National Character Area 56

Lancashire Coal Measures - Analysis: Landscape Attributes & Opportunities

Analysis supporting Statements of Environmental Opportunity

The following analysis section focuses on the landscape attributes and opportunities for this NCA.

Further analysis on ecosytem services for this NCA is contained in the Analysis: Ecosytem Services section.

Landscape attributes


Fragmented landscape created by complex pattern of mining and industrial activity intermixed with housing; this is a densely populated area with a scattered settlement pattern.

Justification for selection:

  • The area includes many towns that developed during industrialisation in the 19th century.
  • Both St Helens and Wigan are large towns but there are other sizeable settlements too, including Leigh, Hindley, Atherton, Tyldesley, Golborne, Ashton-in-Makerfield, Haydock and Newton-le-Willows, and villages include Billinge, Orrell, Standish and Aspull.
  • Strong cultural identity amongst former mining communities.
  • Settlements with areas of densely built red-brick terraces, and in some areas buildings using local stone including Lower and Middle Coal Measure sandstones.

A landscape of gentle hills and valleys run from north-west to south-east, creating a soft, but varied topography.

Justification for selection:

  • The landscape rises to 179 m at the summit of Billinge Hill giving views over the Lancashire and Amounderness Plain, Merseyside and the Mersey Valley.
  • To the north-west the NCA is bounded by the Billinge and Upholland ridge.
  • The foothills of the southern Pennines at Horwich and Rivington to the north-east of this area provide a backdrop of upland views.
  • The area is crossed by a number of river valleys, of which the River Douglas is the largest.

The area is underlain by Coal Measures which are buried under a patchy layer of glacial deposits, subsequently affected by a long history of mineral working.

Justification for selection:

  • Pre-glacial drainage patterns have been altered by mining subsidence and extraction of minerals particularly coal, contributing to the indeterminate drainage and formation of low-lying water bodies and peatlands in some areas.
  • Past industrial activity has created a number of spoil heaps and subsidence flashes, whilst some areas of land have been left derelict.

Woodland cover is limited across most of the area except to the north-west of Wigan, although community woodlands have been established on many post- industrial sites, and have multiple benefits including for public access as well as for nature conservation.

Justification for selection:

  • Woodland covers 9 per cent of this NCA.
  • There has been significant new planting within both the Red Rose and Mersey Community Forest areas, in large blocks that will have important impacts locally.
  • The whole NCA is targeted as a priority place for new woodland access.
  • Woodlands have multiple benefits including wildlife and landscape value, climate change adaptation, improving water quality, providing links between urban areas and the countryside, increasing the sense of tranquillity and improving quality of life.

Some large tracts and isolated pockets of agricultural land remain within the urban fabric, used for permanent grassland or cereal production, though horse grazing and stabling is frequent.

Justification for selection:

  • There are several large tracts of Grade 3 agricultural land, much smaller areas of Grade 2 and 4 land, and isolated pockets of former farmland within the urban fabric.
  • Agricultural land use is split between cereal production and permanent grassland for dairy or cattle and sheep rearing. There are also small areas of oilseed, stock feed and vegetable cropping.
  • Frequently the drainage has been severely disrupted by subsidence and the land is often used for recreational open space or for horsiculture.

Field patterns are predominantly medium to large and rectangular, with field boundaries defined by poorly managed hedges or post and wire fencing.

Justification for selection:

  • Large parts of the area have been affected by industry and development, and field patterns have often been lost, mostly resulting from 18th century and later change.
  • Where it survives, the field pattern is predominantly rectangular and is defined by poorly managed hedges or post and wire fencing.

Widespread ground subsidence caused by coal mining activities has resulted in the formation of flashes, creating many areas of open water and wetlands, while scattered ponds and fragmented pockets of semi-natural habitat remain elsewhere.

Justification for selection:

  • Past industrial activity has created a number of flashes which are a result of the subsidence of former mine workings. This is particularly evident around Wigan (The Wigan Flashes) and there are now a number of important wetland habitats in these areas, including open water, fen, swamp and grasslands. These habitats are important for many species including wintering wildfowl and breeding birds.
  • There are areas of remnant lowland raised bog within this NCA, including Red Moss and Highfield Moss SSSI. These SSSI host a range of mixed mire communities.

The area has an increasingly recognised strong cultural and industrial heritage associated with heavy industry and mineral extraction particularly south of Wigan, whilst the majority of the pits, spoil heaps and open cast sites have been reclaimed and landscaped.

Justification for selection:

  • The ‘flashes’ and the waste heaps on the Coal Measures are reminders of 19th century extraction methods.
  • Many of the pits, spoil heaps and open-cast sites are now being reclaimed and landscaped.
  • The Leeds and Liverpool and Bridgewater Canals have developed as result of the area’s industrial past.

The area is significantly influenced by transport and utilities infrastructure, with motorways, major roads and rail lines crossing the landscape.

Justification for selection:

  • The M6, M61, M58 and A580 East Lancashire Road cross this NCA.
  • The West Coast mainline railway is an important arterial route between the north and south.
  • The Leeds-Liverpool Canal passes through from north to south-east and a small section of the Bridgwater Canal lies within this NCA.
  • Increasing pressure of communications and transport on area.

Landscape opportunities

  • Conserve the geological heritage of the area, including geological exposures and sites. Enhance their value for interpretation, access, education and visual amenity.
  • Manage and protect existing woodlands and plan to extend woodland planting in appropriate locations, particularly in urban fringe and former industrial areas, and where opportunities exist to expand, link, or improve connectivity with existing woodland areas. Ensure that new woodlands are located to enhance the local landscape character in terms of typical scale, type and location, avoiding impacting on other sites of biodiversity value or features of historic or geological interest, and provide multiple benefits such as access and recreational opportunities where appropriate.
  • Plant individual trees, groups of trees and small woodlands in appropriate urban and industrial areas and settlements, such as school playing fields, open spaces, streets, highway verges, institutional grounds, derelict land, and development sites. Target planting to meet identified green infrastructure needs and to assist with assimilating new development into the landscape.
  • Restore and manage field boundaries and hedgerow trees in agricultural areas, particularly in urban fringe areas. Bring hedgerows into improved management to restore historic field patterns, provide habitats and corridors for wildlife and enhance local landscapes.
  • Retain and manage open countryside and farmland between settlements maintaining the complex pattern of farmed land, housing and industry/development.
  • Protect and enhance the mixed farmland habitats, including permanent grassland and arable cropping, through agri-environment schemes which will provide opportunities to work with land managers to develop ecological networks and enhance the character of the landscape.
  • Encourage good agricultural practice to reduce soil erosion and storm water runoff, increase carbon storage capacity, and improve soil structure and fertility.
  • Manage and expand woodland and grassland on former industrial sites. These developing habitats form an important component of the landscape character and are of wildlife and recreational value.
  • Protect and enhance the remaining pockets of semi-natural habitats, such as lowland raised bogs, grasslands and woodlands.
  • Manage and expand wetland habitats, particularly around the subsidence ‘flashes’ and mires, conserving their wildlife and historical interest as well as providing opportunities for people to learn about and enjoy the natural environment.
  • Plan to restore and manage former industrial and mineral sites to provide opportunities to enhance biodiversity and the landscape, whilst ensuring that the legacy of the industrial heritage and the geological significance of the Lancashire Coal Measures remain legible within the landscape.
  • Seek ways of improving the integration of restored industrial sites into the wider landscape, for example through tree and hedge planting that links with local patterns of hedgerows and woodlands.
  • Plan for significant new green infrastructure provision in association with areas of new urban development to expand the existing ecological networks. Manage future developments so that green infrastructure incorporates accessible green space, sustainable drainage systems and new habitats, forming corridors linking urban areas with more open areas of countryside.
  • Manage the existing access network of public rights of way, cycle routes and towpaths and plan new links, particularly within and between the urban areas and the wider countryside. There are many opportunities to use the network of paths to gain access to, and reveal and interpret the area’s history, especially historic features such as boundary stones, tracks, farms and subsidence flashes.
  • Improve access by ensuring that paths are maintained and well signposted, and that some surfaced paths are provided for use by all levels of ability and interest at key locations.