County diary: from hellish origins, a heavenly suite of Derbyshire plants

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County diary: from hellish origins, a heavenly suite of Derbyshire plants

Waterswallows Quarry, Derbyshire: The volcanic rock here is home to an expanse of great burnet, twayblade, spotted and fragrant orchids

Field of great burnet

Tue 7 Sep 2021 00.30 EDT

How delightful to think that in picking a name for the spot, the locals had chosen as the most fitting motif the bluest of birds as they dipped to feed over their own surface reflections.

Alas, it comes from nothing quite so idyllic. “Waterswallows” describes a place where the river vanishes into the limestone, literally where water is swallowed down. It is the same Carboniferous geology that explains the existence of the quarry itself, but not perhaps in the way you might think. The longest excavated limestone face in Europe may be just 2km away, at Tunstead, but Waterswallows was worked for entirely different reasons – here, the region’s deep reefs of calcium carbonate were split asunder by lava.

More than 300m years later, the old quarried stone is a rather bleak charcoal grey, and the enormous crater left by the excavations for road stone has been filled with icy water that is 40 metres deep in parts. I still like to try to imagine – fancifully perhaps – the hellish birth of all that basalt: the magma boiling out from the bowels of the Earth and occasional fireballs of liquid rock gobbed up into the smoky air.

It is odd to ponder all this while also reflecting on how enchanted parts of Waterswallows have become. A favourite is the old spoil beds, where the surface shale and rock were pushed aside to access the purer basalt below. Since the quarry’s abandonment in the 1980s, this so-called wasteground has been filled by suite of classic Derbyshire plants: twayblade, spotted and fragrant orchids, bird’s-foot trefoil, meadow vetchling, autumn gentians, teasel, quaking grass, willowherb and lady’s mantle.

In combination they create a heavenly sphere for local bumblebees and grasshoppers. Best of all for me is the expanse of great burnet, whose lanky wire-like stems create the upper canopy over much of this plant community. It is a member of the rose family, but great burnet has small burr-like flowers of the deepest claret, and these blobs of exquisite hue run from the eye in a recessional of dark shapes that is entangled, sculptural and beautiful all at once.

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