Across Britain, landfill sites that were once heaving eyesores have been transformed in almost unimaginable ways – from nature reserves to works of art. Julie Harding explains.

Oscillating reeds with ponds beyond, sunny yellow cowslips blooming among the grasses, the odd blue bugle and purple orchid popping up too. There’s even a reed warbler tweeting its distinctive, rhythmic song.

Carymoor certainly doesn’t feel like a landfill site. But every once in a while the reed warbler is drowned out by the roar of a mechanical excavator – and if you look closer, you’ll see a black plastic cylinder among the flora.

Opened in 1970, this landfill site near Castle Cary became an eyesore as it swallowed rubbish from the towns and villages of Somerset, until 1996, when it was covered over. A generation on, Carymoor now has the feel of a long-established nature reserve.

Carymoor

Yet underneath this beauty spot lie 70.6 million cubic feet of compacted waste, reaching down to a depth of 50ft and giving off enough gas as it degrades to power 1,500 homes. Household waste is still incarcerated nearby.

Between 2006 and 2014, active landfill sites in the UK have reduced dramatically, from 278 to 160 respectively, as recycling and incineration take precedence. However, with the UK still producing enough rubbish to fill the Albert Hall every two hours, that leaves thousands of acres of current sites, as well as open-cast coal mines and other giant, manmade carbuncles, to be turned from a blot to a beautiful panorama.

‘Generally, landfills are covered with rye grass, which is often sheep-grazed,’ explains Rupert Farthing, chief executive of Carymoor Environmental Trust, which leases the land from waste company Viridor. ‘Carymoor is unusual in its diversity and number of habitats.’

When the clay cap was placed on top of Carymoor’s heart-shaped 100 acres –encasing mattresses and fridge freezers, the food waste from myriad Sunday roasts, wine bottles, old curtains and clothes – it resembled a moonscape.

Carymoor

A hummingbird hawkmoth at Carymoor

However, university researchers, ecologists and volunteers soon moved in and planted neutral grasslands, wildflowers, reed beds and marshy grasslands, hawthorn to make up hedgerows and almost two and a half acres of calcareous grassland, in which devil’s-bit scabious, crested dog’s-tail, kidney vetch and ox-eye daisy can today be seen among the grasses.

The environment has been shaped with wildlife in mind. Thirty different species of butterfly have been recorded, including the small blue; the grass snake is a resident, as are slow worms, voles, great crested newts and the occasional harvest mouse. In the summer, when the clover turns one of the meadows a rich red, bumblebees turn up in droves.

‘Landfill is a blank canvas and we can do things at Carymoor in a more experimental way than elsewhere, so there’s a lot going on condensed into a small footprint,’ continues Mr Farthing.

‘That, in part, is thanks to Viridor, which, like some other landfill operators, has been forward-thinking in recognising the biodiversity value of its sites.’

Alison Whitehead, development manager at the Land Trust, points out that, with no one organisation overseeing former blots on the landscape, they are restored to varying degrees, depending on the intentions of the landowner, funds and/or planning conditions – which have been lax in the past.

Flora and fauna abound in Port Sunlight River Park . The site was actually a landfill site, run by Biffa, until it opened as a 78 acre recreational/wild space two years ago. Autism Together manages the park on behalf of the Land Trust.

Flora and fauna abound in Port Sunlight River Park . The site was actually a landfill site, run by Biffa, until it opened as a 78 acre recreational/wild space two years ago. Autism Together manages the park on behalf of the Land Trust.

‘The Land Trust doesn’t provide a short-term quick fix, but we make sure that the areas we are responsible for are going to be managed in perpetuity,’ notes Miss Whitehead, whose organisation has overseen the landscaping of eight former landfill sites.

Among those is the 70-acre Port Sunlight River Park and Northumberlandia, also known as the Lady of the North. The giant recumbent female near Cramlington, designed as a tourist attraction and wildlife magnet, was the brainchild of landscape designer Charles Jencks.

‘It was an unprecedented civil-engineering job and Charles has almost improved on Nature,’ declares Viscount Ridley, on whose Blagdon estate the sculpture was built.

Measuring more than 100ft high and 1,300ft long and bigger than Mount Rushmore in the USA and Peru’s Nazca Lines, the Lady is believed to be the largest 3D human form in the world.

Aerial view of the Lady of the North at Northumberlandia, near Cramlington in Northumberland.

Aerial view of the Lady of the North at Northumberlandia, near Cramlington in Northumberland.

Made up of 49.4 million cubic feet of rock, clay and topsoil from neighbouring Shotton Surface Mine, plus plastic mesh and metal pins to secure her steeper body parts, she’s an exceptional way to dispose of a proportion of the waste from an open-cast mine as well as beautifying a bleak landscape. Short grasses cover her curvaceous form and she attracts a riot of bumblebees, low-flying swallows, shy hares and roe deer.

With the Lady prominent in an otherwise flat landscape, the views from the top of the sculpture are breathtaking, the magnificent sweep including the Cheviot Hills to the north and Cross Fell to the south. With binoculars, it’s possible to make out another unconventional landmark, the 450ft Penshaw Hill with its replica of Athens’s Temple of Hephaestus, built in 1844 by the Earl of Durham.

Wasp Spider at Carymoor

Wasp Spider at Carymoor

Just as the Earl was pleased with his creation, so Lord Ridley is proud of the Lady of the North, despite her schematic nature and impossible posture. ‘A lot of people put in a huge effort to get her up and running. She will be there forever and all she needs is maintenance. If you’re shifting that much rock anyway, you might as well do something useful with it,’ he points out.