John Shrimpton, President of Sandwell Naturalists, has a lifelong connection with the Sandwell Valley. In the 1960s he was a key part of the campaign to save the Nature Reserve from development.
This is edited from an interview with him about his memories of the area and his involvement in 'Sandnats', a group formed to preserve and protect the wildlife of the area.
He [my father] used to take me walking down the Valley. We'd hear a sound 'crrrkk, crrrrkk' and my father would say 'listen to that' and he would say, 'that's the corncrakes in the hay meadows'. We'd see birds flying, white wings, a flock of them and they called 'peeeewit, peeeewit' and my Dad would say 'those are the peewits'. We call them Lapwings today, but they make that sound.
He was also a keen gardener and he loved the countryside and he was a very knowledgeable.
I used to get frogs and tadpoles and frogspawn and bring them back, and I'd got my old tin bath that they used to bath me in as a baby, in the garden full of all pond life! My father built out of some old seed boxes, an enclosure and I put all these little frogs in the enclosure, but of course they got out, didn't they?
We used to go and we used to collect caterpillars, we used to collect Woolly Bear caterpillars and my father made me an elaborate box with windows in it, perspex windows, and I used to put the caterpillars in and feed them on dock leaves and privet and then they would turn into chrysalises and after a time they'd emerge as Tiger Moths, beautiful Tiger Moths, and I used to let those out in the front room. They were all over my mother's curtains and driving my mother mad!
During the war, of course there were Barrage Balloons, the Air Force was down Sandwell Park as it was then, by Park Farm, and we kids, when the war broke out, our parents bought us tin helmets and toy machine guns and we formed our own Battalion and we marched off down Sandwell Park, which was out of bounds. We were trespassing, but we didn't bother about that, we'd got a war to win! And surprise, surprise, we found some trenches down there, so we went in the trenches, we shot Hitler a few times!
We had a dog with us, Nobby, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, he was our guardian and we could do anything with him, and then when we felt hungry we came home to have our dinners.
And my Grandpa Dyer, I was telling him that we discovered this trench. 'Ooh' he says, 'we dug those trenches out in the 1914-18 War!' he says 'when I was in the volunteers'. That was the forerunner of the Home Guard. And he said 'we used to go down there for rifle practice'. He says 'you know one day, one of our blokes, he shot a cow. Ooh' he says, 'there was a terrible row!' He says, 'and the farmer, we feared him more than the Kaiser!' He says 'we had to compensate him!'
After the war, by the 1950s, things were getting a bit run down. The Earl of Dartmouth sold out to the Council and the Council decided to drain the pool (Sots Hole), which was a great shame. It broke the bank. And in those days there was no such things as conservation and they decided 'ooh, this Sots Hole, let's turn it into a tip'. So they turned it into a municipal tip and they started tipping rubbish down there. Well, we couldn't do much about it really. I'd been in the Forces, I'd been away and we had an allotment which came down to Church Vale and Sots Hole was just the other side of the road. There were some older houses along Church Vale and they backed onto Sots Hole. Well they knocked those down and they built some new houses and the people started complaining because they were getting rats, you see, from this tip. Anyway, then they decided to take the allotments off us and build some flats. Well, the people round here were up in arms about these flats. We weren't pleased at all because we'd lost our allotment, although they did give us an alternative one down Beeches Road.
They had a Court of Enquiry and I went to the Court of Enquiry and there was a Government Representative there, you know, an Adjudicator and the Council Representative said 'if we build these flats, we want to build these flats on this land.' He said that 'what we'll do, we'll stop tipping and we'll turn Sots Hole into a Bournemouth Chine' - that's the name for a wooded valley. So, anyway, they were granted permission via the Adjudicator that the flats would go ahead and we hoped that the Council would stop tipping. What they did, they stopped tipping and they did grass the tip over and they turned it back to a bluebell wood and they never built the flats!
Well, that was only the start because a bit later on, they decided to declare the whole area as the Sandwell Valley and they appointed a Warden to look after the Valley.
And then I heard, oh, they've built a school at the back of Sots Hollow, a primary school, and this was to serve a housing estate and they proposed to build a housing estate which would have stretched from Dagger Lane, from Church Vale, Dagger Lane, right down to Swan Pool, all down Wasson. Completely ruining the Sandwell Valley that they had just created! And I felt that I'd got to do something about this and I was the Secretary of the West Bromwich Ramblers, which I'd helped to form with a friend. I said 'what we'll do, we'll write a letter to the local papers', so I composed the letter and the Ramblers' Committee helped me and they touched it up, you know. Anyway, I wrote this letter stating that this was a green belt area which served a very large conurbation, built up conurbation, and we needed an area like that as a lung for the people, for the good of the people as well as the wildlife. Basically that was the gist of the letter you see. I sent it off to the press and I sent copies to all the MPs roundabout and a copy to the Mayor of West Bromwich as it was then.
And anyway, it caused an uproar, virtually. Not only was it printed in the local press, the West Bromwich Chronicle, but it was printed and it became headline news in the Express and Star and the Birmingham Mail! And I had letters from all the MPs pledging their support! They debated it in the Council Chamber and they threw it out.
We formed this group. Well, nearly all of us were Naturalists and interested in developing the wildlife and preserving the wildlife, which was wonderful down there. We'd got such a rich environment. So we formed the group but not as Friends of the Sandwell Valley, as 'Sandwell Valley Field Naturalists'.