THERE has been a history of underground fires here in the Black Country since time immemorial, or at least since the earth beneath our feet began to be exploited for its mineral wealth during the period of industrial expansion.
The most striking reminder of this particular legacy of the Dark Region's past can be found in the name of a public house near Bradley called "The Fiery Holes", which is located at the heart of what was once dubbed the Black Country's industrial birthplace. Old ordnance survey maps of the area dating back to the early 20th century also use the description "Fiery Holes".
The Bugle has broached this subject several times over the years, the last time a year ago, and we have received a comprehensive response from our Scottish correspondent Ray James at his home in the Highlands, who can remember fires burning in his youth and later, living in the Tipton/Wednesbury area.
Ray told us, "I have memories of three fires, the first on the site of the Wednesbury Oak Estate in Tipton, up towards Cox's Bridge, which at the time must have been a substantial fire as the fire brigade had to breach the wall of the Birmingham canal to extinguish it and emptied the cut in the process, but at least it had the desired affect. The second was directly behind where I lived in Leabrook Road, just inside the Wednesbury boundary. I was closing the curtains one night and could see flames licking the air beyond the back garden wall. On closer inspection the flames were leaping out of the ground about 50yds away.
"I believe the ground at the time belonged to a firm called H. Bridges of Minworth who sold ashes and old railway sleepers, but hadn't been on site for some time. Later, after talking to my neighbour Tony Winters, I discovered it was also a dumping ground for ashes created by the steam trains at the time; LMS & GWR sidings were adjacent to the site.
"I contacted the local council about the situation and had to be persistent with my calls, finally telling them I was drafting a letter to my local MP Betty Boothroyd. This had the desired affect and workmen were despatched the next day armed with earth removers to dig out the seat of the fire.
"I suppose the memory of the third fire at the 'ot bonk is my fondest recollection. Looking back it was a man-made bonk from the spoil of the old mine shafts. Avid train-spotters, of which I was one, never really sleep and we used to traipse around various locations spotting at night to catch locos that had been missed during the day. One regular shortcut was down the lane that ran alongside the Prodorite in Leabrook Road. I never recall it having a name at the time, but years later I think it was called Forrest Road. It has now been built on.
"Beyond the Prodorite gates everything was unmade and you had to follow a deeply furrowed and decidedly dodgy pathway to the course of the old Lea Brook. In the dark this narrow route was doubly dangerous, especially when crossing the bridge that had been made from recycled railway sleepers. If you fell into the brook you wouldn't necessarily drown, but there was every chance the toxic mixture in the water would do you a great deal of harm.
"We named it the 'ot bonk because in places it literally glowed in the dark. These places seemed to change day after day, and when it rained it steamed. But being ever resourceful in our pursuit of train-spotting it was always a warm spot to sit down on in the winter. I chuckle to myself when I think back and realise why we spent so much time at the 'ot bonk. Yes we talked and swapped train spottings, but the main reason I reckon was because it was warmer there than back home. It must have been a young boy's dream come true, being with your mates, checking out the locos and keeping warm, all at the same time.
"I'm always amazed how one memory can lead to another, and I can't miss this opportunity to ask Bugle readers if they can recall the Lea Brook? It started by the side of the old road that ran down next to Newman Tubes on the Holyhead Road, running underground for a while and then resurfacing alongside a branch line that ran into Monway Colliery. It then disappeared underground again, reappearing in Bannister Road until it reached its namesake Leabrook Road, then under the Boat pub. emerging for the last time at the back of the Brasway Grounds. It then rounded the 'ot bonk, went under the sleeper bridge, and turned sharp right into the River Tame.
"From my distant retreat here in the Highlands I have been studying several maps showing the Lea Brook and where the 'ot bonk used to be. The place is now at the heart of an industrial estate, but at least the water course still shows that distinctive curve around where we used to sit keeping ourselves warm on those cold winter evenings."
If you have any memories of Lea Brook in Wednesbury, or the 'ot bonk, please drop us a line to editor@blackcountry bugle.co.uk or phone 01384 567678.