Come and explore 24 acres of a unique green space on the site of a former rubbish tip. St Nicholas Fields became a Local Nature Reserve in February 2004 in order to conserve and maintain a diverse range of habitats sustaining wildlife surrounded by urbanisation. It lies a mere mile from the city centre of York in between an industrial zone and a housing estate.
Many birds nest or regularly feed on the site including different kinds of Tits, Finches, Brambling, Kingfisher and Siskin. Over 20 species of Butterfly have been recorded including Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Orange Tip and Brown Argus. There are all kinds of other insects and some animals too but those are much harder to spot.
There are many unusual flower species and a large variety of trees and shrubs. Some plants arrived via the city’s rubbish (e.g. apple and pear trees) while others may have come along an old railway line (chicory) and some by escaping the confines of people's gardens or being carried by animals and birds or wind blown. Fruit from the site has been tested and deemed safe for human consumption. Many pies, jellies and jams made in the local area originated at St Nicks.
See the Site Description for a more detailed account of the local habitats and their inhabitants, and a map of the site. Also check out the Wildlife page and our Image Gallery to see what can be found here. Or even better - come for a walk or along to one of our events or volunteer action days.
Monks and Meadows
The earliest records of St Nicholas Fields come from the 12th century when the land was leased to the nearby hospital of St Nicholas. The hospital was founded in the reign of Henry I to accommodate up to forty patients, mostly suffering from leprosy. At this time the Fields were meadows, surrounded by remnants of ancient woodland. The monks of St Nicholas Hospital probably grazed cows here to supply their community with milk and they owned a windmill which stood near the present day entrance to Tang Hall Lane.
In 1142 St Nicholas Church was founded about one third of a mile from Walmgate Bar right by the hospital which it was supposed to serve. Its site is now occupied by a row of terrace houses numbered 136 to 146 Lawrence Street. Around 1280 it became a parish church for the parishioners of St Nicholas parish.
The church was of strategic importance in the Civil War, during the siege of York in 1644. During April and May of that year, the Royalists were using the tall tower of the church as a lookout point and the main body of the church as a prisoner of war compound for captured Parliamentarians. On 13 May 1644 St Nicholas Church was attacked and captured by Sir Thomas Fairfax's parliamentary forces. The belfry tower was used by snipers to fire their muskets against the Royalists defending York around Walmgate Bar. During these skirmishes the church and tower were ruined and never rebuilt.
The site became a stone scrap yard, stone from the ruined church being used to repair other damaged buildings in and around the city. In 1648 the tower and roof of St Margaret's Church in Walmgate were being rebuilt, around this time the porch from St Nicholas Church was transferred here where it can be seen today. This porch has been described as one of the finest Norman doorways in York.
Meanwhile the site of St Nicholas Fields (24 acres) was part of Tang Hall Fields (160 acres) owned by the Prebend of Fridaythorpe. In 1525 York Corporation took the lease of the land and sub-let part of the Fields. Corporation records from 1597 show that 115 commoners grazed 88 cows and 41 horses here, while 8 freemen rented winter grazing.
In 1837 St Nicholas Fields, and surrounding land, was purchased by James Barker for £10,000 who rented it out for clay extraction and brick works. Bricks from these works were used to build the houses in James Street and Nicholas Street, among many others. The 1900 O.S. map shows a small James Street Brick Works and a larger St Nicholas Works on opposite sides of Brickyard Lane.
In 1913 the Derwent Valley Light Railway was completed which linked Layerthorpe and Cliffe Common near Selby. This 16 mile track was the only agricultural railway ever built in Britain under the Light Railways Act of 1896. Chicory was one of the crops which was transported from the farms to Rowntree's Factory and which can still be found on the site probably having escaped in form of seeds from passing trains. The railway was closed in 1981.
In 1919 the City Corporation repurchased the land from Lawrence Street to Heworth for housing development, as part of a programme to re-house people from slums in the city centre. St Nicholas Brick Works continued in production until the 1950s, making the bricks for thousands of new homes, including the Tang Hall estate.
St Nicholas or Tang Hall Tip
By the time the brick works were finally closed, the land was a patchwork of flooded pits, hollows and low mounds with the remains of various brick kilns and other buildings. The Corporation decided to make use of the pits by pumping out the water and using them for waste disposal, as the York Corporation Civic Amenity Tip and Landfill Site. Over the next twenty years the brick pits were filled with domestic refuse and industrial waste. Industrial waste disposal at St Nicholas Tip was storing up problems for the future, with materials including asbestos and heavy metals. More immediate problems were created by domestic refuse. Rotting refuse smelt strongly in warm weather and was a breeding ground for flies. In 1971 local residents petitioned the council to complain that the tip was infested with rats and should be closed down. In 1974 the tip was finally closed.
Natural regeneration and colonisation gradually brought new life to the Fields. Local people began to notice the wide range of plants thriving among the refuse and the songbirds nesting in the thickets of bramble and elder bushes. In 1981 the City Council ordered an assessment of the potential of the site for housing or industrial development. In 1985 there was local concern over the high levels of methane gas and the possible risk of underground fires. Soil tests revealed that some parts of the tip had toxicity levels of above 25% above the nationally recognised danger level of 5.8%.
In 1988 York Natural Environment Trust (YNET) was formed and started to explore the possibility of promoting St Nicholas Fields as a nature reserve. In 1989 the Foss Islands area was surveyed with a view to development for industry or housing. St Nicholas Fields was found to be unsuitable for either of these uses mainly due to foundation problems. Following this the site was surveyed as part of the York Green Sites Survey completed by York and District Field Naturalists: 178 different species of plants were indetified as well as many species of birds and insects. YNET launched a local campaign to keep St Nicholas Fields as open green space and develop it as an urban nature reserve. A petition with 1012 signatures was delivered to the City Council who agreed to the proposal. The future looked secure.
From Urban Nature Park to a Local Nature Reserve
The transition from unofficial wild space to Urban Nature Park has not been easy. Before the Council could formally open the land as public open space the refuse, with all its health and safety hazards, had to be sealed under a thick capping layer of clay. In 1992 the Friends of St Nicholas Fields was formed to represent the views of local residents in negotiations over the development of the park. When work on capping the site began in 1994 the Friends were able to identify and mark significant trees and shrubs to be preserved.
During 1994 50,000 cubic metres of clay, from Clifton Moor, was spread over the Fields. The City Council were also responsible for installing a basic network of paths and the distinctive entrance archways. While this work was under way, negotiations were taking place, between the Friends of St Nicholas Fields and York Council Leisure Services, over the future management of the park. It was agreed that the Friends should manage and maintain the park on behalf of the City Council.
The new Urban Nature Park was a rather bleak place. Over much of the site the few remaining trees and shrubs were isolated in a sea of sticky clay. The new paths were stark ribbons of tarmac snaking across this wasteland. There was a lot of work to be done. Over the last ten or fifteen years the Friends of St Nicholas Fields and other local volunteers have planted several thousand trees and shrubs, sown wildflower meadows, constructed new pathways and cleared tons of rubbish.
You can come see the difference for yourself. The site has changed so much so that in February 2004 St Nicholas Fields was designated a Local Nature Reserve in order to help protect its thriving habitats.
York Environment Centre
With the opening of the Environment Centre
in May 2000 another new chapter opened in the story of St Nicholas Fields.
Having transformed a rubbish tip into a nature reserve, we now hope to help transform York into a sustainable city and the Centre was designed with sustainability in mind as an inspiration and resource for such a change. The main teaching space at the Centre is used regularly by visiting
school groups and other education courses. It is also available for
hire, for meetings, workshops and community events. The Friends of
St Nicholas Fields manage the Centre and the local nature reserve from an office here. The Centre is open to the public and we encourages visitors to have a browse of our composting and other displays, and pick up information materials or advice on a variety of environmental issues.
The little YouTube video below was filmed on St Nicks in July 2009 and broadcast as part of The One Show on 19th August 2009 on BBC One. The filming crew spent one and a half days in the nature reserve and we're very grateful to BBC One for showing off the beauty and wildlife of St Nicks (in contrast to the stinking mess of York's working landfill site at Harewood Whin).