BELL BANK WOOD
Bell Bank Wood comprises a narrow belt of woodland, located along the eastern side of the A61 Sheffield to Barnsley road. The wood lies approximately 3 kilometres south of the centre of Barnsley and close to Worsbrough Mill and, along with nearby Woolley Bank Wood, forms part of Worsbrough Mill Country Park.
Bell Bank Wood is known from documentary and other evidence to be an ancient woodland, that is, one that has been in existence for at least 400 years. It was once part of a much larger area of ancient woodland, which covered the Rockley Valley and continued eastwards along the River Dove. This much greater stretch of woodland, known originally as Rockley Woods, was an ancient woodland where deer were hunted in Norman times.
Today it is divided into a number of smaller woods; Old Park Wood west of Birdwell, Wigfield and Miller Hill Woods which are split by the M1, Shaw Bank Wood and, on the eastern side of the A616, Bell Bank, with its southward extension of Fir walk Plantation, and Woolley Bank Woods. Adjoining land has been purchased by the Woodland Trust and is being planted as Birdwell Wood so that in the future the woods will once again be joined to form a larger block of broadleaved woodland stretching from Birdwell to Worsbrough Reservoir.
The topography of Bell Bank Wood consists of a steep northwest facing slope in the south, broadening to the north before again steepening as it continues into Woolley Bank Wood, where it forms the steep valley side of the River Dove. The underlying geology is predominantly the coal measures.
The local woodlands have long been associated with iron making. Now buried beneath the M1 is the site of Rockley Smithies, a medieval bloomery where water power was used to power the blowers and hammers. Here local iron and charcoal were used to heat and hammer the iron into a ‘bloom’ of wrought iron.
Nearby, however, is a rare survival. The Rockley blast furnace which stands in the woods near Rockley Abbey Farm, was built between 1698 and 1704 to smelt the local iron ore. It was worked until the 1740s by the Spencer syndicate of ironmasters of Cannon Hall, Cawthorne. The blast furnace, which was first introduced to this country from the continent in 1496, used the strong draught produced by a long chimney to achieve a high temperature. It was therefore possible to actually melt the iron and run it off at the bottom into sand beds to make ‘pigs’ of cast iron.
The furnace used charcoal from the local woods as fuel. It was in 17098 that Abraham Derby developed the method of smelting iron with coke at Coalbrookdale but this method was only slowly adopted in this area and it was not until about 1770 that coke was first used in South Yorkshire. The Rockley furnace may well have been brought into use again in about 1790, fuelled by coke, to produce gun castings.
Blast Furnace in the Woods by Jan Breugel 1610, showing how the Rockley Furnace would have looked.
The Rockley Blast Furnace today.
What survives is the stack with an inner lining of heat resisting sandstone blocks, but the hearth itself and most of the dressed stone outer facings have gone. To the south side is the charging bank which was linked to the furnace top by a bridge.
Near to the
Rockley Furnace, in the same piece of woodland, stands the even more imposing
tall, castellated building of the Rockley Engine House. This is an engine
house which was built, according to the datestone, in 1813, to house a
Newcommon engine which was used to pump water from the nearby iron workings.
Both of these historic structures are now owned by the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society.
Wosbrough Mill A 'Broom Squire'
Besom making was a widespread local woodland craft into the 20th century as besoms, or birch brooms, were indispensable for sweeping flagged floors and yards. The handles were made from young ash or hazel poles and the brooms from bundles of birch or hazel twigs bound with strips of willow. A master ‘broom squire’ could produce ten dozen in a single day!
Although no prehistoric finds have been made within the woods themselves a flint blade, now in Sheffield Museum, was discovered to the south of Bell Bank in Fir Walk Plantation in 1993. The earliest references to the woods refer to ‘Beubanke’ in 1562. It is probable that this refers to the bell pits, shallow coal or ironstone mines, dating from this time. The name ‘Woolley’ is even older, deriving from the Domesday term ‘Wiluelai’ which generally meant ‘a forest glade frequented by wolves’!
There are two significant local features which date from medieval times. The first is the superb St. Mary’s church in the village of Worsbrough itself. This grade 1 listed building still retains a Norman chancel and a vast range of medieval monuments.
The second feature is more enigmatic, consisting of an unusual underground chamber measuring 15 feet by 10 feet by 6 feet with a Tudor-style window in the north wall. It was discovered during the demolition of some 18th century cottages near the mill. The purpose of the chamber is unknown for definite but there was a tradition that the cottages were on the site of a medieval ‘lock up’.
The road from Worsbrough village to the Bridge, which today divides the two woods, was formerly the main road to Birdwell. It seems to have its origins as a medieval trackway. In 1840 the road was rerouted to its present configuration under an act of Parliament, to take it away from Worsbrough hall. The hall itself is an attractive 17th century house with two projecting wings.
Industrial developments in the early 19th century had a huge impact on the locality and the scars of some of these remain, especially in Woolley Bank Wood. About 1840 tramways were built across the River Dove to Bell Ing Colliery, near Worsbrough Bridge, and a branch to the west went past Worsbrough Mill towards the reservoir. The line of the embankment which supported this tramway can still be followed through the north eastern edge of Woolley bank Wood.
BELL BANK WOODLAND TODAY
Bell Bank Wood is a semi-natural woodland and contains some large old trees of oak and ash. Felling for timber and for charcoaling occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries but compared with other woods in the locality the size of the old oaks suggests that timber extraction has been minimal in the last 100 to 150 years. There are a number of superb tall and imposing limes and sweet chestnut trees, several of which have signs of lightning strike damage.
Other trees include holly, rowan and a number of relatively young sycamore of no more than 50 years old, the latter being quite dense in some areas of the wood. Under the tree canopy, there is a prolific growth of young trees, particularly sycamore, together with extensive areas of bramble. The latter is important as a nesting habitat and as an autumn food source for animals and birds.
its age and history, Bell Bank Wood contains many plants associated with
ancient woodlands. In spring and early summer, it also supports a rookery.
Part of the lime avenue leading to Worsbrough Hall
OF THE WOOD
This will entail some woodland maintenance work over the next few years. Sycamore, which is a non-native and highly invasive species, will be controlled so that natural regeneration of the native trees is encouraged. There may be some selective replanting with oak, ash, hazel and holly. Restoration work will also be required on the area of meadow at the northern end of the wood in order to improve the habitat value.
The car park for the Country Park is close to the wood, and the area is also served by public transport.
Other nearby Heritage Woodlands are: