Saltwells’ earliest history is told in its rocks. The story starts 420 million years ago when Dudley was covered with a warm tropical sea and was as far south as Buenos Aires is today. Then, as the earth’s land masses slowly moved northwards, by 310 million years ago we were about where Rio de Janeiro is now and Dudley was covered in the lush tropical rainforests of its day. This amazing period left us with the coal for which the Black Country was renowned. Then 307 million years ago molten rock from the centre of the earth pushed up and almost broke the surface leaving its trace in our rocks.
Medieval Saltwells was covered by heathland and woodland. This spread west and was known as Pensnett Chase. At the time it was used to hunt and collect materials from. Coal workings may have started as early as Roman times at Saltwells, but it was definitely being dug out by this period.
It’s fair to say for the landscape, the Industrial Revolution started early here. In 1600s our 10m thick coal seam (the biggest in Britain) was already being heavily mined. As areas were excavated, they often became planted with woodland or reclaimed by nature. In other areas, once the coal had been removed they uncovered other useful rocks, like ironstone and shales, underneath that could be used.
As the horror of cholera took its toll on the families of the rapidly growing Black Country, in the 1880s Doulton’s Claypit was opened up to supply clay to make the sewer pipes for the region. These indeed saved countless lives and the extraction continued until about 1940. The clay was taken to the canal, which cuts through the middle of the nature reserve, by tubs on rails
Coal working continued into the 1970s, including open cast mining on Netherton Hill. However, when it was proposed to open cast mine Saltwells Wood for coal the local people said “No!” and in 1981 it became the first Local Nature Reserve in the county.
From there it won the first UNESCO UK Man and the Biosphere’s Urban Wildlife Award for Excellence in 1992 and remains one of only a handful of places to have achieved this accolade. Since then the nature reserve has continued to grow to almost 100ha and 2½ miles long. In 2020 much of Saltwells Local Nature Reserve became designated a National Nature Reserve to celebrate its world-class geology.