Vice-county 55 (Leicestershire with Rutland)

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A bryological tour through Leicestershire & Rutland

…with Dennis Ballard


Leicestershire is a midland county with a relatively dry climate. The County did not attract the attention of the leading botanists of the 17th Century, such as John Ray and his contemporaries. The first published record was in James Petiver’s work of 1716 in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire.

In John Nichols The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester vol. 1 (1795), there is An introduction to the flora of Charnwood Forest which makes interesting reading and showed that there were some surprises in store for botanists of that time who did venture into Leicestershire. The quotes are as follows; “Although this county was not particularly noticed by the curious of the last age, such as are acquainted with the present state of English botany, will not expect to hear that it produces many plants which are not also commonly found in the neighboring counties, since the midland parts of the kingdom afford nearly the same kinds, allowing for those differences of soil, and elevation of the country, which favour, in particular manner, the production of certain species. To instance, as it does not abound in chalk, Leicestershire in general is almost destitute of those plants which delight in that soil”. “Leicestershire being in general a rich and well cultivated county, and having the advantage of a fine river running through the middle of it, several extensive woods, and a mixture of open and enclosed fields, together with a considerable difference of soils, being in some parts light and gravelly, in others consisting of rich black mould, and elsewhere a deep strong clay, it is thus rendered favourable to the production of a great variety of vegetables. Add to these, a further scope, occasioned by that large tract of land before-mentioned, called Charley Forest; a great part of which is almost as much in a state of nature as any part of England” .“The wild and uncultivated state of this forest, and the various elevations of its several parts, renders it a nursery for many plants which do not grow on cultivated land.”

Present day Leicestershire can best be described as being divided by the River Soar into a western and an eastern area. The western side, with predominantly heavy red boulder clay soils, which is acidic, whilst the eastern side has chalky boulder clay of neutral to calcareous soils.

The Charnwood Forest area is therefore considered the best starting point for the naturalist armed with a copy of the Countryside code, Ordnance Survey landranger series maps 128, 129, 130, 140 and 141, a copy of “Watson” and a 10x hand lens. The first recording of bryophytes occurred there in 1740-1760 by Richard Pulteney. His list of bryophytes appears in Nichols book of 1795. There have been many changes to the landscape since then, but it still attracts many naturalists, and remains the most recorded area of the county.

The Charnwood Forest covers SK40, 41, 50 and 51. An area of high ground northwest of Leicester, formed by volcanic activity in a shallow sea, followed by earthquake activity, glacial drift, geological faults and erosion by weathering, which has left rocky outcrops over a wide area.

Bradgate Park

Bradgate Park, an 800 acre Country Park, open to the public all year, nearest villages Newtown Linford, Anstey and Cropston. There are three car parks (a charge is made). Newtown Linford village SK522098, hallgates (Cropston) SK543114 and Hunts Hill (Old John) SK524117. The car parks are open dawn to dusk.

The park is an old manorial deer-park that was home to Lady Jane Grey, who was born there in 1537, and later became the nine-day Queen. The visitor will find the ruins of the house, with elements of the gardens and the lake. The River Lin meanders along the valley bottom to outflow into the Cropston Reservoir. There is a herd of some 400 red and fallow deer freely roaming about the park. The park is surrounded by a stone wall and in some places with a ditch. This is an ideal place to look for mosses and liverworts. Notice how one side of the wall contains lichens, but no bryophytes, while it’s the reverse on the other side. Also see if the wall is facing north or south.

The park, which has varied scenery and vegetation, owes the character essentially to the nature and variety of the underlying rocks. The rocks control the nature of the terrain, whether rocky hillsides or open valleys, to produce open heathland or boggy areas, much loved by a variety of bryophytes. There are several species of Sphagnum, among them being S. molle, S. teres, S. subnitens, S. fallax and S. angustifolium. An assortment of acrocarpous mosses, Polytrichum longisetum, P. formosum, P. commune, Pogonatum nanum, P. aloides, Dichodontium pellucidum, Encalypta vulgaris being a short selection, and pleurocarpous mosses such as Philonotis fontana, Homalia trichomanoides, Campylium stellatum, Brachythecium populeum and Hypnum jutlandicum for starters. The liverworts favour the boggy areas and ditches. Species found include Calypogeia muelleriana, Cephalozia connivens, Lophozia excisa, Jungermannia gracillima, Scapania nemorea, Fossombronia pusilla and Riccardia chamedryfolia. It will take several visits to explore this landscape. There are several paths leading from the park, across a road to the next site Swithland Wood.

Swithland Wood

Swithland Wood consists of 30 acres of mixed woodland, open to the public all year. Nearest villages are Cropston, Swithland, Woodhouse Eaves and Newtown Linford. There are two car parks (a charge is made) open dawn to dusk. At Hallgates Waterworks pumping station at SK537118 about 300yards from the Bradgate Park along the same road. There is also a footpath across a field from the park to the wood. The other car park is on the Swithland side of the wood at SK537129.

Swithland Wood is a popular place for naturalists. The wood contains two old slate pits filled with water and very deep. These are fenced off, but the spoil heaps around them have an interesting flora. The wood, which consists of 5 old woods combined, has large areas of small-leaved lime trees and mature oaks, holly is plentiful, so is ash. There are several small streams, rocky outcrops and small slate pits throughout the wood, mostly dry in summer, but a few are seasonally wet, with spoil heaps around them. The banks of the streams are a good place to look for liverworts, also in the wet boggy areas. The spoil heaps are covered in mosses, as also are the banks of small leaved limes along one of the boundary fences.

The following is a selection of some of the bryophyte species that have been found there: Polytrichum piliferum, P. juniperinum, Tetraphis pellucida, Dicranella varia, Dicranum scoparium, D. majus, D. montanum, Leucobryum glaucum, Fissidens incurvus, F. bryoides, Weissia controversa, Barbula convoluta, Aloina rigida, Racomitrium lanuginosum, Bryum bicolor, Plagiomnium rostratum, Neckera pumila, Thuidium tamariscinum, Amblystegium varium, Hygrohypnum luridum, Brachythecium glareosum, Hypnum lacunosum, Barbilophozia barbata, Lophozia ventricosa, Nardia scalaris and Conocephalum conicum.

There are plenty of footpaths throughout the wood, which is very hilly with many rocky outcrops.

Beacon Hill

A few miles away, there is another Country Park at Woodhouse Eaves, named Beacon Hill. It is a prehistoric hill fort where Bronze Age goods were found. Car parks at SK510146 and SK520147 (charge made) open dawn to dusk.

The summit is at 248 metres with a direction platform showing the direction and mileage to surrounding places. A beacon is lit on special occasions. The site consists of heathland, open woodland, with wetland areas, where several small streams drain the hillside. Sphagnum palustre, S. fimbriatum, S. cuspidatum, S. squarrosum and other wetland species such as Aulacomnium palustre, Hookeria lucens, Scorpidium scorpioides, Calliergon cordifolium and Calliergonella cuspidata have been recorded here. Acrocarpous species include Bryum capillare, B. caespiticium, B. bicolor, Rhodobryum roseum, Atrichum undulatum and Ceratodon purpureus. Pleurocarpous species include Thuidium tamariscinum, Cratoneuron filicinum, Rhynchostegium confertum and Hypnum lindbergii. This is one of the better sites for liverworts, which include Lepidozia reptans, Calypogeia fissa, C. muelleriana, Cephalozia bicuspidata, Odontoschisma sphagni (but not recorded since 1990), Barbilophozia floerkei, Gymnocolea inflata, Jungermannia gracillima, Diplophyllum albicans, Scapania irrigua, Ptilidium ciliare and Marchantia polymoprha ssp. ruderalis.

As with other sites in the Forest, there are out-cropping rocks which have been twisted and folded to present rocks of many colours.

Out Woods and Jubilee Wood

About a mile further north along the lower car park road, there is other woodland comprising of several small woods known as the Out Woods and Jubilee Wood. The car park is at SK516158, open dawn to dusk also off-road parking further along the road at SK510164. This is another hilly site of open woodland, wetland, rocky outcrops and heathland.

A selection of mosses found in Outwoods: Sphagnum denticulatum, Dicranella heteromalla, Dicranoweisia cirrata, Bryum argenteum, B. klinggraeffii, Mnium hornum, Orthotrichum lyellii, Plagiothecium curvifolium, Pseudotaxiphyllum elegans and Hypnum cupressiforme. A selection of liverworts being Cephaloziella divaricata, Lophocolea heterophylla, Chiloscyphus polyanthos and Frullania sp.

A similar list for Jubilee Wood being Tetraphis pellucida, Dicranum scoparium, Campylopus flexuosus, Orthodontium lineare and Amblystegium serpens. Also Lophocolea bidentata, Pellia epiphylla and Aneura pinguis.

Bardon Hill

The highest part of the County is at Bardon hill with the summit at 278 metres. Bardon Hill is another area of botanical interest, but can only be reached along footpaths from the A510 and B587 roads. It is much reduced in size now due to quarrying. The woodland is extensive on the southern slopes, with areas of heathland near the summit and on the eastern side.

Species such as Campylopus introflexus, Bryoerythrophyllum recurvirostrum, Leptodontium flexifolium and Didymodon rigidulus (mosses) and Lepidozia reptans, Barbilophozia barbata, Gymnocolea inflata and Lejeunea cavifolia (liverworts).

Charnwood Water

Charnwood Water is in Loughborough. Turn off the A6 road, entering the town from the south, just past Epinal Way junction and follow the sign posts. The car park at SK547185 is open dawn to dusk.

Charnwood Water is an old disused clay pit, which has been landscaped. It is a popular place for wildfowl, fishing and model yacht racing. Paths around a lake provide an ideal area for bryophyte hunting on the open tree and scrub lined sloping banks, which are always wet from seepage water over the clay.

Fissidens viridulus, F. taxifolius, Bryum gemmiferum, B. radiculosum and Eurhynchium hians are a representative list of mosses, with Lophocolea bidentata and L heterophylla being the only two liverworts recorded so far.

Morley Quarry

Morley Quarry is in Shepshed. Car park at SK476179, from the main A512 road, turn south on to the Iveshead Road and again left down Morley lane to the car park. Morley Quarry was mined between 1870 and 1960 for road stone by quarrying into the hillside. Today it is a nature reserve and an important geological site with some of the oldest rocks in the world at 700 million years. It is also important for wildlife and heathland. There is woodland, pools and the quarry floor to explore.

There is a good mixture of bryophytes to be found, among them being Funaria hygrometrica, Bryum pseudotriquetrum, Brachythecium albicans, Cirriphyllum piliferum and Plagiothecium nemorale (mosses) with Ptilidium ciliare and Cephaloziella divaricata (liverworts).

Many of the hills in the Forest have been quarried away, and where left to regenerate, are being made into nature reserves for the local people to explore and for walks.

Watermead Park

The River Soar valley is in contrast to the Forest area, being in the lowest part of Leicestershire.
The river and canal had been exploited for transport, then for sand and gravel extraction in the past. Leicester’s Riverside Park combines the River Soar, the Grand Union Canal and the disused Great Central Railway line and starts at Aylestone’s St Mary’s lock, to join up with the old sand and gravel pits at Birstall. These have now been reclaimed and turned into a Country Park.

Watermead Country Park is on the outskirts of Leicester, There are three car parks, (and a charge is made). The entrance to the northern two is off the Thurmaston road near the A46 roundabout. The entrance to the southern one is from the A607 and Alderton Close in Thurmaston. Watermead Park is nearly two miles long, consists of old sand and gravel workings that in the 1980’s was taken over by the Council and landscaped. The River Soar is on the western and the Grand Union Canal on the eastern boundaries. There are several access points from the park onto the canal towpath.

The park is a haven for wildlife, and is also used for recreation and nature conservation. King Lear’s Lake is popular for fishing and a sail-boarding club. Woodland and wetland bryophyte species can be found there. This site has not been surveyed in depth yet, but species such as Tortula muralis, Bryum bicolor, Calliergonella cuspidata and Scleropodium purum have been recorded.

Burbage Common and Woods and Sheepy Wood

Moving further southwestward into the more agricultural area of the county, where the soil coverage is mainly red boulder clay. There are three car parks, two at the Common and Sheepy wood SP445948 off the A47 road, the other at Burbage wood SP450942 off the A5070 road.

The Common and Woods consist of 200 acres of woodland, scrubland and unimproved acidic and poorly drained grassland. Burbage Wood has plenty of deep ditches and is fairly flat; Sheepy Wood is smaller and is raised in the centre. Scrub clearance has kept the woods and common open.
Notable species found are Fissidens adianthoides, Ephemerum serratum, Isothecium myosuroides, Plagiothecium denticulatum, Ctenidium molluscum, Orthotrichum lyellii, Hypnum lindbergii, Chiloscyphus polyanthos, Plagiochila asplenioides and Ricciocarpos natans.

Still on the western side of the County, but north of the Charnwood Forest, takes us to the northern edge of the coalfields. Under-ground working has now stopped and opencast working has been removing any commercially viable coal that was left. The M42/A42 has been constructed through the area resulting in a massive movement of soils. The reclamation of the industrial sites has left pockets of land which nature has reclaimed. Some of these are now nature reserves. The area is also now part of the New National Forest.

Access to sites in the Ashby Woulds is best started from around Moira Village.


Park at the National Forest Visitor Centre car park at SK308157 and walk back to Bath Lane. Take the road away from the village towards the railway-bridge; join the footpath leading up to the disused railway track. There are alternative areas to explore, to the right along the railway track, into the woodland and around the lake. The area has been developed from the old mine-workings. Bryophytes include wetland, woodland, wasteland and epiphyte species. By following the paths into the Visitor Centre grounds you can return to the car park. If the one you chose was to the left along the railway track, continue until a path gives access to the canal towpath leading to the lime kilns and the Moira iron furnace. Follow the canal, which brings you back to the car park.

The walk into the woodland and around the lake has an interesting bryophyte flora, which includes the mosses Leptodictyum riparium, Sphagnum fimbriatum, S. denticulatum, Aulacomnium palustre, Archidium alternifolium, Didymodon insulanus, and the ephemerals, Orthotrichum affine, O. diaphanum, Aulacomnium androgynum and Hypnum cupressiforme. There are few liverworts, probably due to the reclaiming of an industrial site. Species recorded along the railway track, towpath and the furnace circular walk include Polytrichum formosum, Ceratodon purpureus, Dicranum scoparium, Brachythecium velutinum, Tortula muralis and Pseudotaxiphyllum elegans (mosses) and Lophocolea sp. (liverwort).

Newfield Colliery NR

Turn right off the Moira to Ashby road, just before the railway-bridge, into the lane and park on the hard standing facing a house at SK320156.
The entrance to the reserve is sign posted. The site is a 19th century unrestored coal and clay mineral working and includes heathland, grassland, oak/birch woodland, spoil-heaps and several small water-filled pits and hollows. Species of moss found include Sphagnum squarrosum, S. fimbriatum, S. fallax, S. angustifolium, Barbula unguiculata, Fissidens exilis, Orthodontium lineare, Bryum pallens, Ulota bruchii, Warnstorfia exannulata and Drepanocladus aduncus, but very few liverworts.

Willesley Wood, Donisthorpe

Take the Donisthorpe to Ashby road and turn right at the picnic area sign into the car-park at SK330129. The site is an old mining area consisting of waste ground, the old pit-head, grassland, pathways, woodland, wetland, the River Sence reed-beds and lake.

Species found included Tortula truncata, Grimmia pulvinata, Bryum caespiticium, B. rubens, with tubers, Thuidium tamariscinum, Calliergonella cuspidata, Brachythecium rivulare and Hypnum resupinatum (mosses), and such liverworts as Pellia epiphylla.

Moving a few miles further north-east towards the Derbyshire border. This is the only area of limestone in West Leicestershire. The limestone is 340 million years old and outcrops at Breedon Hill, Breedon Cloud and Dimminsdale. It differs from that in Derbyshire in its chemistry, being dolomite (magnesium carbonate).


Park at the top of Breedon Hill in the car park next to the Church at SK405233.Breedon Hill was used as an Iron Age fort. When it was first occupied is not known, although several stone axes have been found. A Saxon Church now stands on the summit, but much reduced in size.One side of the hill has been quarried away. There is a stone wall of local stone between the quarry and church, which is a haven for bryophytes.

The sloping sides around the hill have out-cropping rocks, but the growth of scrub has destroyed some of the grassy areas. Some recent control of the scrub has improved access. Bryophyte species found include Ctenidium molluscum, Encalypta streptocarpa, Schistidium apocarpum, Weissia controversa, Weissia brachycarpa, Weissia longifolia var. angustifolia, Pseudocrossidium revolutum, Mnium stellare, Funaria muhlenbergii and Fissidens dubius (mosses) and Riccia sorocarpa, Reboulia hemisphaerica and Frullania dilatata (liverworts).

In the same district there is Breedon Cloud Wood NR (only open to trust members), but Dimminsdale NR is open to the general public.

Dimminsdale NR Staunton Harold

Park on the Picnic area car park at SK 380220 and walk to the reserve entrance at 376219. Almost all of the reserve has been affected by mineral exploitation. Limestone and lead mining took place over a period of 200 years up to the end of the nineteenth century.

The largest of the pools, Laundry Quarry, is flooded. The limestone was burnt in kilns situated at the bottom of the flooded quarry. No limestone is now exposed, but limestone shales are exposed. There are two prominent bands of sandstone occurring and these have been exploited in the past for building stone. Habitats include open water, streams, damp woodland, scrub and bracken-covered glades.

Bryophytes recorded include Atrichum undulatum, Fissidens exilis, Gyroweisia tenuis, Rhizomnium punctatum, Zygodon conoideus, Eurhynchium pumilum, Hypnum andoi, Conocephalum conicum, Lunularia cruciata, Pellia epiphylla and Cephaloziella divaricata.

The River Soar and the Grand Union Canal divides Leicestershire into eastern and western areas. The red Boulder clay drift-cover over the western agricultural areas is basic to acidic. The chalky Boulder clay drift-cover over the eastern agricultural areas is basic to calcareous. Mixing of the alluvium from the river basin with the other soils often makes the acid soils less acidic.

The eastern side of the County has been well established as agricultural or pastural land for centuries. It has remained rural with little in the way of industrial development, in contrast to the western side of the County. Open access sites are therefore very few and therefore have not been included in this tour.

It is recommended that a study of the churchyards be made which will provide a wide variety of bryophyte species due to the many different materials used for head-stones and construction of the churches.

Resources you may find useful

Ballard, D. 2004. Leicestershire Bryophyte Flora (Privately printed)

Jackson, P.E. 1990. Rutland bryophyte flora. Leicester: Leicestershire County Council Museums, Arts & Records Service.

Sowter, F.A. 1941. Cryptogamic flora of Leicestershire and Rutland. Bryophytes. Leicester: Edgar Backus.

Sowter, F.A. 1945. Notes and additions to the bryophytes of Leics. and Rutland. North Western Naturalist20: 49-51.

Sowter, F.A. 1969. Leicestershire and Rutland bryophytes, 1945-1969. Transactions of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society63: 40-49.

Sowter, F.A. 1972. Leicestershire and Rutland cryptogamic notes, 2. Transactions of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society66: 21-25.

Sowter, F.A. & Hawkesworth, D.L. 1970. Leicestershire and Rutland cryptogamic notes, I. Transactions of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society64: 89-100.