It’s one of Leeds’ best-kept secrets, but if you love walking, you simply have to visit St Aidan’s.
It’s not often that you find a place like St Aidan’s. It’s the whole package, a huge nature park with a little something for everyone. The site itself is steeped in history. It was once an open cast mine and you’ll find its past is impossible to ignore. Nowadays, it’s more about nature than industry. So whether you’re looking for a leisurely stroll or full-on welly walk, you’ll get a chance to see stunning views, rare birds and a rather unusual contraption…
They have over 12 kilometres of trails for you to explore
St Aidan’s is huge. It covers a massive 400 hectares, with everything from rare reedbeds to lakes, woodlands and open pastures. There’s a lot to see here, and they’ve created four distinctly different trails to help you do it. You can take a leisurely stroll through wildflower meadows, discover the magic of the whispering reedbeds, venture into the woods or hike to the top of the hillside for incredible views across the park – the choice is yours.
The reedbeds are really quite special and we’ll tell you why
There are just 900 reedbeds left in the UK, and of those, only 50 are over 20 hectares in size – St Aidan’s is one of them. It covers nearly 60 hectares, and they’re working very hard to make sure it stays that way. Reedbeds are at constant risk of succumbing to scrub and woodland, so the RSPB have to keep them at bay.
By doing so, they’re helping to protect one of the most important habitats for birds in the UK. Bittern, marsh harriers and bearded tits are just a few of the rare birds that breed exclusively in the reedbeds, and without them, they’d be in danger of going extinct. And it’s not just birds, the reedbeds are home to a whole host of wildlife, so you could get a glimpse of something really special.
They have two buggy-friendly walks
Got kids in tow? They’ve got you covered, with two walks that are absolutely perfect for families. They’re both buggy and bike friendly – you can even pick up a bug hunting backpack for £3 to keep the little ones entertained.
Bowers Bimble is a 1.8 kilometre trail that will take you around the lake and on through grasslands and wildflowers meadows, before you return to the carpark, while the Reedbed Ramble is slightly longer at 4.6 kilometres and will see you wandering around the reedbeds, spotting wildlife as you go.
You can see birds that you’ve never seen before
St Aidan’s is managed by the RSPB – and with good reason. It’s an incredible spot for bird watching with loads of different species for you to see and binoculars to hire for just £3. You can spot kestrels, short-eared owls, water rails and little owls (you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled for these guys though, they’re the smallest owls in the UK).
If you’re really lucky, you might even catch sight of a bittern. This unusual heron is Britain’s loudest bird, but it was classed as extinct in the UK in the late 19th century and even after its return it remained under threat – so you’ve almost never had a chance to hear its eerie booming cry. But thanks to the RSPB, we have three nesting bitterns right here in Leeds.
It’s as good for dog walkers as it is for bird watchers
Just because it’s great for bird watching, doesn’t mean you can’t bring your dog. In fact, they love pooches at St Aidan’s – they have free dog biscuits and poo bags in the visitor centre, as well as a dog-friendly balcony. Plus, there’s a dedicated recreation area where you can let your dog run wild and you’re also free to take your dog anywhere in the park, you just have to follow a few simple guidelines.
Either keep your dog under what they call ‘effective control’, which basically means they have to stay on the path and come when called, or keep them on the lead – whichever you choose, St Aidan’s is absolutely full of sniffs, so they’ll love every minute.
You can do a proper woodland walk (just make sure you wear your wellies)
It’s not often that you get to take a stroll along the banks of the River Aire and delve into the woods, all in one outing, but that’s exactly what’s on offer at St Aidan’s. They have two trails well worth getting your wellies on for, and at this time of year, both come with serious perks.
Lowther Loop will take you in amongst the trees, as you make your way around the lake, passing the river on a 2.8 kilometre trek through muddy terrain. Want something even more challenging? Try the Hillside Hike. You’ll work your way up steep hills and inclines where stunning views await. At this time of year, both trails offer an added bonus – you can harvest the last of the blackberries, as well as rosehips, elderberries and hawthorn berries.
You can see the Starling murmurations
Have you ever seen a starling murmuration? It’s a sight to behold and one you’ll never forget, as thousands of birds come together in perfect unison creating a series of ever-changing patterns in the sky. Autumn brings thousands of starlings to roost at St Aidan’s, and the best time to see them take flight is in the early evening, just before dusk.
It connects to the Trans Pennine Trail
You’ve got 12 kilometres of walking right here, but if you want to mix things up a bit, the Trans Pennine Trail runs right along the back of the park, so you can add a little variation into your next day out. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, why not walk here from Royal Armouries in the heart of Leeds? You can reward yourself with a cuppa in the visitor centre, where you can take in stunning views across the park before you set off home.
There’s always someone around to answer your questions
Because St Aidan’s is run by RSPB, they have an army of volunteers to help you make the most of the park. So whether you need help finding your way around, have questions about the local wildlife or want to know a little more about the history of the site, there’s always someone on hand to help.
The visitor’s centre is your first port of call, but they also have volunteers roaming the park, so look out for their friendly helpers while you’re walking around. Oh, and if you happen to have a bit of free time on your hands, they’re always looking for extra volunteers.
You can see a 1,200 tonne coal dragline
Oddball is one of the most unusual finds at St Aidan’s. It’s a Bucyrus Erie BE 1150 Walking Dragline Excavator, a remnant of the site’s past as an open cast mine. It’s not actually run by St Aidan’s, but you can get a cracking view of it from the cafe – and the kids will absolutely love it, especially if they’ve got a thing for diggers.
In fact, this is probably the biggest digger they’ll ever see. It looks like something out of Star Wars – it actually has legs and they once walked it over this very ground. Look out for their open days for a chance to go inside.
You can help shape how it develops
St Aidan’s is still very much a work-in-progress. They’ve only just got started and they’d like you to help shape the park’s future. So if there’s something you feel is missing, if you like to see more benches or you’ve got a hankering for photography courses, let them know. Their volunteers are always around for a chat and they’ll be only too happy to pass your feedback on.
St Aidan’s Nature Park, Astley Lane, Swillington, LS26 8AL.