I went out for a walk yesterday. Nothing unusual about that, I go out for a walk everyday. I left home and walked the short distance down the hill, across the small field where the council never got round to building a playground, through a decrepit gate and onto the path that led me to somewhere that I have long taken for granted, but have come to appreciate much more during the last year.

That path, known to us as ‘dog shit alley’ because of the prevalence of such substances before the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust took in on and made it a more pleasant and accessible place to go a few years ago. I digress, the path is like a sort of liminal space that takes you onto Woodhouse Washlands itself, it removes you from the suburban everyday to a more rural and peaceful setting that packs a lot in to its 53 hectares… over 60 species of birds for starters.

There’s a nice description of the place on the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s website here, but I more wanted to reflect on why this place has become more special to me over the last year. Just to be clear, even before that it was a lovely place. It was the place where I picked most of my jam blackberries in the late summer, where I took many a misty sunrise photographs in the Spring and Autumn, where I have sat by the River Rother that dissects it and thought deep thoughts, where I have tried my best to do some running, and where I have pushed prams, bikes and kicked balls over the last decade that I have lived here.

But the last year has been different, because the Washlands became part of my much reduced universe as the pandemic hit and we were advised to stay local and keep journeys to a minimum. It became something of a hallowed ground, almost an extension to the garden to explore and relish… and certainly an escape.

The River Rother on Christmas Day 2020

I have such fond memories of this place over the last year… of the many faces and aspects of this little corner of South Yorkshire. In Winter it was a favourite place with our boys who, when no one else was watching, had fun breaking ice in the many small ponds that formed after a very wet spell in January… in fact it was the only place we could persuade the eldest one to go on some days… and even then not until it was late. But those night walks had their own magic and serenity to them, and enabled us to see a different side that we would probably never have otherwise witnessed…

This was enhanced by the fact that we had snow for the first time in several years… transforming what had become a familiar landscape and providing much needed variety at a time when we were otherwise locked down. So while a ‘snow day’ did not mean no school in the world of online learning… it did at least mean something different.

But that variety did not just extend to the seasons… the types of habitats in this relatively small area is amazing with hedgerows, flood lands, grazing, ponds, streams and the River Rother running straight through it… a waterway that reflects so much of what is going on around it through flood and trickle… with the little island in the middle housing a nesting pair of swans in the summer, and being completely submerged at times in the winter… and again this week after heavy rains. It is so wonderful to just walk along a river just five minutes from our house. It might be the same 1-2km of river but it has been an endless source of wonder, contemplation and relaxation over the last year…

The Washlands, however, do not only mark the wonder of nature but also our industrial heritage with two old mining wheels acting as handy places to sit along the well maintained paths that run through the place, together with a couple of viaducts which provide their own beauty and carry the Sheffield to Lincoln line along them. Seeing the trains roll alone these have been something of a sign of hope for me… a sign that the outside world still exists… and a reminder than, at some point, we will be travelling again…

On the viaducts, as well as on the road flyover at the South end of the area, have sprung up all sorts of interesting graffiti which, for me, further enhances the area and makes walks even more interesting… there is such a range, some of it reflecting the times that we live in. So while I would abhor vandalism to the habitat itself I think this street art only adds to the beauty of the place when on these human-made structures. This is my favourite…

Then there’s the bulls… a constant during three seasons of the year making their own mark on the area… I love the way that they just stroll across the river (they now have their own ramps) and can pop up at any part of the Washlands. They are occasionally a little bit scary… but add to the general atmosphere to the place and remind me that this is somewhere that is integral to the broader area with its own ecosystem.

But if I had to decide which is my favourite part of this beautiful little place is… I would have to say the tree near the Furnace Lane entrance… it is the thing that I see most as I walk past it on early morning walks and see it in all its glory whether with a backdrop of mist, sun, different coloured skies, or even water (see at the top when the Washlands were flooded in 2019). It somehow has such a majestic and commanding shape to it, whether bare…

…or with leaves…

…and added to that I also has a strangely surreal quality because of the fallen log that acts as a bench for people underneath its commanding boughs…

I like to think of it as something Henry Moore might have produced and love how it seems to take on different forms from different angles… another detail that has come to mean more to me as I have examined it over the last year, but which is not the only surreal bit of wood in the place…

Woodhouse Washlands, then, have been an absolute lifesaver over the last year or so… a year when the horizons of our being were considerably narrowed, and we were forced to retreat into our localities. I feel fortunate, no privileged, to have has such a place so close to our home… a place that we have been able to escape to and explore… a place that is more than the same four walls of our house… but a place which, even now, we are find new things about. It is a place of constant change thanks to nature, and to the wonderful work of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and it is a place that I will always hold dear in to my heart.

To find out more about Woodhouse Washlands, or donate to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust (or set up a monthly direct debit like we do) click here.