Gathering Moss

The natural history collection at Gallery Oldham is much more than a store of objects; it’s an ongoing process. Over the years, many of the specimens were donated to the museum by local collectors, amateurs, enthusiasts, and local societies. Behind the scenes, the natural history curator and volunteers, often with a specialist understanding of the subject, sift through specimens and help to catalogue them.

At the beginning of the project with Gallery Oldham, I asked for a list of local sites to visit, which would have been popular in the 18th century for collecting moss. The idea was to re-collect moss specimens from these sites and then send these for formal identification by the ‘vice-county recorder’, an expert Bryologist who remit is to cover the whole of South Lancashire. These will then be sent back to the museum to be catalogued and become part of the museum’s collection for posterity. I also asked to look at the moss specimens collected from these historic sites. It was a delight to explore a large box full of folded paper envelopes, each covered in elaborate handwriting. Some of these were over 150 years old. These specimens are from the James Nield collection. Nield was the owner of a printing business in Oldham, but he was also an avid geologist and botanist in his spare time. His plant and geological collection were donated to Oldham Museum via the Oldham Microscopical and Natural History Society while his microscope slides and microscope were donated to the museum by his great great granddaughter, Sue Willington [who also volunteers behind the scenes helping to catalogue the specimens]. 

[Image 1: Glass Lantern Slide of James Nield sat in the Fossil Forest at Oldham Edge 1879]

Click this Oldham Times article for more information.

When these mosses were collected, they were placed into a folded paper envelope, sometimes made from old newspapers, with beautifully handwritten notes as to the date, location and species. These were taken home and dried before being stored. Amazingly some of the specimens are from 1874 but moss is still collected in this way today.

For identification, bryologists sometimes rehydrate small pieces of moss for examination; this brings back some of the plant’s original vitality, making its structures and detail clearer. The sample is then dried out again and returned to the original envelope in a smaller paper wrap (see the yellow paper triangle in image 8), inside which you can find the minute fragment of moss that was investigated. I ended up adding a couple of my own triangular wraps to the collection. I like to think someone might stumble across these in 150 years’ time. This inspired me to make some time-lapse films of the rehydration process, and I have been amazed to see the results. This is still a work in progress, and I have also recorded the microscopic sound of the moss hydrating. Here is the work in progress without sound. 

On my initial trips to collect moss, I struggled to find a wide variety of mosses. So to improve my skills, I met up with bryologist Anthony Gregory [the vice-county recorder] for a riverside walk to get a crash course in bryology.

We met at Greenfield train station and made our way to a footpath alongside the River Tame. We walked slowly, stopping regularly at trees and venturing down to the waterside. It took us over 2 hours to get just 100 meters, identifying 14 different types of moss. I enjoyed listening to Anthony as he talked me through the different bryophytes and how to identify them. Some of the moss we found was considered extinct in the 1800s, due to the high levels of air pollution around the Oldham area [As mentioned in the last post]. However, as the air quality has improved in more recent times, these species have now become abundant. 

Here is an extract from our conversation: 

I repeated the same walks several times. On my most recent hike, I collected 25 different kinds of moss, only a handful of which I could guess the identification. I’m not sure any of these matched those already in the collection and need to return with the samples I collected to make a proper comparison. I have developed a series of local moss trails based on my explorations designed to take you through different environments, woodland, canal paths, grassland and riverbanks. See the moss trails here:

Over the following months, I will be releasing new works based on my experience and organising a guided walk and talking about the project. If you are interested in finding out more, contact me at or check this webpage for a summary of the project.

Gallery Oldham