Dear Sam Ellis, (Butterfly Conservation Officer, northern England)

       Although I now live in London, during the 1950s I lived in Newton Aycliffe and, though only in my early teens, was already a passionate lepidopterist.

         You may be interested in the following observations. The Dingy Skipper, which is still found at Simpasture, once could be seen in their thousands over Aycliffe Trading estate and around Heighington Station, particularly on or near the cinder paths that intersected the land and sidings around the station. It was probably the biggest colony in the north of England including those in the E Yorks Wolds. The Trading estate had once been, during wartime, an immense armaments factory and earth had been bulldozed over the factories to camouflage them from the air.

        After the war the factories had been converted to peacetime use though the artificial heaps and covering of earth had, for the moment, been left in place. By the mid-fifties it had become a haven for wildlife. Birds Foot trefoil, Ox Eye daisy, Thistles, Rose Bay Willow Herb, Gorse and Broom abounded. The Gorse was inhabited by flocks of Goldfinches and Skylarks were everywhere. In the winter time the occasional Waxwing could be seen and on the Willow Herb there were Elephant Hawk caterpillars. I can only assume that the Simpasture colony of Dingy Skippers was the ancestral colony, even though miniscule in comparison. There were, after all, a number of branch lines that criss-crossed the Trading Estate and were connected to the railway line at Simpasture Junction. It must have been along these conduits that the skipper spread on to the estate.

    At Simpasture we would regularly find Drinker moth caterpillars almost, as it were, by our own choosing. As I recall we would playfully part the grass and there they were. In fact we once organised a competition amongst ourselves to see how many we could find in one evening!

      However, the richest site by far for butterflies and moths was the railway embankment running from Heighington Station up to Codlings Bridge and slightly beyond in the Darlington direction. Although interestingly we never, as I recall, found any Dingy Skippers there was a colony of Dark Green Fritillaries numbering, I would guess, around 100 at the height of the emergence. In fact around 1949 an elder brother had bought a first edition of E B Ford's 'Butterflies' (which I still possess) convinced he had seen a Silver Washed Fritillary and needed to be sure. He still insists it was but I am equally persuaded it was a case of mistaken identity. Also, along this stretch of railway we found the Wood Tiger moth. Nothing all that special about that perhaps, except the sex-linked, white underwing var. hospita was also to be found there in considerable numbers. Though still schoolboys, we felt it was important and informed an elderly collector in Coniscliffe of our discovery. However, I doubt if this local record ever found its way in to the national records. Much later I found Ford mentions that it occurs in the hilly district of N W Durham. However this site at Codlings Bridge was only about a mile and a half from the beginning of the coastal plain.

 Heighington StationDark Green
Heighington Station, Co Durham. Two hundred yards or so up the line at the right of the photo is the  exact location of Codlings Bridge. Does the Dark Green Fritillary still fly there? The Simpasture Nature Reserve is down left of the photo. The row of houses where we lived like the station itself & glorious focal point of a passionate childhood, now no longer exists.Scar Close, N Yorks. Limestone pavement at the foot of  the mountain of Ingleborough. A Dark Green Fritillary nectaring on thistle, August 2003. Across the field and rising in the background is Whernside, the highest Yorkshire mountain.

     Yet of all the rarities that I found there none was more memorable than the Large Tortoiseshell that I saw flying along the railway embankment near Codlings Bridge in 1956. I failed to capture it, which was the bitterest disappointment of my brief collecting career. I never saw another one and possibly it had flown on the embankment from the nearby Cumby Wood which contained a number of Elms. There may even have been a small colony in the wood - who knows?

     Finally, one more incident that may be of interest. One evening in the summer of 1956 a friend called to say there was a large moth resting in the doorway of his home just off Stephenson's Way. It turned out to be a Death's Head Hawk. We thought it was probably a female and, though still in fairly good condition, appeared to be exhausted. We took it home in the hope it would lay some eggs but it died shortly afterwards without ever moving or feeding. It is still preserved in the one remaining box in my collection from those days. I had heard tales from beekeepers around the Cleveland Hills that the moth would, not uncommonly, raid their hives.

      I was also interested to read about the discovery of the Purple Hairstreak in Durham City. Two years ago we found it all over the Bradford area even up to where the stunted oaks gave out close to the summit of Baildon Moor. Encouraged to venture further afield last year we found it in Skipton Castle Woods. These specimens were still in pristine condition unlike the dished examples we were seeing around Bradford at the same time and which suggested a later emergence. This year we intend journeying to settle and beyond to Dent Head in the hope of finding in the high Pennines.

      I am also beginning to wonder if the Skipton colony, in particular, is not an ancient colony which may have been there since time immemorial but which has escaped notice because of the Purple Hairstreaks secretive habits in these northerly latitudes and relatively high altitudes. Their behaviour is so very different to their southern counterparts and it took us some considerable time to learn how to look for them. Only rarely do they descend from the oak canopy and the best time to get a closer look at them is toward the end of their brief lives when they literally seem to fall to earth in a crazy, almost uncontrolled fashion. To say that they are on their last legs is not just a manner of speaking because the northern Purple Hairstreaks do appear to spend far more time perambulating around the twigs and branches of oak trees, interrupted by the occasional brief flight. I even speculated if the Skipton butterflies were in the process of becoming flightless, virtual butterflies!

      There are forensic techniques, which could determine if the northern populations are genetically different and which could possibly account for their behavioural difference. This would be an interesting experiment but aside from ethical considerations to with the killing of butterflies, to actually capture a specimen from the Skipton Castle site would be almost impossible, seeing they are leading such a clandestine existence.

      But to return to Aycliffe Trading Estate. It does hold a special place in my affections and this random creation does I think have something special to teach us. Looking back I am truly amazed at how favourable it was to wildlife even though that was the last thing the 'planners' ' if indeed there were planners, had in mind. In fact the aim was to imitate as closely as possible from the air, the spoil heaps that once liberally dotted the area, particularly around West Auckland, Lealholme, Coundon etc. And yet this bare-earth policy succeeded. It was composed entirely of clay, shale, low-grade coal and cinders. As a result grass was never able to gain a complete stranglehold sufficient to shade out other plant life. Once the Birds Foot Trefoil had become established it ideally suited the Common Blue and the Dingy Skipper. In comparison the patchwork of fields surrounding the estate for miles around had nothing so inviting to offer. It is also an interesting example because it shows how quickly species can expand if the conditions are right. And how different, and so much more successful, this trading Estate was from today's more consciously planned efforts at land reclamation. I have just returned from reconnoitring a landfill site between Batley and Morley in West Yorks called appropriately Soothill which once contained a vast number of pit heaps and a large quarry. Barely two miles away, at another disused quarry, the Grayling was found last year and I was gutted to see the Soothill quarry was being used for landfill. Soon it will be a featureless expanse and nearby several earth-moving vehicles are already at work levelling the land into a mindless pastiche of downland before covering it with soil and seeding it indiscriminately with grass. There must be more imaginative and sensitive ways of reclaiming so-called derelict land. A sort of needless banality of farming land appearances, combined with a caricature of nature, is being imposed upon it. Why not, for example, only cover part of the ground with soil and leave the rest bare? Why even the topographical irregularities which the eye and nature finds so refreshing and attractive. All I can say that as a child I found Aycliffe Trading estate much more exciting to play in and much more stimulating to the imagination and there was never any danger of being chased out by irate farmers. I also think it bequeathed within me a discontent rather than an outright rejection of the urban environment and industry, which is increasingly becoming a feature of contemporary conservation movements. I have a model, a touchstone, from which I can begin to challenge urban spaces, a vision rooted in an actual example of what can be done with them, particularly when faced with newer desolations like the typical Barretts estate. Yet when this Estate was first turned over to wartime use it must have looked a clay and shale hell rejected even by the worms and made all the worse by the forbidding grid plan of roads where the usual street names had been replaced by numerals like 'Street One'. However, less than 15 years later no roadside verge for miles around could equal the life that teemed along the borders of 'Street One', a name which will forever resonate within me.


 Above: Aycliffe Trading Estate in its post Second World War butterfly-rich heyday. The photo on the right gives a clear indication of the great earth works covering the factories and where the Dingy Shipper emerged in thousands during May and June.

      Anyhow I hope this is of some interest. I fear I can never return to Heighington Station, Codlings Bridge or Simpasture. It is far better I remember them as they once were.

Stuart Wise (Spring 2003)