Saltwells was designated as the first Local Nature Reserve in the West Midlands metropolitan county in 1981; now covering over 100 hectares, it forms one of the largest urban nature reserves in the country. Furthermore, in 1992 it became the UK’s first reserve under UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere project and is still one of only 15 sites in the UK to have received this award.
Saltwells Wood stands at the heart of the nature reserve and, at 40 hectares in size, is the largest woodland in the Borough. It became part of Lord Dudley's Saltwells Estate after the enclosure of Pensnett Chase in 1785. Wood was in great demand at the time, especially for charcoal for the budding iron industry, so the area was planted with trees. During at least the 19th century, the woodland west of the Black Brook was called Lady Dudley’s Plantation or Lady Wood (perhaps in honour of Lady Dudley), whilst that to the east was known as Birch Wood.
The descendants these trees still survive and the woodland is one of the finest Bluebell woods in the country; other plants include Ramsons (Wild Garlic), Wood Anemone, Sweet Woodruff and Yellow Archangel. It is also home to many typical woodland birds, such as Sparrowhawk, Stock Dove, Tawny Owl, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatch and Jay, as well as butterflies, including Brimstone, Purple and White-letter Hairstreaks and Ringlet.
In 1995, the Forestry Commission presented the Council with a Centres of Excellence Award for “Improving the quality of the landscape, creating benefits for wildlife and providing access for people” in Saltwells Wood. Such work continues, more recently through a Woodland Grant Scheme agreed with the Forestry Commission in 1999.
The western part of the Wood was designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument in 2002, due to the rare survival of earthworks and buried remains of mining activity dating back to at least the 1300s. The earliest remains consist of a series of shallow depressions and hummocks, where extraction followed surface outcrops of coal and iron ore. As these easy deposits became exhausted, deeper ‘bell pits’ (named after their shape) were dug to reach further reserves.
During the 19th Century, Saltwells Colliery became established, with a total of 33 pits sunk across the area. The Saltwells Railway (part of Lord Dudley’s Pensnett Railway system) was built from 1851 to serve the colliery, providing a link between Brierley Hill and Cradley. It is still possible to trace a section of the railway line through the nature reserve.
Within Saltwells Wood is Doulton's Claypit. Previously called Saltwells Clay Field, the Royal Doulton Company bought the site and extracted clay for fine china and sanitary ware for 70 years until the 1930s. The clay was carried out along a tub line to the canal. The pit is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest on account of being the best exposure of the Productive Coal Measures in the South Staffordshire Coalfield. High cliffs show a section through the rocks of the Middle and Lower Coal Measures, laid down during the Carboniferous Period about 310 million years ago. These include river and lake deposits, as well as several coal seams.
The claypit has since been reclaimed by nature and now supports unusual plants including hundreds of Common Spotted and Southern Marsh Orchids, as well as Common Lizards, Grass Snakes and Smooth Newts. It was, until 1966, the only local nesting site of Red-backed Shrike, now an extremely rare breeding bird in the UK.
Another geological SSSI has been designated within the reserve – Brewin’s Cutting, on the Dudley No.2 Canal. This is the best available exposure in this part of the South Staffordshire Coalfield of the conglomeratic (pebble beds) base of the Carboniferous rocks (the floor of the very coalfield itself), resting on much older rocks of the Silurian Period (some 415 million years or so in age).
To the north of Saltwells Wood is the gorse-covered Netherton Hill, spectacular when in full bloom in Spring. The hill was called Knowle Hill from the medieval period, the name being derived from the Anglo Saxon word ‘cnol’, referring to its shape. Netherton used to stand by a stream nearer to Baptist End. However, when the Enclosure Acts of the late 18th century allowed buildings to be erected on the adjacent Pensnett Chase, the new settlement and the hill both took the name.
Netherton Hill was opencast for coal and clay (from the same layer extracted previously at Doulton’s Clay Pit) until the 1960s. It has since been restored and is now home to several pairs of Common Whitethroat and Linnet. The area is currently grazed by a herd of Murray Grey cattle, as part of a Countryside Stewardship agreement that the Council has with Defra. Further north still is an area of restored coal mining known as Cinder Bank. Sixteen species of dragonfly are found here on the Daphne Pool, making this one of the best sites in the West Midlands for these ancient insects.
South of Saltwells Wood, around the chain-makers' hamlet of Mushroom Green, is an area of scrubland and meadow, plus a large reed swamp that provides a safe refuge for winter birds like Water Rail, Common Snipe and Eurasian Teal, whilst Kingfishers are often recorded in the area. Further south, the reserve follows the Mousesweet Brook as far as its confluence with the River Stour. The Mousesweet Brook was dammed in the 17th Century to create Cradley New Pool, providing a regular source of water to power Cradley Forge, which stood at the confluence with the River Stour. When the forge turned to steam power in the 1860s, the pool was used for pleasure boating, but was drained in 1878 to prevent any risk of it flooding Saltwells Colliery. Much of the original earth dam still remains, with the brook culverted through it.
Saltwells takes its name from brine spas, which used to exist near to the Saltwells Inn. Using saline water that welled up in early mine workings, they were advertised in the early nineteenth century “for the healing qualities of its medicinal spring waters” . It was known by various names, including Cradley Spa, Pensnett Spa, Lady Wood's Spa and Saltwells Spa.
Car park off Coppice Lane, Quarry Bank. SO 935869