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


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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 pale lemon shades dazzle against a backdrop of dull, brown spoil heaps and grey industrial features. In summer, the yard is a wildflower meadow of honey-hued hawkweeds mingling with purple clovers and ox-eye daisies, whose immaculate snow-white ray florets and egg yolk-yellow fractal centres glow amidst delicate clouds of quaking grasses and masses of sticky cleavers.

DITCH, STREAM BANK OR COMPRESSED AIR CYLINDER? In the damp and shady nooks around a rusty compressed air cylinder, parachuted seeds cling to gaping Rosebay Willowherb capsules in fluffy, floaty masses. 


Coal, Collapse, Colonisation is my illustration and interpretation project inspired by the visual beauty of physical decline at Hemingfield Colliery and by the pioneering plant species colonising the decaying buildings, walls, headgears, shafts, tanks and spoil heaps of the site during the current period between its industrial life and its proposed regeneration into a mining heritage centre.

It is important that these resourceful, enterprising plants and their diverse habitats are observed, researched and recorded because they will inevitably be lost as the site is cleared, the archaeology is unearthed and the buildings and industrial features are repaired and conserved.


FIELD, HAY MEADOW OR ABANDONED VICTORIAN COLLIERY?  Field Poppies are just one of the many plant species colonising the abandoned colliery yard, which has resembled a country hay meadow this summer. 

COAL, COLLAPSE, COLONISATION:  How the Collapse of Industry at Hemingfield Colliery has Facilitated Colonisation by Nature

Since the collapse of industry on the site, the colliery has suffered years of abandonment, periods of vandalism and outbreaks of fire, which have all contributed to its physical decay. This degeneration has created a variety of plant habitats, allowing many species of beautiful and fascinating flora to thrive.

In the damp and shady nooks and crannies around a rusty compressed air cylinder, tiny parachuted seeds cling to gaping Rosebay Willowherb capsules in fluffy, floaty masses, before being whisked away on the wind to colonise other areas of the site.


COUNTRY HEDGEROW OR COLLIERY BOUNDARY WALL? Common Hogweed is a typical hedgerow plant that has flourished around the collapsed walls of the abandoned colliery.

Through shattered, slate-grey tiles that have fallen from the winding house roof, Herb Robert flowers poke their delicate, pink heads. Common Ragworts add welcome splashes of sunshine-yellow to the jet-black, fire-charred roof beams of the switchgear building onto which they cling. The sticky stems of Cleavers smother unslighty metal scrap heaps and Woody Nightshade plants scramble over rubble, swathing the cold, grey stones in garlands of dazzling, red berries.


ROCKS, SCREE OR FALLEN, SHATTERED ROOF SLATE? Spiralling spikes of Ribwort Plantain poke through shattered slate roof tiles that have fallen from the winding engine house. 

As a host of plants establish themselves, splashing their striking beauty on a canvas of umber and sepia, Coal, Collapse, Colonisation explores how the collapse of industry on the Hemingfield Colliery site has facilitated this colonisation and looks at how the decaying buildings and industrial features are emulating natural plant habitats.

CAVE, GORGE OR PUMPING SHAFT?: How the Decaying Buildings and Industrial Features Resemble Natural Plant Habitats

The cracks and crevices in the crumbling concrete winding headgear have been utilised by hawkweeds. Since a fundamental constituent of concrete is crushed limestone, this lofty feature has qualities comparable to a limestone cliff, which is one of Common Hawkweed’s natural habitats.


SOARING MOUNTAIN SLOPE OR WINDING HOUSE ROOF? The elevated inclines of the winding engine house roof are home to several Mountain Ash trees. 

Similarly, the winding 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 Hart’s Tongue Ferns to its damp and shady depths. Woody Nightshade plants have found the collapsed boiler house chimney an attractive place over which to clamber. This particular species of nightshade also thrives on stony beaches and so the boiler house rubble, with its constituents of sandstone and pulverised cement, in some ways resembles this natural habitat.

Many of the other tumbledown buildings and walls have species of chalk and limestone flora taking root in their disintegrating mortar. Nineteenth-century mortar is a mix of lime, loam and, sometimes, straw and cow-dung or coal-dust, so these enterprising plants may be taking advantage of this nutritious mix as the buildings weather away.

COAL, COLLAPSE, COLONISATION: Project Aims and Constituents

As the changing seasons transform Hemingfield Colliery into an impressionist painting of colour, light and movement, offering a vivid illustration of nature’s ability to reclaim a man-made environment and utilise it to advantage, I am studying the enterprising plant species colonising the different areas and features of the site.


FIRE-SWEPT FOREST OR ARSON-DAMAGED BUILDING? Common Ragworts cling to the fire-charred roof beams of the switchgear building.

The project will comprise of a series of informative illustrations of plants through their entire life cycles, highlighting the qualities and features which enable them to populate and thrive on and around the decaying industrial features of an abandoned Victorian colliery. In the photograph below, I am working on an illustration to show how Hart’s Tongue Ferns are able to survive in the cold, dark, cave-like pumping shaft.

I aim to take Coal, Collapse, Colonisation to a series of exhibitions. I hope that it will help to raise awareness of the important and varied research and restoration work being carried out by the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery, as the site is renovated prior to being opened to the public as a mining heritage centre and a tribute to the lives of the Victorian miners and their families.

My first major exhibition with this project is in June 2017. Please watch this space for more details!

Amanda Willoughby – March 2017


As well as working on Coal, Collapse, Colonisation, Amanda has been helping the Friends of Hemingfield Colliery with clearance work and archaeological excavation on the site since April 2015. She has also contributed to several FoHC working day blogs. 

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