Ghostly Whisperings

Falling Sands Viaduct

I have had a deep fascination with Wilden Marsh for many years. A new story seems to present itself with every night visit.

Moonlit evenings provide the best atmosphere. I’m never lonely or afraid when walking through the blackness of a nighttime marsh, with its strange noises, fleeting shadows, and darting will-o-the-wisps. I am sometimes accompanied by lingering ghosts that whisper in my ears of long forgotten secrets and conjure visions from a bygone era with the snap of a spectral finger. Now and again, when the River Stour is in flood, at the confluence of the river and Hoo Brook, close to the site of the sewage pumping station, between the marsh and Falling Sands Nature Area, a thickening miasma lifts from the river like shrouded phantoms escaping the halls of Hades at Halloween; they twist, turn and struggle to break the water’s grip. The mighty roar and sheer force of the turbulent, boiling and tumbling waters hide the wailing screams of tortured souls being smashing against the river’s floating rubbish rafts – legion upon legion rise from the thickening mist to replace those gone before. At this point, a sensible person would make their way off the mash as quickly as possible, but these are only figments of my overactive imagination and nothing to be overly concerned about.

The instant I set foot in the meadows and pastures, the ghosts begin their whispering. In fact, I don’t know of another place so eager to give up its colourful secrets in such vivid detail. No, I am not deluded or suffering from a schizoaffective disorder. I am receptive to the lay of the land and what it can tell me. I also have a vivid imagination, and a strong interest in local history.

Standing close to the Riverside Pasture stock fence, at the point where Hoo Brook rushes into the River Stour, I look across to the stark, sharp-edged, relatively modern buildings of the Hoo Brook Sewage Pumping Station. Sometimes, in the right light, the area melts to a vision, set some 150 years ago, of the dark, satanic, buildings that are the Falling Sands Rolling Mills and Cottages. The industrial buildings are placed at the precise angles necessary for the efficient operation of milling waterwheels. There are four industrial buildings. The site was owned by Lydia Barnett, and the tenant was Samuel Barnett.

I hear grinding and creaking of waterwheels, rushing  water, clanking of loose gear wheels, hissing of water quenching red-hot metal passing through steel rolls, and  rhythmic ringing of 20 lbs sledge hammers striking iron. My nose tingles at the smell of high sulphur coal used to fuel the mill furnaces. All these noises, sounds and smells are memories of visits to my grandparents house, on the edge of the Abergavenny steam railway junction, way back in the 1950s. We have a steam train railway crossing the marsh on the Falling Sands Viaduct.

A leat allows the river water to bypass the waterwheels that span the full width of the river and provided power for the rolling mills. To stop the waterwheels, a gate lowered into the river cuts the water flow. The river water is diverted into the leat at a point close to Falling Sands Viaduct, and exits 700 metres downstream into Hoo Brook.

The time I imagine is 1840. The Staffordshire and Worcester Canal opened in 1770 and the Severn Valley Railway in 1862.

Urgent shouts of grubby mill workers going about their daily business fill the air, as do the excited screams of dirty little urchins playing around stacks of metal, coal and redundant machinery spread haphazardly around the rolling mill stockyard. The visions of mill workers and their urchin children are but shadows of those who once worked and lived on-site in company cottages.

I don’t know why I am affected so by Wilden Marsh, its history, its fauna and flora, and its geology, but I’m glad I am.

The New Falling Sands Nature Area

It’s another day on the marsh, and I’m about to cross the small concrete bridge over Hoo Book, from Hoo Brook Pasture, on my way to the new nature area along the River Stour, immediately north of Wilden Marsh. If the resident troll tries any of his nonsense this morning, barring my way and threatening to eat me, my size 12 wellie will help him on his way downstream whether he wants to go in the direction or not.

The new nature area, owned by Wyre Forest Council, is recovering from churning caused by heavy machinery used during construction of the new Hoobrook bypass bridge. Thankfully the troll didn’t show itself today.

Whata fantastic way of regenerating this hidden and forgotten parcel of land tucked in between the River Stour, Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve, Hoobrook Trading Estate and the Severn Valley Steam Railway Viaduct. This piece of land is part of a wildlife corridor winding its way north through the county.

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The above image shows the extreme southern end of the new nature area. During the 1800s this section of the River Stour was spanned by two full width 12 foot diameter water wheels: one overshot and one undershot. The water wheels powered two rolling mills housed in the Falling Sands Iron Works and Rolling Mills. The area once occupied by the works is now the Severn Trent Sewage Pumping Station.

Churning of soil at the nature area entrance.

So the ground here is pretty bare with a lot of willow scrub taking hold, but the marsh cattle will start grazing this in a week or two.

The new Hoobrook bypass bridge.

The new nature area in the foreground, River Severn and Worcester and Staffordshire Canal in the middle of the image, and landscaping in the background.

A new shiny drinking trough for the exclusive use of the marsh cattle.

This weird shaped concrete hole is a badger tunnel running under the bypass at the start of the bridge. If the river is in flood, and the badgers can’t travel under the bridge, they can use this tunnel. Muntjac deer will be able to use this tunnel, too.

The new nature area north of the new bypass bridge.


The Severn Valley Steam Railway Viaduct crossing the River Stour and Worcester and Staffordshire Canal.

There’s a manmade otter holt buried in the river bank, and otter tracks have been seen around the holt already.

Entrance to the otter holt.

The otter holt is buried under this soil on the river bank.

There are bat boxes here, too.

I think this new wildlife area will prove a positive asset to both Wilden Marsh and the wildlife corridor.

Sink or Swim?

Sunrise: 04.46   Sunset: 09.33

Modern world technology first touched Wilden Marsh and Meadows in 1511, with the building of a water powered fulling mill by William Baylly on the River Stour, at Wilden Village. This was the first of 17 mills to be built here before the rise of the steam-age.

In its heyday, there were more watermills (in excess of 100) on the banks of the 25 miles long River Stour and its tributary than any other river in the UK. There were 19 water mills along the banks of Hoo Brook alone, including the full width water wheels of the Falling Sands Rolling Mills at the confluence of Hoo Brook and the River Stour – where the water pumping station is now. I don’t know whether the adjoining ironworks that fed the rolling mills used water power.

The 1500s were a time of relative prosperity. The country was recovering from a couple of centuries of plagues, and the many plagues of the 1600s had yet to dilute the labour force still further. Wages were good compared with the rest of Europe, and many peasants could afford to build themselves wood framed houses. Food and firewood were plentiful. Bill Baylly was looking to increase his fulling capacity and fill his coffers. There was money to be made and people were scheming to get their hands on it.

The options Bill had available to power his new fulling mill were muscle, wind or water. There were not many people about in the 1500s (2,250,000 people in all England and Wales; another third of this figure in Ireland and Scotland). Wages were increasing rapidly. Bill decided he would use water to drive his machinery. The River Stour at Wilden was very suitable for his purposes, being a reliable, if somewhat variable at times, source of fast flowing water.

The function of Bill’s mill changed with the years. It became a slitting mill, a finery forge and finally a sprawling iron works. In 1958 the iron works closes. In 1964 the site becomes Wilden Industrial Estate.

Pollution threats to Wilden Marsh and Site of Special Scientific Interest from heavy industrial may have reduced with time, but they have not ceased. Residential pressures, however, have increased. The old sugar factory has been replaced with a large industrial, leisure and residential complex immediately above the west bank of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, at Falling Sands. Planning permission is now being sought to build a luxury housing estate on the edge of the swamp and Hoo Brook Pasture, the latter being a Site of Special Scientific Interest. If planning permission was granted, I wonder how the residents would feel about sharing their gardens with clouds of biting flying insects and fetid water smells? Would the next step be to sanitise the swamp?

One hopes that sanity will prevail, but it can’t be relied upon, and that our District Council is as pro-nature as I believe it to be. We have local brown field sites that have been or are being used for residential building. I don’t see the need to jeopardise the marsh floodplain to satisfy the short term aims of national or multi-national conglomerates.

Also read:


Help! How do I get out of this valley?

An Act passed in 1662 authorised the Earl of Bristol, Lord Windsor and Thomas Smyth of London, to make the Stour navigable from the River Severn to the collieries around Stourbridge; opening up and developing sales outlets further south, in particular around Worcester and Gloucester. The original plan was to make the river navigable for craft of 6 tons, with 11 locks and two branch tram roads. 

Engineer Andrew Yarranton (1619 – 1684), who managed the Stour navigation work, was born a few miles down the road in Astley, Worcestershire. He was not able to fully realise his dream of making the 10 miles stretch of River Stour between Stourbridge to the River Severn at Stourport-on-Severn reliably navigable. He did have some success bringing 16 tons coal boats down the river in the 1660s and 1670s, after the completion in 1667 of 16 locks and 4 turnpikes (thought to be half-locks). The venture was dogged by lack of money, which was one of the main reasons for its eventual failure around 1680. The River Stour was then and is now difficult to navigate; its many tight bends, narrowness, high flood risk, and variable water levels threatened its viability as a transport link. In fact, the great flood of around 1674 destroyed so much of the new river improvement work, that the investors couldn’t or wouldn’t provide the money to repair it. I have experienced these great floods on the marsh, and they are dramatic and sometimes devastating: breaking banks and flooding large areas, as well as washing away canal banking. In 1879 the Wilden Ironworks was damaged by one of these notorious overflow events. However, extreme volumes of water rushing down the river force stubborn rubbish rafts though longstanding log jams, causing them to hurtle downstream. It was high water flow events that destroyed our new southern rock weir within a year of installation. It is probably more accurate to say that the flash floods wash the rubbish rafts further down the river to become someone else’s problem, but not without first dumping a load of plastic bottles and footballs on the marsh.

In 1766, an Act of Parliament sanctioned the building of a canal system between Staffordshire and Worcester, resulting in the formation of the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal Company. James Brindley (1716 to 1772), from Derbyshire, built the canal at a cost in excess of £12,000,000 in today’s money; it opened for business in 1772. The canal runs alongside the River Stour on its journey through Wilden Marsh.

Wilden Forge and the nearby saw mill experienced great difficulty bringing in raw materials, and shipping out finished goods prior to the building of the S&W canal system. The road to the River Severn was narrow and became deeply rutted and impassable for heavy horse drawn wagons in wet weather. Attempts to create a link to the River Severn by running boats down the southern section of the River Stour, proved too difficult and unreliable.

The Severn Valley Railway arrived at Sourport in 1882, 100 years later than the opening of the canal system, and 371 years after Bill Baylly built his fulling mill at Wilden Village. Pig iron and logs arrived from the Forest of Dean and South Wales, via the River Severn and later by rail to Stourport-on-Severn.

The first record of Wilden Forge appears around 1647, when Thomas Foley built a finery forge on the site, close to the slitting mill. In 1840 the Baldwins bought the forge, when gambling debts forced the Foley’s to sell. In 1888 Stanley Baldwin joins the company at 21 years of age. Stanley later became 3 times British Prime Minister: 1935 to 1937, 1924 to 1929 and 1923 to 1924.

Even after the arrival of the canal and the railway, getting raw materials and finished goods in and out of the Lower Stour Valley was not straightforward, for reasons I will explain in my next history post.


Green Shield-bug.