In the Dark Ages, the area of Fairburn and Castleford was made up of marshland prone to flooding from the River Aire. The ford, which had been used for centuries was not always a reliable crossing when the river was high. We know it caused problems for King Penda’s army in 655 when they fled south following the Battle of Winwoed (Aire), using the Roman Road to reach the river. The Venerable Bede wrote “More of the Mercians were drowned, as they fled, in the river Winwoed, then overflowing its banks – than had fallen by the swords of the Northumbrians.” As the struggle for the north raged on between the Saxons and the Danes, the Danes were recorded as attacking King Eadred at ‘Chesterford’ as they retreated across the river.
Later, in 1069 William the Conqueror was held up for three weeks at the river on his march to York because the Brotherton marsh and the area of the now reserve was inundated. When the Domesday Book was written, the village was named Fareburne and held by Saxon chief Ligulf, as was neighbouring Ledsham. The land, as with much of the area, was owned by Ilbert de Lacy. The manor at Newton was held by a man named Haelward – a Scandinavian name.
In the 12th century the monks of St John at Pontefract – then known as Kirkby, were granted much of the land at Fairburn and Ledston, including fishing rights along the river. By 1159 the Walleys (Wallis) family owned Newton Abbey – sometimes referred to as Newton Priory, a moated manor house, and did so for at least the next seven generations. (Although now surrounded by a lake, the moat and manor house ruins can still be seen today.) During this time, Fairburn itself was owned by several families including the de Farburns and the de Burkins. It was not always the peaceful place it appears to be to visitors today – in 1212 Symon the village teacher was allegedly murdered by Nigel de Farburn. Apparently, Nigel had sworn to take vengeance upon Symon after he had previously drawn a dagger on him. Sources say “Nigel de Farburn was appealed by Ranulph, son of William Young…. that being in a certain ship with Symon, to cross the water of Eir, he took the said Symon and threw him into the water so that he perished.” Nigel never admitted the crime.
The marshland was drained sometime in the 17th century for farming and the area became more agricultural as a result. Also around this time quarries began to appear to take advantage of the local alabaster and magnesium limestone. The alabaster was apparently of excellent quality – being able to be used for funeral monuments as well as for plaster. The limestone was ferried along a canal which is known as ‘the cut’ on the reserve.
The 18th century saw coal mining take place under the area which is now the reserve. The miners dug a network of tunnels with pillars of coal left in place as supports. The mining began to cause subsidence and by the turn of the 20th century it had begun to show by the increased areas of open water and marshland – the land starting to return to its original form once more. Swans and wildfowl began to frequent the area. The maintenance of the canalised river began to prove difficult and in 1913 the Calder Navigation and Wheldale Coal Company agreed between them to build slag banks along the northern bank of the river right from Wheldale all the way to the railway viaduct. As subsidence continued and the areas of open water expanded, the coal board decided that the land was fit only for tipping and Fairburn Ings became a giant spoil heap, the largest in Europe. The hills where the birds nest are not a natural feature but created by men with dumping trucks full of mining waste day after day.
The pools and lakes created by the subsidence were going to be filled in by the coal board’s spoil, but as many waterfowl had become attracted to the area there were calls for it to be made a nature reserve. This was achieved in 1957 thanks to volunteers such as Bob Dickens and Dr Pickup.
Bob Dickens was a school teacher from Buckinghamshire who taught maths and rural studies at Crewe Road Secondary Modern School in Castleford. His enthusiasm for nature had been with him his entire life, growing up as a farmer’s son, and this enthusiasm was contagious to his pupils who loved his relaxed and friendly manner of teaching. Dr Doug Pickup was a paediatrician at Pontefract hospital, who despite having a huge case load and responsibilities in his medical career, still found the time to be a keen naturalist and bird watcher. As fellow enthusiasts, they managed to persuade the West Riding County Council and the National Coal Board to designate the area as a nature reserve. Another volunteer, Charlie Winn was one of the very first rangers. A welder by trade he was also a dedicated nature lover who spent years protecting the reserve from poachers. He visited and enjoyed the site his whole life.
The three men, along with other volunteers planted tens of thousands of trees on the spoil heaps such as silver birch, alder, Corsican pine and oak saplings. In 1968 Fairburn Ings became an official bird sanctuary and was looked after by volunteer wardens until it was taken over by the RSPB in 1976. By the late 80’s much of the lakes had been formed by more subsidence and the local mines all closed between 1985-1992.