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Can you keep geological and botanical perspectives simultaneously in your mind? I was sitting on a piece of rock looking out over the North Sea, in Durham, northeast England, with Hartlepool’s Victoria Dock visible to my right, and a string of Durham colliery towns to my left. More precisely, I was sitting on a very old piece of Magnesian limestone, part of a small patch of this rock formed between 250m and 290m years ago by the repeated filling and draining of the inland Zechstein sea.
Not only is the timescale difficult to imagine, so is the fact that the piece of rock on which I sat was once situated not just above the temperate 54th parallel, but, I was told, in the tropics – before continental drift moved it 30 or so degrees of latitude to the north.
Geologists must be attuned to the shifting nature of the ephemeral world. But I must admit that the geological perspective makes me feel queasy. I prefer the botanical one, measured more in months than millions of years.
Botanically speaking, I was sitting not so much on a piece of Magnesian limestone as a dense matting of grasses, flowers and thistles (not very comfortable, those thistles), growing on the thin layer of topsoil covering the ancient rock.
Or you could just say I was sitting on some grass above a cliff looking down over the strand and the sea, with huddles of herring gulls, curlew probing the sand, a cormorant flapping low a little way out to sea, and a kestrel showing its chestnut back briefly between the clifftop and the beach.
My guide from the Durham Wildlife Trust, botanist Mark Dinning, would have none of that.
For him, this patch of grass, and others like it that stretch in a narrow band from Northumberland down to Nottinghamshire, is very special. Look closely at the tangle of grasses and you’ll find a remarkable variety of species. The lovely purple flower with the reddening leaves is the splendidly named bloody cranesbill; the small yellow blooms are common rock-rose; and there are pale-blue harebells – one of my favourite wildflowers – nodding their graceful heads. You can also find sea spleenwort, sea plantain, betony, and devil’s-bit scabious.
This variety is not only fine and beautiful in itself, it also supports a great diversity of insect and bird life. The common rock-rose, for instance, is the main food plant for the decidedly picky caterpillar of the very rare Northern Brown Argus butterfly.
We didn’t spot a Northern Brown Argus at Blackhall Rocks but we had more success at a site nearby, a little way inland. You might miss the entrance to Bishop Middleham Quarry nature reserve from the road; and then, on a cursory inspection, see an unspectacular cavity in a modest hillside, now grassed over. But this is one of the best sites in the country for the rare, beautiful dark-red helleborine orchid – we spot scores of examples of this spectacular deep crimson flower, together with many other orchids – as well as the tiny but exquisite Northern Brown Argus, with a row of orange spots around the fringes of its brown wings.
Now we need another perspective, to add to the geological, botanical and lepidopterist’s ones. This is the perspective of industrial archaeology. In 1936, Bishop Middleham Quarry was an ugly scar on the landscape, a long deep gully of hacked-out rock. You would not have imagined that anything would grow there again, not for hundreds of years, and certainly not dark-red helleborine orchids. Much more recently, Blackhall Rocks was the dumping ground for an active colliery.
Mining waste was simply shoved out into the sea, from where it was flung back on the beaches, covering them in low-grade coal, which became the focus of an active local foraging trade. The Turning the Tide project, from 1997 to 2002, has removed more than a million tons of colliery waste from the coast, and restored the beaches to something close to a pristine state.
Both of the sites I visited demonstrate nature’s remarkable powers of recovery. We come back to the two perspectives I mentioned at the beginning. The geological one reminds us of the immense age of the earth and the astonishing changes it has gone through and will continue to go through, so instilling a certain humility; perhaps the current convulsions of the Anthropocene era will one day seem as remote as the draining of the Zechstein. The botanical one, though, makes us aware of its fragile beauty and the interconnectedness of the ecosystems that support us, as well as other species.
But this is about people as well as nature. The work of Durham Wildlife Trust would be impossible without the tremendous, selfless enthusiasm of scores of volunteer workers, who put in 500 hours a month looking after 31 reserves. There is also surely potential for eco-tourism, in a former industrial wasteland that now blooms with a multitude of wild flowers, to which rare butterflies and birds return.
More columns at ft.com/eyres