‘From coal tips to willow tits’: Greater Manchester’s new post-industrial nature reserve | Hiking holidays

Dducks, geese and swans congregate at the lakeside of Pennington Flash. They crowd around me, perhaps hoping for food, although I don’t have any. Nearby is an ice cream van, with an early morning customer, but the birds don’t get a cone from me. I wouldn’t share it.

Soon, however, the refreshment options will improve – although I would advise against offering the wildlife a white dish and a Danish pastry. Beyond the ice cream van, work continues on a £2.7m Wigan council project due to open in January, providing a new visitor center and outdoor terrace cafe where visitors can sit and savor views of the lake, woods and wildlife.

After further public consultation, the facilities will also include a nature-themed, wheelchair-accessible children’s play area with a central “lake” for toddlers that will be a play equipment area on the pattern of swans and boats.

This ‘flash’ in Pennington is one of several around Wigan and Leigh, west of Greater Manchester, which have recently been designated by Natural England as part of a new National Nature Reserve (NNR). Now called the Flashes of Wigan and Leigh, the eight sites cover over 800 hectares (1,976 acres) and also include Wigan Flashes, Lightshaw Meadows, Amberswood, Bickershaw Nature Park, Three Sisters, Viridor Wood and Low Hall. They have been recognized for their natural beauty and ecological importance, and most are examples of nature reclaiming former coal mining areas.

Pennington Flash Nature Park

“Lightning is created when, over time, land previously used in industry subsides and water fills the space,” says Mark Champion, project manager at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, which will manage the reserve. in conjunction with Wigan Council and Forestry England. “Nature and wildlife eventually follow. If you will, it’s a case ranging from coal spikes to willow tits. »

Across the new NNR, swamps, reedbeds, grassy marshes, swamp meadows and wet forests are home to a range of birds, including around 2% of England’s willow tit population. Wintering bitterns, considered rare, are also frequent visitors.

“It won’t be your last visit,” says David Molyneux, Wigan’s leader of council, turning his face to the surprisingly warm October sun and joking: “It’s always like that here, very Mediterranean.”

I meet Molyneux and Champion before exploring Pennington Flash, wanting to discover an area that is both green and easily accessible for locals. “Wigan is one of the greenest city boroughs in the UK,” says Champion. “The word urban is important because this area is not the same as a place like Cornwall. It’s a bustling, populated area, but it’s still 60% green space – and that doesn’t include city or town parks.

Currently, the eight sites receive approximately 800,000 visits per year. Molyneux, a major advocate for the reserve, hopes this will increase and visitors will gain a better understanding of conservation and the environment.

“It was a proud moment to get this recognition, and something we had worked hard for for many years,” he says. “The Flashes have been our borough’s best-kept secret — known and loved by locals but not necessarily on people’s radar further afield. Now we are proud to share this secret with the world.

A willow tit on a twig
A willow tit at the new nature reserve

Molyneux is aware that NNR status is also a springboard for further improvement at the sites, each with its own identity and range of activities: Amberswood is important for birdwatching; at Wigan Flashes, spoil and ash from the mine allowed orchids and evening primrose to thrive; and at Viridor Wood there are cycle and horse trails and a fishing lake.

“NNR status gives us a platform from which to educate and inspire future generations and tell the story of these landscapes. It also puts us in pole position for additional funding to address the twin grand challenges of our time. : nature restoration and climate change,” said Molyneux.

I walk along a lakeside path that was once the route of the Great Central Railway but is now laden with trees and strewn with bird skins. I could take a detour to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal and its heritage trail, but instead I circle the lake, occasionally looking at where I met Champion and Molyneux. Even in the early autumn sun, I appreciate that it’s not the Mediterranean, but the blue water and the green, amber and russet of the trees make for a dazzling sight – and I still have seven other wonders to explore.

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