They were like images from hell. Bulldozers descended into smoking pits 150 feet deep to demolish mountains of colliery waste. In some cases the ‘bings’ of derelict mines were still burning at temperatures of 1000°C as diggers, chained together for safety, worked their way slowly but surely round six redundant pits in the centre of Fife.
When the diggers finally retreated nine years later they had turned four blighted square miles of slurry, empty buildings and waste-land into green and gently rolling countryside. A toxic pit pond left by mining subsidence was now a sparkling loch at the heart of Lochore Meadows Country Park.
“A lunar landscape was transformed into living countryside,” says Dallas Seawright, Countryside Ranger at Lochore which is edged by the towns of Kelty, Balingry, Lochore and Lochgelly.
Thirty years on the rare butterfly orchid grows among wild flowers on the thin layer of topsoil covering flattened bings, and woodlands stand where 12 inch tall trees were planted. More than 450,000 visitors come each year for water sports, woodland walks and a chance to learn about natural history. In place of mines the country park supports a wealth of birdlife as well as 50-60 jobs in conservation, outdoor education, management and administration. Altogether, by boosting local tourism Lochore contributes an estimated £2.5 million to the local economy each year.
Rising out of the ruins of the coal industry, Lochore Meadows Country Park is a monument to the vision of the late Maurice Taylor, former director of planning in Fife, who set about reclaiming the devastated environment left by pit closures in the 1950s and 60s. Long before Cornwall’s Eden Project, this was regeneration on a hugely ambitious scale – one of the first and biggest of its kind in Europe. The massive task of levelling mountains of spoil (the local ‘bing’ is the Swedish word for ‘heap’) began in 1967 and finished in 1976.
Now Dallas Seawright is using the 30th anniversary as an opportunity to remind people how much has been achieved at Lochore. In his 15 years at the park he has seen young plantations of native trees grow tall. His responsibilities include restoring an area of ancient woodland, co-ordinating a team of volunteers and running workshops on traditional rural crafts, coppicing trees and laying hedges. Meanwhile social changes are happening in surrounding towns and villages.
“As more and more miners fade away, school children don’t have much connection with mining. Perhaps a few coming here have great grandfathers who worked in the mines but most of them don’t even have coal fires – and there is no memory of that utter dependency on coal.”
Instead Lochore has a loch for swimming, fishing and sailing, a nature reserve full of wildlife – and the reinforced concrete pit-head of the old Mary Colliery to make sure the area’s long mining history is not forgotten.
If you haven’t already been, Lochore is well worth a visit: for birds, bees, bluebells and wild flower meadows. But if you are driving up the M90 note the irony of the huge new open cast mine scarring the countryside near Kelty. Another area of paradise suspended for future generations to reclaim?