The lesson I learned at my local dump? There are beautiful times up ahead | Emma Beddington


Is it possible to be over walking? All this wholesome outdoor socialising may be healthier, but last week – while slithering over black-ice patches in the dark with a friend, soggy paper cups of mulled wine sloshing, unable even to clutch each other to stay upright – I realised I felt slightly jaded.

There is, however, one York walk that never palls: my daily trip to the dump. Not the actual dump, but the disused one, just behind it. Walk through the industrial estate, past Lidl, a builders’ merchant and the recycling centre, duck down a scrubby path by the council vehicle depot and you enter an unexpected wonderland: St Nick’s nature reserve.

Until 1974, these 9.7 hectares (24 acres) were a stinking, rat-infested wasteland; the site was contaminated with asbestos and heavy metals, with toxicity levels above national danger levels. Closed and left to its own devices, the area gradually filled with songbirds, insects and plant life. It was protected from development in the 80s by environmental campaigners, who ensured the preservation of existing trees, planted thousands of new ones and seeded the area with wildflowers.

Thirty years later, it is a carefully maintained warren of narrow paths exploding with flora and fauna: finches, tits and wrens flit through the undergrowth; there are 20 species of butterfly in summer, and baby rabbits lollop in front of passing dogs.

It is not divorced from its history. The charity that manages the site runs an award-winning recycling programme for the city, while the profusion of gnarled, still-fruiting apple and pear trees are believed to have grown from fruit waste discarded by the Rowntree’s sweet factory.

I get a bit sappy thinking about the imagination and determination that transformed a toxic desert into a haven: it always makes me feel better about humanity. Even at this muddy, unpromising time of year, there are buds peeping through the mulch. Beauty can come from waste; better times are coming.


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