A run through Calverley Woods

My afternoon run today took me into Calverley Woods on the opposite side of the Aire Valley to our home in Rawdon. I approached from Harrogate Road, Apperley Bridge, whose residents were rocked by a loud blast on 19 June 1959. A huge cloud of smoke billowed above Calverley Woods and word soon spread that Guy’s Fireworks Factory (off Clara Drive) had exploded.

One man was killed instantly and six other factory workers were injured, including Mary Conroy who was blown through the wall of the building by the force of the explosion. She and one other later died from their injuries. A subsequent investigation revealed that the blast was caused by an inexperienced worker who was boring a hole in a rocket using an unsuitable drill bit which sparked, igniting 5lbs of gunpowder stored nearby.

Remarkably, it wasn’t the first explosion there but it was the first fatal one. The factory was closed down after the 1959 incident. As a child in Farsley, my dad and his friend Melvyn would cycle to the factory when it was closed, retrieve discarded fireworks from the bins and take them home. There, they used to empty the gunpowder into an old OXO tin. If it was damp, they would warm it in front of an open fire, occasionally tossing spoonfuls into the fire and watching it sizzle and fizz!

I entered the woods via the canal bridge and ran up Calverley Cutting, which had been created in the mid nineteenth century as a more direct alternative to the ancient, winding packhorse path. I emerged on Clara Drive and passed the Leonard Cheshire home for people with disabilities. I was reminded that my grandfather once served with Flight Lieutenant (later Group Captain) Leonard Cheshire in the RAF in 1942 (which I wrote about in “Gangi’s War” ).

I turned back into the woods to look for any sign of the fireworks factory or the wartime camp which once housed Italian POWs (and/or displaced persons) who, it is said, helped with the construction of a new housing estate in Greengates after the WW2. There were several remnants of brick structures but it was impossible to determine what they once were.

The woods were also used by the army as a training ground in preparation for the D-Day landings, possibly chosen to help acclimatise troops to the eerie bocage country of Normandy characterised by dense thickets and sunken lanes.

As I headed back to the main road to return home, I ran past numerous clumps of holly. The evergreen is abundant here and acts as a deterrent to the ghost of Walter Calverley who murdered two of his children in a drunken rage in 1605. He refused to stand trial, fearing the confiscation of his property from his surviving family, and was pressed to death for contempt of court instead. His ghost was later said to haunt the local churchyard until it was exorcised by a local clergyman and banished from Calverley for “as long as holly grows in Calverley Woods”.

It was a short run but it had taken in more than 350 years of history. There is still plenty more to discover on my next visit including a mediaeval iron works and, reputedly, a prehistoric rock.

Birmingham Post 20 June 1959

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