke works and brick and tile factories. A locomotive manufacturer operated at the nearby Atlas Locomotive Works, now the derelict Strachan and Henshaw tower block. Since then, the area has been largely redeveloped, and there is little evidence of its past. Industrial estates, residential development and playing fields now replace pits, factories and the railway line linking these to the country beyond.
The Age of Steam
I paid two visits to Speedwell, one in early-April and a second in mid-May. I followed the same route both times. The walk began on the Bristol and Bath Railway Path near Greenbank Cemetery. This was once the route of the old Midland Railway which linked Bristol to Gloucester and beyond to the north, as well as Bath via the junction at Mangotsfield. Coal for the steam engines was once supplied by the nearby pits. Housing now bounds this section of the path on the northern side, with a large industrial estate to the south.
Young hawthorn trees have been planted to screen some of the newer housing next to the path. There are also some fairly young hazel, ash and rowan trees. Otherwise, cow parsley dominates the vegetation bordering the old railway, with hogweed, garlic mustard, dandelion, lesser celandine, cleavers (otherwise known as goosegrass), herb robert and sow thistles also present. Most of these are hardy plants that appear fairly early on in the process of ecological succession following some form of disturbance, in this case human development. All are happy to grow in a range of habitats and soil types, especially the fast-growing cow parsley. A few garden escapes interspersed these including some white comfrey, a UK native but not particularly common so likely to be a cultivar in this instance.
I left the path not far from the site of the old Kingswood Junction. This linked the pits and Atlas Locomotive Works to the Midland Railway via a goods only line. Climbing a short footpath up a bank constructed from the cleared debris of Speedwell’s former industries, I headed towards Speedwell proper. As well as historic waste, the cut-through was full of modern litter large and small. On my second visit, four large piles of discarded cable insulators covered one side. Presumably, once someone had taken the valuable wiring out, the outer coating was of no use so simply dumped in this out of the way spot.
Despite the rubbish, there was lots of vegetation along this short path. I recorded sycamore, ash, elder and hawthorn trees. These likely self-seeded. Cow parsley, cleavers and herb robert were again fairly dominant. Fittingly, I also found my first speedwell of the walk, the dainty ivy-leaved speedwell. This is actually a non-native species, although introduced before 1500AD. Other plants in this section included some lords and ladies (also known as cuckoo pint), ivy, common ragwort, groundsel and nettle. Lords and ladies is a shade-loving plant of woodland and hedgerow but is also able to establish in urban environments. Ragwort and groundsel are common urban pioneer plants, happy to grow on disturbed ground.
Industry Old and New
The area at the top of the footpath that links Speedwell and the railway walk is now a large industrial estate. It contains a range of businesses from superstores and carpet warehouses to car dealers and garages. Knapp Lane, one of the roads running through the estate, once divided houses and a clay pit on one side from Deep Pit and its slag heaps on the other. Incredibly, some of these slag heaps were present until the 1980s. Inevitably, this area has seen lots of upheaval, with a lot of building work. Apparently, though, some of the mine shafts were never completely filled in and are only superficially covered to this day.
This continual disturbance as the area underwent successive waves of development means that the dominant plants are again those traditionally first to move into new habitats and able to cope with concrete and waste ground. Common ragwort, herb robert, common chickweed, sticky mouse-ear chickweed, bush vetch, groundsel, dove’s-foot cranesbill and creeping buttercup lined the pavements as I walked through the estate. The non-native ivy-leaved toadflax was also growing on some of the walls.
I saw a couple of non-native shrubs by one set of buildings. These included a Darwin’s barberry, discovered by Charles Darwin in South America. It was first cultivated in the UK in 1848 and first recorded in the wild in 1892. Popularly planted by roadsides, this may have been put here in an attempt to make the otherwise industrial setting more attractive, although birds also spread its seeds. As an interesting aside, researchers are currently testing chemicals in its bark in relation to the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Atlas Locomotive Works
As I snaked through the many warehouses and lockups, I reached Foundry Lane. This is named for the large locomotive works that once stood on the opposite side of this thoroughfare from Deep Pit. The works opened in 1864 as Fox, Walker and Company before becoming Peckett and Sons, Atlas Engine Works in 1880. As previously mentioned, a goods line linked the works, along with the pits, to the nearby Midland Railway. Demand eventually dried up however, and the company built its last locomotive in 1958. More recently, Strachan Henshaw Machinery Ltd, manufacturers of printing equipment, owned the building.
It then consisted of an office block and a single story works area. The plant closed in 2000 when the company went into receivership. Following that, it was divided into a number of smaller, commercially rented units. Three fires and some nefarious goings-on later and it is now empty, supposedly awaiting redevelopment. Typical plants of disturbed ground are now colonising the derelict site. These include common ragwort, buddleia, creeping buttercup, rosebay willowherb, dandelion and there were even some young sycamore saplings behind the fencing. A lone silver birch stands outside.
‘The Longest Bar in the World’
Across Deep Pit Road from Strachan Henshaw is a building still displaying a Courage sign outside although it is now just a residential house. The Rock House Tavern was an off licence, or beer hall, rather than an actual bar and so only served alcohol to take out. According to Fred Moss in his book City Pit: Memoirs of a Speedwell Miner, miners heading to the afternoon shift or those heading home from the morning one stopped off here to buy beer. If the weather was nice, they would sit and drink in a long line on the bank running along a nearby lane that connected Deep Pit Road and Holly Lodge Road. Apparently, this custom led to the lane being known as the Long Bar. Fred Moss even joked that it might be ‘the longest bar in the world!’
What is interesting about this lane is that for the first 40 or 50 metres, a dense patch of stinging nettles dominates one side. Nettles are often a sign of previous human activity. They love the phosphates that human and animal waste, rubbish, fires and bone produce in the soil. Is this dense patch of nettles a very visual reminder that for a number of years, 20 or 30 beer-drinking men would regularly be relieving themselves in the bushes directly opposite where they sat and drank? I can’t help but think so.
As well as the nettles, the lane was thick with cow parsley and cleavers. There was also bramble, herb robert, ribwort plantain, sow thistle, garlic mustard, ivy, nipplewort, hairy bittercress, common chickweed, groundsel, and dandelion. Once again, these are largely pioneer plants of disturbed ground. Non-natives included Spanish bluebells and garden grape-hyacinth. Trees included hawthorn, elder, hazel and some young horse chestnuts. Approximately halfway down the lane was a small clump of gorse. Whether someone had started planting this as some sort of screen or it had arrived as seed in transported soil isn’t clear. Nearby was one of the many non-native cotoneaster species that have become established in the wild in the UK. Birds usually spread them when not planted deliberately.
An Oasis of Green at Coombe Brook
At the end of the lane where it meets Holly Lodge Road is the entrance to what were once quarries for the brickworks in the area. These survived into the 1960s. They have now been filled in completely to make playing fields, some of which are used by Whitehall Rugby Club. To the east of the fields is a small, narrow nature reserve, Coombe Brook Valley. A stream known locally as the Gossey runs through it. This brook eventually connects to the River Frome near the M32. Houses bound the reserve on either side. Some of the gardens come right down the steep valley sides on the northern boundary.
The cut-through to the playing fields was full of cow parsley, nettle and bramble. Although the playing fields themselves are uniform grass, on my May visit there was an area of unmown ground near the reserve that was full of meadow buttercups. The dominant grass was meadow foxtail, a common grass of moister soils.
At the entrance to the reserve, where the tree canopy was thinnest, was some burdock and hogweed. Substantial amounts of cow parsley lined the descent into the valley. This open area was full of insects when I visited in May. Speckled wood butterflies, marmalade and Syrphus sp. hoverflies plus numerous fly species were all out in the sunshine. There were also singing blackcaps and chiffchaffs on this second visit. The descending path was also where I found my first ancient woodland indicator species of the walk, pendulous sedge. This plant favours damp woods with clay soils. Ancient woodland indicators are plants that typically prefer older, well-established woods and so show where woodland has likely been present for some time.
A tributary with an extremely red streambed joins the brook at one point. I’ve since been told that this was probably originally a drainage channel from Speedwell Pit. I’m not sure if mineral deposits or the surrounding clay cause the colouration. According to Bristol Avon Rivers Trust, however, it has much lower levels of phosphate and nitrate pollution than the main brook.
The reserve’s trees consist mainly of sycamore, hazel, oak (probably sessile rather than pedunculate), hawthorn, holly and rowan. As I followed the brook through the reserve, I saw garlic mustard, lords and ladies, common dog violet, herb robert, wood avens, hogweed. I saw my second speedwell of the day here, wood speedwell, one of our native speedwells. I also found some more ancient woodland indicator species. These were ramsons (or wild garlic), primrose and common bluebell, although non-native Spanish bluebells outnumbered the latter. The nearby gardens mean there are more garden escapes in the form of cotoneasters. Along the sides of the brook were lesser celandine, hart’s tongue fern and male fern.
Climbing out of the reserve brought me to Whitefield Road and a largely residential area. The only remnant of the old colliery railway that linked into the Midland line is a bridge abutment on this road. The road also passes the Speedwell Allotments and the site of the old swimming baths. These closed in 2005 and were demolished to make way for flats in 2019. Back on Deep Pit Road I passed some interwar housing, built in the 1920s when there were just 10 – 15 years left for the mines.
My walk ended at the end of Deep Pit Road, an area called Crofts End. This neighbourhood is now a mix of Victorian housing built for the mine workers and new flats and houses. Some of the new estate roads and closes record the area’s former history with names such as Colliers Court, The Tileyard and Brickworks Close. I made a short detour to the Crofts End Church, built in 1895 to serve the mining community. It became known as the Miner’s Mission as a result. The church is still active with a lively coffee shop attached. Back where Deep Pit Road becomes Rosegreen Road I neared the site of what was once Crofts End Farm.
Here I found two last little oases of green on opposite sides of the road. Two large verges had been left unmown by the side of some of the modern industrial estate buildings that cover the pits. Numerous plants grew here. Cleavers, common chickweed, herb robert, common ragwort, rosebay willowherb, white dead-nettle, red dead-nettle, ribwort plantain, meadow buttercup, hedge mustard, dandelion, shepherd’s purse, dove’s-foot cranesbill, spear thistle, goat’s-beard, annual mercury, groundsel and various grass species were all recorded. There was also some non-native red valerian. Unsurprisingly, most are again common roadside and disturbed ground species, quick to colonise after periods of disruption.
Happily, I also found two more species of speedwell, bringing the total to four. Common field-speedwell is a non-native species first recorded in the UK in the early 1800s and likely spread via crop seeds. The final speedwell found, germander speedwell, is native to Britain.
Speedwell’s History and Plant Life
Speedwell’s flora reflects the dramatic upheaval it has undergone since the pit closures of 1936, rather than the coal mining period itself. The majority of species present are pioneer species, ones that quickly establish in disturbed and seemingly unpromising ground. Many are able to eke out a living surrounded by concrete and in a variety of soil types. These include herb robert, sow thistle, dandelion, annual mercury, groundsel, common chickweed and cleavers. They have all moved in during each wave of new development as the sprawling industrial estate replaced the pits.
Where there is more soil, on verges and besides the railway path, fast-growing plants like cow parsley and hogweed dominate. Close to residential areas there are also a few garden escapes including Spanish bluebells, cotoneasters and garden grape-hyacinth. Apart from the reserve, the only concentrations of trees were in the cut-through linking the railway path to the industrial estate and along the Long Bar. Sycamore and elder were the most common species. There was also hawthorn, ash, rowan and some young horse chestnuts.
The Coombe Brooke Nature Reserve was the only place I found plants reflecting the area’s earlier, pre-industrial character. Ancient woodland indicators such as common bluebell, ramsons and pendulous sedge, plus the oldest trees by far, show that this tiny oasis has probably been wooded to some extent for at least 400 years, despite the industry encroaching on it.
It should probably also be mentioned that it is likely that many of the plants I saw on my walk round the streets and industrial estate were so visible and growing so well because of cost-cutting measures from the local council. As local authorities receive less funding from central government, an easy cost-saving measure is carrying out less verge cutting and less weed killing of pavement plants. In addition to saving money, this also helps in other ways. We are in the middle of climate and biodiversity crises. Leaving plants and verges to grow can help combat both. Not only does more vegetation in built-up areas keep towns cooler, help store carbon and prevent flooding, but our struggling invertebrates can find food, which in turn helps larger organisms too.
Fittingly, I found four species of speedwell, two native, two non-native. Sadly, though, I still don’t know whether the area was named for this lovely blue genus, once given as a good luck charm to travellers to ‘speed them well’ on their journey, or for some other reason…
Following my visits, Pete created a beautiful story map as part of Bristol City Council’s Speedwell Story of Place project. View the map here.
There is much more in-depth information about Bristol’s coal-mining industry from the Bristol Historical Association here.
Fred Moss’ book, City Pit: Memoir of a Speedwell Miner, is out of print but there are second hand copies available online.
Cal Flyn’s incredible book explores many different types of abandoned places. Chernobyl, disputed borders and old battlefields all feature. She also describes how nature is recolonising former sites of heavy industry. While Speedwell hasn’t been abandoned by any stretch, there are many similarities between some of the ecological processes it displays and those Flyn describes.
Richard Mabey is one of our greatest nature writers. In the 1970s, he set out to explore what he called the ‘unofficial countryside’. He encountered a surprising wealth of wildlife at tower blocks, car parks, inner city canals and sewage works. The conclusion is that life is abundant in the most unlikely places. The book aimed to get us seeing the world in a different way, to notice the life around us.
Edgelands is a more up to date call to explore those places we wouldn’t typically look for nature. Much of our urban landscape has changed even since the 1970s. Like Mabey, though, the authors show that waste ground, industrial estates, retail parks and landfill sites are all full of much more wildlife than we give them credit for, if only we look properly. With more of us living in urban centres than ever before, these areas might be the closest we get to nature.
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