The Environment and Ecology of the Chesterfield Canal

The Chesterfield Canal has been an integral part of the landscape for over 230 years. Its long slow decline has encouraged the development of a rich flora and fauna which is an essential part of the distinctive character of the canal and ultimately makes it an attractive and interesting place to visit.

The Chesterfield Canal Partnership works with specialists from British Waterways, the Local Authorities and the Wildlife Trusts of Derbyshire, South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire to protect and enhance the environment of the Canal and its surrounding landscape.

The Canal Landscape

The Chesterfield Canal runs 46 miles from Chesterfield to West Stockwith on the River Trent. The landscapes through which it flows have strikingly different characters which owe their distinctiveness to both their underlying geology and local history.

At Chesterfield the canal commences on the floor of the Rother Valley. Here the river corridor is relatively narrow, constrained to the south-west by the slopes of Town Hill and to the east by Tapton & Castle Hills. From the site of the original terminal basin the canal crosses the alluvium of the valley floor and, leaving the River Rother behind, takes up a position at the foot of the eastern valley side and just above the natural valley floor – a position which it will occupy for much of its course.

The canal then follows the Valley of the Rother northwards, the valley becoming broader around Whittington. Slopes are gentle and rolling with no surface exposures of the underlying Carboniferous Middle Coal Measures, although there is evidence of former coal mining at several locations along the route. From Chesterfield to Staveley the canal formerly ran through a heavily industrialised landscape dominated by the Coal, Iron, Chemical and Glass industries. The majority of this industry has now closed and the canal now runs through a landscape which has either been reclaimed or is about to be reclaimed.

The surrounding valley side landscape was less heavily industrialised than the valley floor and lower slopes and much of the surroundings of the canal from Chesterfield to Staveley is a mixture of urban development interspersed with pockets of farmland and pasture characterised as “Coalfield Village Farmlands” and “Estate Farmlands”.

The canal then re-enters an urban setting at Staveley. It skirts the northern flank of the town where, at Lowgates, it crosses the low watershed from the Rother to the Doe Lea Valley which it then traverses on a striking earth embankment known as the Puddle Bank. The Doe Lea Valley has suffered considerable mining subsidence and the valley floor has developed a number of shallow ponds or flashes. These are of exceptional nature conservation value and those to the south of the Puddle Bank have local nature reserve status.

The canal then reaches the eastern side of the Doe Lea Valley where it swings south to resume its course along the lower flank of the valley side. It is joined at that point by the former Norbriggs Cutting (branch canal). The surrounding landscape is characterised as Estate Farmlands until Renishaw when the character changes to wooded farmlands.

Renishaw itself is another former iron and coal town now undergoing regeneration. Beyond Renishaw the canal continues a largely wooded course passed isolated farms until it reaches the outskirts of Killamarsh. Killamarsh is an example of a small urban community which has grown from a string of small hamlets and villages along the canal.

At Killamarsh the canal turns due east and ascends the eastern side of the Rother Valley using a small tributary valley. It passes through the coal measures which form the valley crest in the Norwood Tunnel, emerging at Kiveton Park on the Coal measures but close to the western flank of the Permian Magnesian Limestone escarpment.

From Kiveton Park the Canal continues eastwards passing down the dip slope of the Magnesian Limestone escarpment in a steep sided valley, the Broad Dike. The course of the canal is enclosed by dense semi-natural woodlands several of which have Local Nature Reserve status. Quarries along this stretch produced the stone for the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament in the 1850’s and also lime for agricultural improvement on the heavy coal measure soils to the west.

By Turnerwood the valley has become wider and more open but the course of the canal remains largely wooded with only glimpses of the limestone farmlands beyond. Field banks and walls are constructed of Limestone as are the vernacular buildings, with red pantiles being the most common form of roofing.

At Shireoaks the character of the canal corridor changes at it encounters the first of several small former mining villages on the outskirts of the Worksop. It also passes from the Magnesian Limestone to the overlying Middle Permian Marl. The latter is very soft and gives rise to a rolling landscape with few notable topographic features. At Worksop this in turn gives way first to the distinctive red sandstones of the Lower Mottled Sandstone and then, at Bracebridge, to the bright red sandstones of the Bunter Pebble Beds.

As the canal leaves Worksop at Manton it follows the shallow valley of the River Ryton eastwards, occupying a position on the lower southern flank of the valley. The landscape character here is dominated by historic parklands and open estate farmlands. Plantation woodlands, often of non-native species such as spruce, are prominent elements. Hedgerows were common but have largely been removed; fortunately they do survive along much of the canal and together with some small fringing woodlands provide a welcome wildlife refuge.

At Ranby the River Ryton turns northwards towards Blyth and Bawtry. The Canal, however, leaves the shallow Ryton valley and continues eastwards across the Bunter Pebble Sandstones towards Retford. The landscape continues to be open and undulating and dominated by estate farmlands.

Immediately west of Retford the Canal runs along the margin between the Bunter Pebble beds and overlying Quaternary sands and gravels which occupy the Idle Valley. The Canal then crosses the Idle on a low embankment and an aqueduct in the centre of Retford. It then turns northward to follow the Idle valley along the foot of the rolling ridge of low Keuper Marl hills separating the Idle and Trent valleys. The Keuper escarpment, although low, is a significant feature and largely explains why the canal did not head directly from Retford to Gainsborough.

The canal here lies on the boundary of two different landscape characters; to the west the low lying and artificially drained 19th century estate farmlands of the Idle Valley, now marked by extensive sand and gravel extraction. To the east the foot of the Keuper scarp with a string of ancient villages (above the flood level but near enough the River Idle for transport) and areas of fossilised open fields and modern boundaries that reflect open fields.

The Canal crosses fully on to the Marls at Drakeholes where a short tunnel through a spur of the Marls gives access to the south side of the Idle valley without following the valley through its long detour west north and east around Matersey, Scaftwith and Bawtry.

The canal then follows the lower flanks of the northern limit of the Keuper Marl hills past the hill top villages of Gringley on the Hill and Walkeringham. Again the canal lies on a boundary with artificially drained intensive open farmlands below and to the north and enclosed farmland, reflecting more ancient boundaries, “up the hill” to the south.

The canal finally descends onto the Quaternary sands and gravels of the Trent Valley at Misterton and then crosses the same deposits to reach West Stockwith. Here the canal is entirely surrounded by a relatively recent landscape of regular geometric open fields, deep straight drainage dykes and isolated pumping stations. Hedgerows are rare and only a few isolated trees break the horizon.

Ecology

Throughout the entire length of the Chesterfield Canal’s 46 miles, many nationally and locally important species (such as the water vole and great crested newt) are found either in or adjacent to the waterway. As well as individual habitat components such as open water, species-rich scrub and grassy banks, the canal acts as an important wildlife corridor, especially where it flows through areas of intensive agricultural land. It also links other areas of important habitat such as broadleaf woodlands, low-intensity farmland and adjacent watercourses.

The canal provides an important wildlife corridor through the Chesterfield Borough area. It is close to the wetland at Brearley Park, Whittington, which is Chesterfield’s only Local Nature Reserve. The canal, river oxbows, meadows and woodland at Bluebank, between Station Road and Bilby Lane, form a proposed Local Nature Reserve site, where unimproved meadows are currently managed under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. Several wetland County Wildlife Sites are present in the vicinity of the canal, and opportunities for their development are sought by the River Rother Wildlife Strategy Group. Restoration of the canal has brought, and will continue to bring, opportunities for wildlife habitat creation and management along the canal corridor.

Whilst none of the Chesterfield Canal within Rotherham is afforded any statutory nature conservation designation, it does provide an important patchwork of habitats for a range of flora and fauna and is bordered along much of its length by the protected ancient woodlands of Old Spring Wood and Hawks Wood. In addition, a range of locally important natural heritage sites exists along the canal’s course through the Borough.

In Nottinghamshire, the twenty-kilometre section of the canal between Retford and Misterton has been notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its uncommon plant communities. The remainder of the canal through the county is designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation due to its flora and fauna.

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