Distance: 1,500m. Direction: NE - SW
It starts (or finishes) at a permitted path running along the Sandy – Everton parish boundary from Stone Lodge, at the entrance to the Pym’s Everton Park, into Deepdale (TL 192498). From its name, it suggests that it was the gallop part of the ride out when residents of, or visitors to, Hasells Hall and Sandy Lodge needed a bit of exercise. To the northwest you can see Deepdale Tree Nursery, which grows a wide selection of ornamental and fruit trees. A baffle mound, a two-metre high embankment of topsoil scraped from the field, has obscured views to the south in recent years. There are extensive sand workings behind it. Gravel pits on the heath were used in the 18th and 19th centuries for filling in the ruts in the roads caused by the wheels of carts and coaches.
The “gravel” was found close to the surface of the Cambridgeshire Lower Greensand, a sedimentary deposit laid down from about 120 million years ago. The Greensand Ridge stretches from Dorset to Norfolk. When it was discovered that the “gravel” on Sandy Heath was the same material that was being worked in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire the landowner arranged to exploit it. It was not gravel but a bed of coprolites, phosphate-rich fossils, in places up to two metres thick, which was used from the early-1840s as a raw material in the manufacture of fertilizers. Ground to a powder and dissolved in sulphuric acid, it produced a water-soluble compound called “superphosphate” – the world’s first artificial fertilizer.
The heath, known in the 19th century as the ‘Hill Estate’ or ‘Sandy Warren Estate’, was sold by the last male descendant of the Monoux family of Sandye Place. The 1,500 estate had been in the family’s possession since 1685, was auctioned. The heath and open woodland was bought in 1851 as a country retreat for Captain William Peel, the third son of Robert Peel, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and founder of the Police Force. When he died from injuries suffered in Lucknow, India, in 1858, it was inherited by his brother. Arthur Peel, the MP for Warwick and later Warwick and Leamington, lived in the Swiss Cottage, the lodge at the entrance to the RSPB. When the tests he had done on the local ironstone showed that its iron content was too low to be worked economically, he was pleased to be informed that there was a much more valuable deposit found below much of the estate. He arranged to have the coprolite exploited in 1864. William Colchester, a Suffolk manure manufacturer, won the contract and engaged a manger to supervise the diggings. Over the next three decades or so the diggings progressed across most of the heath, towards Everton and across Potton towards Wrestlingworth. The average royalty was £40 per hectare (£100 per acre) and Peel was able to put the proceeds towards the construction of Sandy Lodge in 1870. Other landowners cashed in on the profits to be made but, as in many other parts of the country, by exploiting child labour. In 1866 there was concern about young children and the poor working conditions in agriculture. Rev. J. B. James, the rector of St Mary’s Church in Gamlingay, provided fascinating details of what was going on in a report he provided to the government commissioner in charge of the investigation.
"The coprolite diggings in our neighbourhood have occupied very many of our boys, many of whom earn at them 8s. and 9s. a week, which is more than the farmers can give them. "
50. Mr. Coulson. - "Girls of 7 years up to 18 years are employed in the coprolite works. The work is taken by the piece; they get a sum per ton for picking over the fossils. A girl of ten years would earn 7s. a week by day work, but much more by piece work. The state of education among them is very low; some can read, hardly any can write. The parents also are very uneducated. This and the adjoining district of Polton [sic] is a gardening tract; children are much employed in large numbers in peeling onions and such like work. I have seen gross cases of immorality and indecency, even among the smaller children, at leisure moments at the coprolite mills when waiting for the carts, and have heard much bad language, which is readily learnt by the young from constantly hearing it round them. The foremen do not check them. The sexes should be separated at the mills, by means of different sheds, or even by separate mills for boys and girls. In one instance the foreman keeps a public house, where the wages are paid, and the men and children are allowed to have as much drink as they like during the week on credit, and the money is deducted on pay night. These children have no time for learning, except in the evening."
(Beds. C. R.O. CRT 160/140 Parliamentary Papers 1867-8 XVII "1st Report of the Commissioners on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and others in Agriculture". pp. 343. 506,518)
In 1871 the census reported 44 fossil labourers in Potton. By 1878 there were at least six pits in operation in the area, enough to prompt a report in the Bedford Times of 1878. which gives fascinating details about all aspects of the industry.
BEDFORDSHIRE COPROLITE DIGGINGS
Around the quiet and quaint old town of Potton, there has been carried on for the last ten years an industry that in many parts of the country is quite unknown. Men have been engaged in digging into the earth for a product, the use and purpose of which is scarcely known to one in ten of those engaged in raising it. In the mist of an October morning, I accompanied some scores of men, women, boys and girls to Sandy Heath, on the estate of Mr. A. W. Peel, M. P. where the fossil pits are situate. The men and boys, mostly carrying shovels and pickaxes, are dressed in corduroy, which, by contact with the sand in which they work, has become a sandy colour
At Deepdale, hillocks of stone, the refuse of coprolites, are seen in the fields. The fossils have all been dug here and the pits are now situate on top of the hill, which is of red sandstone formation. The land from which the coprolites are taken is usually hired by contractors at prices varying from £100 to £400 per acre. The coprolites being taken out and the earth replaced, the land is left in a state for cultivation, and instead of being injured in the process, is, in many cases, improved. So much so that where the digging is being carried on now, crops will be growing luxuriantly.
The refuse stones are sold for road-making and realise about a shilling a load, while the smallest stones, or currants as they are called, are used for gravelling paths. Many thousands of loads have been carted from Deepdale and Sandy Heath during the last few years, and it is estimated that in the parish of Potton some 200 acres of land have been turned over for coprolites, besides a large quantity of land at Sandy Heath, Everton and on the estate of Sir John Burgoyne at Sutton. But the fossils on the sand land are of a softer and inferior nature to those found in clayey deposits. Some specimens [sic] of the remains of the Ichthyosaurus and the Plesiosaurus have been found in the red sandstone formation, while remains of inferior orders of reptiles and mammalia are abundant.
TWO FEET THICK
The coprolite is layers or beds about 18 in. to 2 ft. in thickness and at a depth of 5 to 10 ft. from the surface. The land being cultivated for gardening purposes and the topsoil is carefully removed and placed in heaps. A sort of gully or trench 8 ft. wide is dug out, and the coprolites are wheeled in barrows to another portion of the ground where a cylindrical sieve is fixed for the purpose of freeing them from the sand. This machine, which is worked by horse power, is a round cylinder of sheet iron, perforated with holes of a quarter inch diameter and placed horizontally in a tank of water, the cylinder being half submerged. The drum of the cylinder is two ft. in diameter at the larger end and 1 ft. at the smaller and 10 ft. in length.
The fossils are put in at the larger end, and as the drum revolves the smallest stones and the sand fall through the holes into the water tank, and the larger are carried along by a screw arrangement, and emptied at the smaller end into barrows. When these are filled they are wheeled by men into the sorting sheds where women are engaged in sorting. These sheds, 28 ft. long by 8 ft. wide, have on each side a bench, separated by partitions with room for one woman to work.
The fossils being largely mixed with sandstones, it is necessary that they should be removed before they are ready for market. The fossils in their mixed state, are emptied on the benches and sorted, the stones being thrown onto the floor and the fossils passed through a hole at the back of the benches into a box outside. They are then wheeled into heaps ready for sale.
14 FT. DOWN
The sorting, or picking, of the coprolites is an important part of the process. At the pits upon Sandy Heath, the coprolites are about 14 ft. from the surface, and the vein is about 2 ft. thick. Instead of being, as in most pits, in a loose form, the fossils here resemble a rock of the plum pudding stone, and are so hard a substance that they cannot be broken by a pickaxe.
The method of blasting used in the coal pits has to be resorted to. A hole is drilled through the bed of coprolites, and a charge of 2 lb. of pressed gunpowder is exploded by means of a fuse. This loosens the fossils, and breaks them, partially, from the sandstone. They are then sifted and broken again by a hammer and wheeled to the washing machine, from which they go to the picking sheds. After the first process of picking, the refuse is carried to a heap and burned with slack coal. The fire pulverises the sandstone, and they are sifted, washed and sorted again, the process being repeated until every fossil is removed.
The men engaged in the pits are as good specimens of English labourers as could be found - none of the lazy lookers-out for Saturday night, who care not how little work they do, as long as they get their wages, but strong and hearty workers who work with a will. The work being all piecework, none but those who can and will work would find more than temporary employment here. The occupation, though it must tax the strength and endurance of the men, does not prevent them enjoying their pipe, and when I told one of them that I should have thought the work would have been too severe to permit of smoking, he informed me that it was the greatest comfort he had while at work, unless it might be when he had a “bit for the tooth.” I heard no complaints as to the lowness of their pay, although they never average more than 2s.9d. per day; but my reference to the tobacco brought forth a strong expression of feeling with reference to both that article and beer. One of the number, a most intelligent man, entered into a discussion, which lasted some considerable time, without his once leaving off work. He said the magistrates were very down on any poor chap who had a drop too much beer, and some of them thought the men ought not to have tobacco. “Look here, sir,” said he, “I can’t read nor write, and, after a week’s work like this, I like to go to the public house on Saturday night and hear what’s going on, and if I do get a drop too much it’s the only comfort a poor man has. I don’t mean getting a drop too much is the only comfort, but going into company now and then, and having a pint of beer with his mates.
Now there’s Mr. ---- (alluding to a gentleman residing near); he would not like to be at work all day and go home night after night and sit and watch his wife put the kids to bed. He invites his mates to dinner, and they drink their wine, and I should not wonder if they get tight sometimes, but, if they do, go home in a carriage, and the bobby don’t see them; but I can’t invite my mates to come and see me, for I can’t afford it. If I get tight I have to walk home, and if the policeman sees me I have to go to Biggleswade and pay ten bob for it, and I don’t think that fair.
The operation of sorting the fossils is somewhat interesting and the rapidity with which it is done is marvellous. The stones are always kept wet, while being sorted, and to keep the hands of the sorters warm, a fire-basket is hung at every table. As there are twelve of these baskets in the sorting house, the temperature is always warm.
The girls amuse themselves at work by singing, and the whole vocabulary of melody, from the ‘Old Hundredth’ to ‘Tommy make room for your Uncle,’ is regularly gone through in the course of a day.
BUILT A SCHOOL
When the digging of coprolites first commenced on Mr. A. W. Peel’s land, with thoughtful consideration for the welfare of those engaged in the work, he built a school, and employed a schoolmaster so that during meal-times such instruction as the limited time would permit, should be imparted to all those who cared to avail themselves of it.
Hot coffee is also supplied to the work people, by the person in charge of the room, at 1d. a pint, and there are also books, papers and periodicals. Since the passing of the Education Act, children are not employed, and the services of the schoolmaster have been dispensed with, but a man is always in attendance. The cost of digging, sorting etc. ranges from 30s. to 40s. per ton, and at the pit on Sandy Heath, between 30 and 40 tons are produced weekly.”
(Bedfordshire Times, May 18th 1962. from an original article in 1878)
Other evidence came from an interview Ivan O’Dell, the Bedfordshire historian, had with a Mr. Munns of Potton in about 1950. His article, ‘A Vanished Industry’, published in the Beds Magazine, included the following account:
“Born in 1867, Mr Munns began work in the coprolite pits at the age of ten and carried on, intermittently, until about 15, doing at one time or other every job, as he thought, that the industry comprised. He says that work was begun by trial borings to ascertain the presence of coprolites. Excavation began by removing the first four feet or so of top soil, then removing the underlying strata in steps four feet deep by two feet wide along the selected face. This system was to prevent falls of soil or rock. The depth varied: he worked in a pit which went down 25 feet; in other areas it was not necessary to go much more than five feet deep. The layer immediately overlaying the nodules (“stones” Mr Munns called them), was marked out by pecking out recesses at regular intervals to expose a series of blocks. The blocks were undermined with a pickaxe, clearing the nodules at the same time, and levered loose with crowbars. A man was stationed on a higher step to watch for cracks and give warning of danger, for there had been cases of fractured limbs and partial smothering.
The nodules, which varied from quite small to several inches long, were picked over by hand, and taken in skips to be washed, which was done in a large pan, with the aid of a horse to turn the machinery. The nodules were fed in through a hopper, and came out at the other end. The “slurry” or “Slough” as he called it (the dirty washing water, now creamy with clay), was run off to lower ground. The work was piece-work, the men having to work hard for their one pound or so a week. He himself had barrowed away top soil dug by a labourer, and had been paid at piece-rate rates by the labourer.
Men or women, or both, worked in specially built sheds, picking over the nodules and putting them into trays for weighing. Then they were taken, a ton at a time, to Potton railway Station. Re-soiling took place after excavation, and very little sinking in the land level occurred.”
(O’Dell, I. (1951), 'The Vanished Industry,” Beds. Mag., pp.31-2)
Over time the seam became exhausted, too deep to be worth exploiting or beneath an iron pan cover that required blasting. Heavy rain caused pits to fill up and required expensive pumping. The 1894 Quarry Act required pits over 8 metres deep to have strict health and safety rules and regulations which further added to the costs but the main reason why the diggings ceased was increasing foreign competition. Large-scales phosphate operations got underway in South Carolina in the 1870s which eventually flooded the European market.
When the diggings ceased the land was gradually restored for farming. Machinery was sold or scrapped, some was just pushed into an open pit and covered. Tramways were lifted and disposed of but local farmers report snagging their ploughs on old rails in places. Some archaeological evidence of the diggings has been found, wooden frames of coprolite trucks and a variety of iron plates from a washmill. A bone found in the pit was identified as the broken metacarpal of an iguanodon’s claw.
In the 1960s interest in the sand was rekindled as it was considered unusually pure and ideal for a range of applications in the construction and building industry. Redland Gravel started exploiting the sand and gravel from Sandy Heath in 1968 but were taken over in 1998 by Lafarge Aggregates. At its peak production reached over 300,000 tonnes a year, predominantly for road surfacing materials across the South East. At the beginning of the 21st century the sand is more widely used as building sand and production has dropped to around 180,000 tonnes a year. The site employs three full-time staff, many times fewer than coprolite pits, and current planning permission will ensure the life of the quarry until 2016.
The earliest 20th century workings were in the east, close to Deepdale where the original entrance and weighbridge were. The large pit started to be landscaped in the early 1980s to improve safety. The steep and unstable sides of the sand pit are extremely dangerous if walked on, especially after wet weather when slumping occurs. A pine plantation has been planted and the slopes of the pit are being restored as sandy heathland. The current operation now extends to the northwest towards the Long Riding.
The RSPB has leased part of the site from Lafarge Aggregates and are developing it as a nature reserve. Their aim is to raise awareness in the local community by promoting conservation, promoting recreation activities and explaining the economic benefits of sand extraction. A Heathland Awareness Project Officer is implementing a works and education programme at the site and the project will include the formation of new public footpaths between Potton, Everton and Sandy. Visitor facilities like information boards and signage will be provided. When complete the community will have a new local recreational amenity. Organised walks during the week and at weekends are advertised on local notice boards but places need to be booked by ringing the RSPB on 01767 680541.
Some of the birds likely to be seen on the walk are nightjars, Dartford warblers and woodlarks. Natterjack toads have also colonized part of the heathland habitat and a rare wasp. On the RSPB website it reported
The creature has caused a huge buzz in bug-watching circles after it was found breeding in a quarry next to the RSPB's headquarters - The Lodge, in Sandy, Bedfordshire.
RSPB staff have worked with the quarry's owners, Lafarge Aggregates Ltd, to create a custom-built habitat ideal for rare insects.
Episyron gallicum, as the wasp is known to entomologists, was discovered after Lafarge agreed to fund a survey of the quarry to see if the work had been successful in attracting insects to the site.
'The wasp is normally a Mediterranean species and the nearest it has been to Britain before now is central France.'
It turned up a huge variety of unusual bugs on the restored parts of the quarry site, including the spider-munching newcomer.
The wasp is normally a Mediterranean species and the nearest it has been to Britain before now is central France.
Episyron gallicum seeks out spiders that hunt for their prey on the ground rather than building webs. It is incredibly nimble, dancing around its prey to outwit it before paralysing it with a quick sting.
The helpless spider is then sealed in a tunnel with a wasp egg laid on it. When the larva hatches, it uses the unfortunate arachnid as a source of fresh food.
Peter Bradley, site manager at the RSPB reserve, said: 'It's entirely new to this country. It is a species of specialist wasp that lives in dry and loose sand. I'm pretty sure it's living there and breeding.'
Peter was convinced the work done by the RSPB and Lafarge had made it possible for the creature to make its home on this side of the Channel.
He said: 'What usually happens with quarries is they are great for these rare invertebrates for a short period of time, while there is lots of disturbed, dry sand and cliff faces. But after a few years they get filled in or nicely profiled by grass or the cliff face runs out of coarse material.
'The idea here was that we create a structure that naturally creates new areas of loose sand by gradually eroding.'
He added: 'The results were pretty amazing really. There were lots of real rarities there. This is a way of managing quarry restoration that is exceptionally good for interesting wildlife. It's obviously worked very well here.'
Gavin Broad, a zoologist with the Biological Records Centre, said climate change may have combined with work done at the quarry to create good conditions for the colonist.
He said: 'There are all sorts of species in Europe that aren't here and various insects have been changing their ranges since the last ice age. The change to warmer summers and winters is going to help them.
'A lot of insects are constantly getting blown about all over the place and will often end up in unsuitable places, but as soon as the weather is right they will stay on. The quarry work means it is absolutely ideal for this kind of wasp. They love warm, sandy banks.'
Mr Broad said there were already 40 native species of spider-hunting wasps, adding: 'It's quite big news in that no one has found any new ones for a few years.'
In all 135 species were found at the quarry, including everything from bees, wasps and flies to earwigs, ants, crickets and grasshoppers.
Among the other stars of the survey were an endangered robberfly, which was previously confined to The Brecks area of Norfolk and Suffolk, a ground nesting, weevil hunting wasp and several kinds of rare bees.
Tim Deal from Lafarge said: 'It's great that we have found something of national interest, very possibly as a result of the restoration work we have done at the quarry.
'We are very pleased to see that what looks like quite a barren landscape actually has quite a lot going on. The report has shown up some really good evidence of biodiversity, not just in extent but quality too.
'We would feel slightly disappointed to have funded the work and found nothing.'
Mr Deal said Lafarge was committed to restoration work at its sites.
He said: 'There are no sites where restoration isn't possible. Every working quarry we have has an end use and design. It is a question of what kind of habitat we want. All our planning applications for the last 15 years have been restoration led and we often leave some minerals in the ground to achieve that.'
You will probably not see another rare species on this walk. Its cast-off skin has been found in some places locally but the noise of your footsteps and voice will normally give it advance warning to avoid you. It is the adder (Vipera berus), sometimes called the European adder, European viper or the common viper. You probably know that it is Britain's only venomous snake but were you aware it is the only species found within the Arctic Circle and is found in Northern Scotland, Wales and England but not in Ireland or the Isle of Man.
Intensive agriculture, forestry plantations and urban development have been the main factors in reducing its habitat by an estimated 25% over the last 25 years. Others include fire, extreme weather conditions and humans capturing or killing them. In this area 19th century scrub clearance and large-scale pine plantations have largely wiped out its habitat. However, Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 provides it with protection against deliberate injury or sale. Biodiversity UK and The Greensand Trust are keen to restore its natural habitat on Sandy Heath to support a small colony.
You will probably recognise it if you came upon it by chance. It has a dark zigzag pattern on its back which is creamy yellow to grey in the males, and usually a reddish brown in females. It is rather short, up to 60 cm in length, with a slender neck that makes its triangular head look large.
The adder is diurnal, feeding on lizards, small mammals, amphibians, nestling birds and insects. It hibernates communally between late September/early October and late February/early March, the duration of hibernation depending on the sex of the adder as well as its geographical location.
The adder is able to colonise a variety of habitats ranging from open woodland, hedgerows, commons, heathland, moors and sand dunes, to damp. meadows, riverbanks and bogs. The adder migrates between various habitat types and requires a range of suitable habitats for the different phases of its life cycle.
The active period of the adder's life cycle has three distinct phases. In the spring the adders disperse from the hibernation sites and spend much of their time basking. During this phase the males shed their skins and search for females, and mating occurs. In the second phase during the summer they migrate to their feeding areas, following linear features such as hedges and ditches. Feeding areas mostly consist of low-lying damp or boggy areas such as wet meadows, woodland edges and near ditches. The third phase in the autumn sees a return to their hibernation sites, the females entering hibernation following the birth of their young in August/September. Hibernation sites are usually on higher, dry ground, often within the burrows of small mammals.
There lots of other things to look out for on the Long Riding instead of adders. Tim Sharrock, the Bedfordshire ornithologist, commented that
The woodland edge and set-aside fields filled with flowers is a famed site for summer-flying Cockchafers and Summer Chafers and, as a result, attract the Hobby. On late summer evenings, these tiny falcons can be seen catching ad eating these large beetles in flight. The hedgerows here contain not only Bramble, but also both Gorse and Broom, providing vivid splashes of bright yellow. The old saying “When Gorse is in flower, Kissing is in season” is a reminder that Gorse can be found flowering in every month of the year.
The presence of Bracken reflects the sandy substrate of this area. The hedges and bushy areas abound in Honeysuckle, providing wonderful scent on calm, warm summer days. The woodland here contains many Oaks, the acorns of which provide the chief food for Jays. Listen for the harsh screeches that reveal the presence of this beautiful but shy bird. Listen also for the laughing ‘yaffle’ of the Green Woodpecker and the loud “tchick” call of the Great Spotted Woodpecker.
The Long Riding meets Bridleway 28 beside an electricity pylon (TL 191488), Turning north, the 500 metre track takes you onto the Sandy Everton Road at the entrance to the drive into Hazells Hall and south, after about 300 metres, to the entrance to Sandy Lodge, the headquarters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.