With the easing of lock-down restrictions, I am once again able to take the dog for a walk in a nearby nature reserve, a place called Wingate Quarry. The quarry itself is a rare ecosystem–a magnesian limestone grassland–and is home to a number of equally rare flowers, butterflies and newts. Of course, my dog couldn’t care less about all of that. He’s only interested in wide, open spaces with plenty of room to run and lots of exciting smells and rabbit holes to stick his nose into.
For me, however, the quarry is a little more complicated. Located near a couple of small villages and a somewhat busy road, it is definitely not a place where I can escape the crowds and delight in hearing a lark’s song freed of the brutal accompaniment of humanity’s ceaseless noise. When splendid isolation and the beauty of seemingly untouched nature are my primary desires, there are other places nearby that better fit that bill. No, the thing that really draws me to the quarry is its honesty.
That’s right, honesty. Wingate Quarry isn’t some woodland trollop, painted in silky green and promising virginal forest, native wildlife and an ecosystem untouched by the hands of men, all while opening its cafe and gravelled paths to the ravages of every school bus and screaming family that happens by, so long as they hand over a few quid for parking. Nor is the quarry a polished park with manicured lawns, shrubbery trimmed in the latest fashion (ooh, look, Japanese cloud-pruning!) and an artificial lake, complete with a veneer of “wild” ducks that eat bread crumbs out of your hand.
Wingate Quarry—my quarry—makes no pretences. It doesn’t hide its flaws behind family-friendly attractions or flirt about with displays of exotic species. That’s not to say, however, that it doesn’t put on its best show for the punters. The quarry is filled with swathes of wildflowers, the somehow joyful braying of donkeys (there’s a donkey rescue centre next door) and more butterflies than I’ve ever seen anywhere else.
But even while the quarry is seducing you with its natural charms, it doesn’t conceal its scars. At every twist and turn, it happily reminds you that, at some time in the not-too-distant past, it was a working quarry, a place where people blasted open the hillsides to extract limestone. Sure, it dresses up its wounds with sequins of flowering hawthorn and wild roses. But it also proudly displays the marks of its industrial past.
And that is only the beginning. Like a good book, Wingate Quarry offers something new every time you visit it. You might come across a cow pasture covered in bird’s-foot trefoil and, before you can wonder why cows are grazing in a nature reserve, you find yourself laughing out loud in pure joy at the sight.
Or, if you have a keen eye for archaeology, you might spot one of the literally millenia-old (as in somewhere between 3500-3000 BCE) barrows that dot the nearby hills and fields.
And again, before you can question how a nature reserve fits in with farming and thousands of years of human habitation, you might be distracted by a lovely bit of bird song:
Many of you, of course, will have noticed the quiet sound of traffic that underpins that recording. I find it a supremely fitting accompaniment to the music of the birds. It is as though the quarry sings with an accent born of its mixed heritage–both natural and human. It doesn’t pollute the blackbird’s song with the lie that it is somehow more pure and natural than the cooing of the pidgeon that built its nest on my neighbour’s satellite dish. Instead, the quarry celebrates the fact that it is in equal parts home to stone-age burials, harebells, Victorian industry, great crested newts, windmills, marbled-white butterflies and dog-walkers.
When I first discovered the quarry, this mélange of rust and roses disturbed me. I didn’t enjoy seeing chunks of concrete amongst the underbrush or dodging cowpats as I walked across a pasture. But like a ripe cheese, I’ve come to delight in the quarry’s more pungent aspects. There is something oddly homely, in every sense of the word, about seeing an old piece of machinery poking out from amongst the brambles and six-spotted burnets. That touch of something human makes me feel like I belong here, like I’m just as much a part of this place as the birds, bugs and flowers.
That is what I find so special about the quarry. It breaks down simplistic, binary divisions between humanity and nature and focuses attention on our evolving relationships. It blurs the sharp boundaries drawn on maps–great crested newts on one side and wheat fields on the other–and lets life flow in all directions. It welcomes all of us, both saints and sinners, into a post-industrial Garden of Eden.