Discovery Trails in South Yorkshire: Natural and Historic Wonders Meet on Hatfield Moors | Yorkshire Holidays

“Look!” Mick Oliver, my guide, takes a big leap on the brushy ground. To my surprise, the earth undulates under our feet. “Did you see the heather vibrate? Just below us, the peat is about 95% water,” he says. “We literally walk on water.”

I’m at Hatfield Moors, 21km east of Doncaster in South Yorkshire, to explore rare habitat – the UK’s largest raised bog. Olivier, a passionate and active octogenarian and former mine surveyor, is part of a management group responsible for the conservation of the moors. He shares some of his in-depth knowledge of flora, fauna and mycelium – acquired over 30 years of walking, working, studying and, at times, fighting for this land – before I explore the 1,400 hectares (3,500 acres) wetland.

Hatfield Moors is a post-industrial landscape but was designated and SSSI in the 1990s. Photography: David Bramwell

Hatfield Moors is a post-industrial landscape. Once extensively mined for peat, it was designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest in the 1990s and gained European protection as an Important Conservation Area. It is managed by natural england and home to superb walks, rare flora and fauna, a abandoned RAF base and a thriving Buddhist community. The flora varies from patches of young hardwood forests and open scrub – thick with heather and ferns and dotted with pine trees – to lakes, ponds and expanses of wetlands.

The moor was once a raised bog and part of the conservation work involves ‘rewetting’. Water levels are raised through the construction of weirs, canals and underground dams and the felling of trees. “Some of these plants have been dormant in the parched peat for four decades, but since the rewetting they’re coming back,” Oliver said. The plants and fungi in question include common and hare-tailed cottongrass, bog rosemary, snuff mushroom and sphagnum mosswhich are largely responsible for the formation of peat once they are dead.

Aerial view of the Hatfield Moors, with water cut into squares and rectangles
Aerial view of Hatfield Moors Nature Reserve. Photograph: AP S (UK)/Alamy

I set out to explore, starting with Boston Park, where there is a choice of maps for short and long circular and linear walks along marked routes. I follow a trail through woods and brush and past pretty lakes and ponds populated by tufted ducks and kingfishers. Tempting trails lead into the woods, but I remember Oliver’s advice to follow the trail – lots of signs warning of vipers and it’s easy to get lost here.

After 40 minutes, I reach a viewing platform overlooking the vast Packard’s Heath, known for its ranching nightjars. Lapwing, heron, hobby and cuckoos fly overhead. Fifty meters further on is a mound built in homage to four Polish airmen who lost their lives here during World War II. Fragments of their plane are scattered on the mound along with a memorial.

The moors are rich in flora and fauna in all seasons. In the spring, the air is sweet with the songs of warblers, finches and cuckoos. During the summer the moor is resplendent with acres of colorful heather, itself home to a myriad funnel spiders. Lucky visitors may even find calm punctuated by the wild trumpet call of cranes, breeding on the moors after 400 years. In the evening nightjars can be heard purring; barn owls silently criss-cross the landscape. During the breeding season – May to September – visitors are not allowed on certain parts of the moors. It’s not just for nesting cranes and nightjars but insects too. The high volume of insects is striking: the air is laden with dragonflies, beetles, mosquitoes and flies. It is one of only three places in the world where mud pill beetles are known to reproduce. Measuring only a millimeter long, they are far from easy to spot. for the enthusiastic naturalist, binoculars and a magnifying glass is recommended.

An adult male nightjar.
An adult male nightjar. Credit: KitDay/Alamy

From the lookout tower, the panoramic scenery is stunning, more reminiscent of parts of Suffolk or Arne Nature Reserve on the Isle of Purbeck than in South Yorkshire. Even more unusual, it overlooks a reconstructed part of a 5,000-year-old monument Neolithic wooden track and platform, arranged in sections of pine one meter long. An official plaque attributes the extraordinary 2004 discovery to – who else? -Mick Oliver. The sign claims that the track was only a hundred yards long and was presumed to have been used for some sort of sacred ceremony (although Oliver believes it was once part of a vast Neolithic trail, a root of north-south migration across the moor).

I return the next day to walk the long straight path along glistening waterways and carpets of cottongrass from Boston Park to the Ten Acre parking lot, then two miles beyond to God, a Tibetan Buddhist center and living community at the heart of this wetland. Formerly known as Lindholme Hall, the building was only accessible by boat until the area was drained and a road constructed.

Floor mats, meditation cushions and gold-leafed Buddhist statues in the converted barn of the Tibetan Buddhist Center
The Gomde Tibetan Buddhist Center at Lindholme Hall. Photography: David Bramwell

Gomde and the Lindholme Estate offer a cabin retreat in its woods and run a weekly meditation which all are welcome to (contact them before visiting is essential). While their colorful temple space is housed in a converted barn, a more ambitious plan to build a three-story traditional Buddhist temple began with the laying of the foundation.

Dusty from the walk, I take off my boots, drink tea and chat with a few residents before heading to the temple for evening meditation. At the feet of a Buddha statue were seven bowls containing special offerings called yonchap, particular to this Tibetan form of Buddhism. As I close my eyes, it occurs to me that in this beautiful landscape, where a dying ecosystem is returning thanks to the dedicated work of Oliver and others, the special offerings in these seven bowls couldn’t be more suitable: water.

For more information and to find directions, visit the Humberhead Bogs National Nature Reserve website