Going underground at Willesley Wood
Willesley Wood is a beautiful site found in the heart of England’s National Forest, which is in Leicestershire . Willesley was one of the first woodlands to be created as part of the National Forest project and is made up of a mixture of maturing woodland, wetland and meadow and has a network of pathways and points of interest to discover.
This area has a rich mining history; the site of the Oakfield Colliery boarders the western end of Willesley Wood. This area has now been landscaped with facilities to allow picnicking.
On the site, the first pit was sunk in 1787 and was worked for over twenty years and then two new shafts were dug. The presence of more coal in the area came as a surprise to the local community, who exclaimed ‘Who’d a’ thought it!’ so locally Oakfield Colliery became known as ‘Thortit pit’. A canal ran alongside the site of the colliery but this has since dried up.
Despite promising beginnings there were many problems at the Oakfield Colliery, with fires and flooding occurring, so changes were made and the site was used as a service shaft, linking it with the Donisthorpe Colliery. The mine was worked until March 1990, at which time the operations were shut down. The site of the old mine shafts can still be located in the meadows, marked out by two concrete mine caps.
Since the closure of the mine the site has seen many changes. Willesley Wood now boasts a diverse range of wildlife species, with over 100 bird species recorded, and trees including black poplar, alder and 3 species of willow. Trees planted more recently include oak, silver birch, willow and cherry.
Whilst visiting the site a member of the public approached the site manager Chris Williams and I. Taking a trip down memory lane, he told us that he came from a family of miners and he had worked down the mine until its closure. This was his first visit to the site since its closure and it was easy to see that it was a very poignant moment for him. He was thrilled to be able to visit the site and see the wonderful changes that had been made.
Woodland Trust volunteers kindly help us at the site as wardens and guided walk leaders.
Thanks to Site Manager Chris Williams and to local historians for the information.
Feature image: Willesley Wood by Graham Fudger