Astbury Mere Country Park is the site of what was known as West Heath Sand Quarry, West Heath being an area of Congleton, appropriately, on the western side of the town. The main access is via Sandy Lane, off the A34 Newcastle Road.
Astbury Mere Country Park is, uniquely, not owned and managed by the local authority but by a Company Limited by Guarantee that is run by unpaid local volunteer Trustees and is a registered charity.
The park occupies an area which is an old sand quarry which ceased production in the 1980's. In the fifty years that the site was working millions of tons of silica sand were extracted. The sand was of exception quality, and was used in the production of glass, for example by Pilkington's, and for precision metal casting in the engineering industry. The A34 near to the site was often sprinkled with sand from the thousands of delivery trucks transporting this valuable commodity - there are twenty eight trucks in the picture above!
There were three companies who extracted sand from the site. A local family firm of Sheard Limited who later became British Industrial Sand Limited (later changed to Hepworth Mineral and Chemicals Limited), and Hinckley's (later changed to Westlow Ltd.). From the commencement of quarrying, the permission for mineral extraction was granted by the Cheshire County Council. Over the years as the areas of quarrying were expanded, the dozens of permissions granted by Cheshire County Council were each subject to the condition that 'once quarrying ceases the land is to be returned to agricultural use'
In the late 1960's the technology for sand extraction made a leap forward, with the introduction of removing sand from below the water table. It requires literally sucking the sand up from under the water then shedding the water and heating the sand to dry it. This is of course a far more expensive process than simply digging the sand out, but by its introduction, the value of Silica sand had increased making it commercially viable. The result was that the quarry where the Country Park now is became a big lake.
Cheshire County Council decided that it was no longer possible to insist that the land had to be returned to agricultural use when this new technology was introduced, because the land would be under water. Unfortunately, they didn't consider that the water would of course be surrounded by land, and when working finished there would no longer be any conditions controlling its future use.
A group of local residents walked across the area where quarrying took place, called Banky Fields, which had a very popular public footpath leading to the historic village of Astbury and its magnificent 11th century Church of St. Mary's. As working progressed over the years the public footpath was moved a number of times and eventually was extinguished making it no longer possible to walk that lovely route. Nobody complained at that time because it was such a gradual process, but when the footpath was eventually lost it was very much missed.
Around 1984 quarrying ceased, the buildings were pulled down and the plant and machinery removed from the site. For a few years after that the public used the site unofficially while the owners, British Industrial Sand (BIS) and Hinckley's were dreaming up schemes to profit from the remaining dry land. Some 60 acres remained, and in 1988 BIS applied for permission of the whole of the northern area some 40 acres into a large housing development and at the same time the Congleton Borough Council wanted that area to be developed as a science park / industrial estate.
This is when a number of local residents, led by Rob Minshull, objected because they thought that the public should regain their historic right to access. And so the 'Astbury Mere Project Group' was formed, and began to fight to save the site. The first thing they did was to publicise the object of saving the site from development, and undertook a petition to gauge what public support there was regarding saving the site.
By 1984 quarrying operations at the Congleton West Heath sand quarry had ceased. For over half a century local residents had lived with a major industry on their doorstep; now they hoped for a quieter, more appropriate use of the site within this predominantly residential area of the Town. Nature was slowly but surely reclaiming the area and the whole site was rapidly becoming a valued local amenity.
Instead, residents were faced with proposals for the construction of a major industrial complex on the site. An Action Group representative of local people was set up to fight the proposals and soon intensive negotiations began. Eventually, after years of uncertainty the landowners agreed to sub divide their estate; half the site would instead be developed for housing (now the Ennerdale Drive estate) whilst the remainder would be given over as open space: so began the creation of Congleton’s first Country Park.
However, all was not over for the Action Group. Their professionalism and dedication had impressed many and with the support of the local community they formed themselves into a Trust. On the completion of the initial development works the Trust accepted responsibility of managing, for the benefit of the people of Congleton and beyond, what then became known as Astbury Mere Country Park.
The members of the original protest group then went about creating a properly constituted organisation to manage and maintain the park and to register themselves as a charity. The Astbury Mere Trust Limited was born.
A group photo of some of the Trustees shortly after the opening of the Country Park. From left to right Tony Popadopalis, Mick Foster, Ron Cook, Steve Foster, Cynthia Muncaster, Rob Minshull & Bob Muncaster.
The Trust is a company limited by guarantee with charitable status and was established in 1989. In 2008 it finally managed to acquire majority land ownership.
Original parts of the site owned by the Trust have been managed since 1991 and whilst newer acquisitions have yet to be actively managed it is the Trust’s ambition to take a holistic site approach and to protect and enhance its natural assets. The Country Park is managed on a daily basis by the Ranger Service of Cheshire East Council. The site forms a bowl with Astbury Mere lake as the central feature, the result of its previous use as a silica sand quarry. The landscape matrix of the site evolved through different periods of intervention from the time when it was actively quarried through major landscape restoration works to more recent habitat management works. The woodland areas contain blocks of screening plantations and bank stabilisation plantings undertaken during its time as a quarry along with more recent landscape designed woodlands and natural regeneration. The vast majority of the tree stock is less than 40 years old.