Statement of Significance

The Dearne Valley is a distinctive and special landscape. Whilst not formerly acknowledged as an Area of Outstanding National Beauty it contains spectacular views, varied countryside, nationally significant heritage, large expanses of wetlands and significant social history.


The Dearne Valley is a distinctive and special landscape. Whilst not formerly acknowledged as an Area of Outstanding National Beauty it contains spectacular views, varied countryside, nationally significant heritage, large expanses of wetlands and significant social history.

It is an area that belies the perception some may have of it as a post-industrial, damaged landscape. It is an area that has seen the rise and fall of industry, with the fall leaving many scars physically, socially and economically. The area and the people are resilient though. It is an area that is constantly changing, but doesn’t forget or hide its past. These changes create what is special about the Dearne Valley.

Statement of Significance

Much of the opportunity highlighted already is brought together within the Statement of Significance produced by the ecologist Professor John Rodwell during 2011. It states that:

“The Dearne Valley is an intimate landscape of ups and downs.  Its corrugated topography of alternating brows and vales offers a journey with constantly changing perspectives on the wider scene, the river coming as a surprise at the heart of the place.  And the fluctuating fortunes of its economic and social life, past successes and declines over many years, have bequeathed us a landscape of challenge and opportunity now.

It was out of its underlying rocks that the wealth and renown of the Dearne Valley most recently came but the heavy industries of iron and coal were only the latest of the forces that have shaped the lives and livelihoods of the people there and left their marks on its landscape.  Before them came trades in linen, wool and leather, and an agricultural economy deeply rooted in the farmland that still forms the backdrop to the place.

The historical reach of peoples’ belonging in the Dearne valley is ancient, many of its present towns and villages being of Saxon or Viking origin, settlement still recognisable in their distinctive place names, and its older built heritage is medieval, boasting places of national significance like Conisbrough Castle and Monk Bretton Priory and numerous striking churches, mills and yeoman farms, often hidden now in the sturdy familiarity of later industrial settlement.  With the demise of heavy industry, it is also possible to see emerging once more a fabric of landed estates with their great gentry houses and follies.  And there is an opportunity again to appreciate the surviving industrial heritage of colliery headstocks, brickworks and canal basins.  Celebrating afresh this continuity of time and place is essential for the future.

Farmland, stretches of woodland, fragments of heath – this scenery is already enhanced by the new open waters, reedbeds and marshland that have been created from mining subsidence flashes and regenerated colliery sites.  With existing allotments, parks and gardens, and the trails being opened up along abandoned rail-tracks and canal-sides, these can provide the basis of a revitalised green infrastructure to the Dearne Valley.   Widely dispersed in the familiar landscapes of everyday lives, there are new opportunities for people and wildlife to find themselves in the same place and to celebrate distinctive features of nature and culture together.  This sense of ownership and of the well-being of both communities and environment needs to be at the heart of socio-economic regeneration.

Though the RSPB Old Moor and the wetland nature reserves at the core of the Dearne Valley is rightly renowned as a national destination for the quality of its habitats and its outstanding wildlife, there is less appreciation, even locally, of the potential the wider landscape could have for helping communities rediscover a sense of identity and self-confidence after a difficult period of readjustment.  Also, though regeneration of the post-industrial landscape has been a priority of successive governments, there has not been a holistic approach to integrating environmental outcomes with socio-economic goals across the region.

Keynotes for assuring the future of the Dearne Valley will therefore be to reveal its hidden treasures far and wide across its landscape and to make connections here and now – connections between people and the particular places where they live and work and take their recreation; connections between different places that can be seen again as belonging together in the wider scene.”

Significance and the Landscape Character Assessment

The Dearne Valley is a unique and inspiring landscape, where post-industrial, natural and built environments have regenerated together.  New roads, buildings and settlements are interspersed by lakes and ponds, vibrant rivers and streams, biodiversity, woodlands and grasslands, all of which are full of resurgent wildlife. The landscape is criss-crossed by trails, often following old railway lines and canals, which have a remarkable sense of peace and detachment, despite a proximity to surrounding urban centres.  The River Dearne flows south-east through the valley, surrounded by a semi-rural landscape with farming being the main land use in the valley bottom.

It was out of its underlying geology that the wealth and recent renown of the Dearne Valley sprang.  The Dearne was home to coal mining and associated industries which had a profound social, economic and environmental impact.  The fluctuating fortunes of its economic and social life, of past successes and subsequent declines, have bequeathed a landscape of challenge and opportunity and have hidden much of the built heritage, environment and biodiversity.

The Impact of Industry

The Dearne Valley has a history as a centre of coal mining in South Yorkshire which has had a clear impact on the landscape. Mining subsidence has created a series of ings (water meadows and marshes). Reed beds and wetlands were filled with spoil and many of the former spoil heaps have been landscaped and these create a distinctive “reclaimed” landscape. This has also left a legacy of former pit heads, colliery buildings and related structures.  Mining, along with other industries including glass manufacturing, ironmaking, and textiles in effect turned the River Dearne into a waste disposal system with very little consideration for the environmental and social cost. The environment became something on which people turned their backs.  With the demise of industry large swathes of the Dearne Valley were little more than a ‘moonscape’; devoid of biodiversity and vegetation.

The Dearne Valley has been shaped by its industrial past, creating a unique mix of settlements, rivers, built heritage, biodiversity, woodlands and grasslands. The historic importance of the area derives from its geology in particular the coal seams and the resultant industry and wealth.  The modern importance of the landscape is its post-industrial character.

The Landscape

The Dearne Valley has undergone a remarkable recovery over recent years. The industry and associated economic activity, which has so negatively impacted on the land and waterways, has also provided the opportunity for a remarkable recovery.

Farmland, woodlands and heath fragments are enhanced by the new open waters, reedbeds and marshland that have been created from mining subsidence flashes and ecologically regenerated colliery sites. It is this ecological regeneration and post-industrial development that make the Dearne Valley unique in England with a wealth of heritage and stories to reveal. The natural and built environments wrap around each other, giving a rich interspersed mosaic of built and natural elements in close proximity. There is a clear link between making a step change in biodiversity / habitat and economic regeneration.

Natural Heritage and Biodiversity

During the period between the Romans and the Norman conquest of Britain, the Dearne Valley area must have been a fantastic scene of forest, small villages, grazed clearings and marsh. The River Dearne which provided life for the small human occupation and for the wildlife would have offered clean water then and as now flowed from its source at what is now Birds Edge on the edge of the Pennines.

The surrounding natural habitats around the river would have provided food for the people living in this area. Wildlife would have been abundant with Deer, Wild Boar, Brown Bear, Pine Marten and Red Squirrel in the woodlands and Otter, Salmon, Brown Trout and Eel in the River Dearne. Bird species would have been abundant and wide-ranging with Wildfowl, Raptors and many other species that could probably be comparable with some countries in present day Eastern Europe but unfortunately many now extinct here.

Moving forward through the Norman period, on through the “middle ages”, the War of the Roses, the Civil War, the industrial era of the 18th and 19th centuries, the decline of the industries in the mid-1980s and to what we have now. There was a vast change to the landscape of the present Dearne Valley area over that period of time but from a habitat and wildlife point of view always a downhill slide of change and extinctions.

There is now a much changed landscape in many areas and particularly from the industrial days. There are remarkable remnant habitats that survived the destruction. New habitats were created with species such as Otter Lutra lutra and Bittern Botaurus stellaris re-colonising areas and new emerging species such as Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta and Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus breeding.

There is a need to continue to re-create the habitats lost centuries ago where possible and link these habitats throughout the Dearne Valley area to create a wildlife corridor effect that will link existing isolated species, provide biodiversity, attractive to incoming species and to provide sustainability to these species.

The knock-on effect will be a pleasant landscape to work in and for leisure purposes. It will be a pleasant landscape for new businesses and initiatives but importantly it will provide further tourism to this area and expand what RSPB Old Moor has created.

How the Landscape has Been Shaped

Emerging from this history, there is the opportunity to again appreciate the surviving built industrial heritage of colliery headstocks, brickworks, canal basins and railway embankments, bridges and viaducts.  The industrial heritage, which underpins the environmental regeneration, is the means by which people can be reconnected to their natural, cultural and industrial heritage.  A network of disused colliery lines runs along the length of the valley, while many Rights of Way (RoW) survive uninterrupted by the industrial era.  Indeed, many of these RoW were routes to work for miners, along which the present day walker can retrace their steps.  Remnants of the Dove Dearne Canal and towpath survive.  These legacy structures of pathways, disused railways, bridges and embankments provide a rare opportunity to establish a valley wide access network to a connected revitalised green infrastructure of habitats (heathlands, grassland and woodlands) and wildlife.

Archaeological, Built and Industrial Heritage

The scale, range and quality of the archaeological and built heritage is clearly demonstrated in the heritage audit carried out in the area and provided in support of the LCAP. The 704 entries clearly illustrate the statement that every generation has left traces of their lives. Sometimes these traces are positive additions, sometimes they are negative scars. What they all show are that the Dearne Valley is a living, breathing landscape. The map on the following page shows the distribution across the area by period – this is extracted from the heritage audit. This clearly demonstrates the wealth and range of heritage spread across the area. What this also shows in graphical form is the concentration of buildings and structures from certain periods. The sweep of prehistory can be seen from the east to the north, with a concentration along that corridor. Industry can clearly be seen developing along the line of the River Dearne.

Much of this heritage is hidden, whether that is physically, or through a lack of awareness or knowledge. Exercises such as the heritage audit though are starting to make the hidden apparent.

The earliest settlers have left traces through their field boundaries or enclosures. The movement of the Romans across Europe and through England are clearly evident in the Dearne. This untold story is ripe to telling and discover with the opportunity to capture people’s imagination. The pre-industrial history is evident in Darfield and Bolton-on-Dearne with Saxon stonework within the churches. In the extreme east of the Dearne you have the medieval Conisbrough Castle and the extreme west the remains of Monk Bretton Priory. In the area between you have traces and remains of every generation since.

The Dearne was transformed by the rise of industry driven by the seams of coal running through the area. Coal wasn’t the only industry as there was also iron smelting, glassmaking and pottery with the resultant structures and buildings needed. Rockingham Pottery and Kilner Jars were internationally famous and were produced in the Dearne. Mitre footballs used in the FA Cup final were made in the Dearne. Tin plate toys, for companies such as the Disney, were produced in the Dearne and went all around the world.

What marks the Dearne out are the stark contrasts. Therefore within 5 minutes’ walk of the medieval Monk Bretton Priory you have Barnsley Main Colliery dating first on site in 1824, but most recently altered in the 1970s before closure in 1991. This was listed as Grade 2 in 2013 and is the only remaining standing pit headgear in the Dearne. It is now a symbol of mining in the Dearne and sits as an object in the landscape.

The Fitzwilliams created Wentworth Woodhouse but also created the villages of Wentworth and Elsecar to house their workers. Elsecar, which were workshops for the mines of the Fitzwilliams were also a demonstration of their wealth, with their own private station. Elsecar remains today as the Elsecar Heritage Centre, a mix of heritage, retail and food. This is also home to Elsecar Heritage Railway, a steam railway operated by volunteers.

The themes that clearly come through from the heritage audit are pre-industrial, Romano British, Medieval and industrial through the ages. There can be very few areas that have this rich and intertwined mix.

There are castles and evidence of castles at Conisbrough and Mexborough. There are military remains from the civil war and World War 2. There are follies at Hoyland Lowe Stand, Hoober and both Wentworths. There is industry in all its forms in ironworks, mining, glassworks, brickworks and pottery. There are miners’ cottages and some of the grandest stately homes in the country.

The 14 conservation areas, 15 scheduled ancient monuments, 249 listed buildings and the only Grade 1 listed landscape in South Yorkshire show clearly the impact of the people, industry and social changes from earliest times. The DVLP provides the chance for these stories to be told to a wider audience and new chapters found.

Historical Significance

The impact of the Romans is evident across the area. If as Professor Joann Fletcher suggests there are mummified remains in the Dearne then this could potentially change our understanding of the Romans. Even if this isn’t the case then the Dearne was at a crossroads of east-west (Halifax to London) and north-south (Rotherham to Pontefract) routes. This is mirrored today with the proximity to the M18 / M1 intersection.

The Fitzwilliams of Wentworth Woodhouse had an international influence, as clearly documented in the bestselling book Black Diamonds. This book charts the rise and fall of the estate and the family taking in industry, education, coal and the Kennedys.

The miners’ strike of 1984 began in the Dearne at Cortonwood and the impact remains. This site captures the decline of industry and changing times – Cortonwood is now a retail park including Morrisons, B & Q and Boots. The personal impact also lingers with some personal disputes remaining 30 years on depending which side of the strike they were on.

Cultural and Human Significance

There are strong writing connections to the area both through poetry and prose. Some of Ted Hughes’ earliest writing was about the area with “The Thought Fox” and “The Rain Horse”. Ian MacMillan – the Bard of Barnsley – was born and still lives in Darfield. Barry Hines the author of A Kestrel for a Knave was born in Hoyland Common. He wrote The Price of Coal about life as a miner. His TV play Threads looked at survivors of the nuclear holocaust in Sheffield. He is best known for “Kes” the film directed by Ken Loach, filmed extensively in the Dearne. The image of Billy Caspar sticking two fingers up remains an image used in posters, car stickers and t-shirts. Brassed Off illustrated the despair shown in mining communities as they faced the decline of the industry and the impact it had on their lives. What is clear is that the Dearne Valley – its landscape and its heritage is the inspiration for a range of writers, performers and creative people and that continues to this day. Whether it is the picturesque landscape, the historical remains or the gritty industrial buildings, they all have shaped the cultural activity in the area. It should be remembered that there is also light hearted culture. For example the Mexborough Concertina Orchestra, formed in 1884, won national prizes and was one of the top four concertina ensembles. They broadcast on the radio, produced records and continued until 1978. In recent years a new band has formed to continue the tradition. It is these hidden cultural gems that the DVLP will look to discover and nurture.

Importance to Local Communities

As part of the Audience Development Plan and Community Engagement Strategy detailed consultation took place within the Dearne. This included online surveys as well as 40 face to face street interviews. This clarified and confirmed what the Dearne means to the people of the Dearne in terms of local identity and pride in the area. A full copy of the document is provided in support of the LCAP but what comes through clearly is people’s love of wildlife, greenspace, trails, heritage and being outdoors in the Dearne.

When asked, the majority of people (44%) said that wildlife reserves were the things they liked to visit in the Dearne. This was followed by rivers, lakes, ponds and canals (17%), trails and walks (13%) and heritage / visitors centres (10%).

When asked what they like about the area people said nature and wildlife (35%) followed by peace, quiet and clean (15%), walking / dog walking (12%) and children’s play / safe (11%).

People were asked what the Dearne meant to them and the responses were mining / industrial dereliction (18%), wildlife sites and nature (13%), new industry and roads (13%), lakes and rivers (10%) and rural / cleaner / green space (10%).

The aspects of history and landscape people were most interested in were wildlife, followed by industrial history, natural history and local history.

As well as empirical analysis consultation report also provided statements. A sample is included below:

‘Green space with a lovely café’

‘Contact with wildlife and friendly people’.

‘Safe for kids, easy walking’

‘Fishing, peace & tranquillity, see kingfishers, woodpeckers’

‘Strong family connections going back four generations. We all have enjoyed the site in its many different stages from a boating lake to making a real difference to its present state so our village can be proud of it.’

‘I’d like something on mining history didn’t know about Barnsley Museum’

‘Old houses, all history’

‘Relative told me stories it will never die’

‘Getting out and exploring it’

‘I recall the dereliction and the filth that represented the Dearne Valley in the past … a remarkable change.’

‘An area that has changed dramatically over the last 10 – 15 years, from an area of industrial dereliction to a much cleaner, greener place to live and work.’

‘Large area proud of its industrial past but enjoying its ever greening sites and trails.’

‘Open green space, regeneration, new housing, large factories’

‘Some lovely bits of countryside, but marred by call centres, lack of resources and aspiration.’