Ben Knott has been the park keeper at New Islington for the past two years. He says it’s the best job in east Manchester. Len Grant pops down to Cotton Field to take a look.
It’s idyllic. A park in the city. A canal basin links the Ashton and Rochdale Canals on either side. There’s a shale beach, reed beds, wooden jetties, but no people.
“Cotton Field was mostly completed a couple of years ago, but because there’s still some work to be done, it’s still not open to the public. But by next Spring, when the first narrow boats come down and moor here, we’ll be able to open the gates and welcome visitors onto the park. We have organised tours already: there’s the Blue Badge Guide’s tour of Ancoats and architectural tourism is really big at the moment with coaches full of German or Dutch architects coming to have a look around New Islington. But it’ll be great to be open to the public.”
Previously a gardener looking after over 50 gardens around Manchester for a mental health charity, Ben’s role here is particularly diverse.
“I don’t just look after the park, I keep an eye on the whole New Islington Development. I maintain Old Mill Street and the other open spaces. I’m down here every day and there’s plenty to do: cleaning, brushing, mowing. I’ve had to keep the weed down in the water otherwise it might have completely taken over by now. But the park is maturing now, reaching an equilibrium with all the birds, plants and animals we have on here.
“In January we introduced fish into the water. Further up the canal was being drained and there were roach and perch stranded in puddles so we went up and saved them and put them in here. They’ve reached quite a size now and once the park is open anglers will be welcome to come down and try their luck. There are insets in the canal wall, designed solely for the anglers.”
Mostly on his own on Cotton Field, Ben has been able to observe the influx of wildlife onto the park and, as a keen ornithologist, is able to identify all the species of bird that are making it their home.
“I creep on in the mornings and watch from the gates for a few minutes before coming in. The herons are the ‘early birds’, standing on the floating islands, looking for newts. They are not as wary of me now… they’ll let me wander around for a while before they fly off.
In the winter you can see all the tracks in the snow and so I’ve known for some time that there’s a fox here but it was only a few weeks ago that I saw it for the first time. I see a kingfisher regularly and grey wagtails, wheatears, blue tits, goldfinches as well as all the different types of dragonflies: fat-bodied chasers and brown darters.”
Once the park is populated won’t all the wildlife disappear?
“I don’t think so. So much of it is well established. Once all the development is complete we might not see the lapwings and ring plovers again because they prefer the large muddy areas that we have now but will eventually be built on. Most everything else will stay. The swans actually like people and, as they only started nesting this year, they’ll probably make this their home.
They made their first nest on one of the floating islands earlier this year. Once the female was settled the male left for 10 weeks – is that what they call ‘swanning off’? – but came back three days before the chicks were born. It was so aggressive in its protection of the young that it actually killed a Canadian goose, drowned some of their young and forced the other geese off the water. Of the six eggs that the swan laid, four survived for a couple of weeks and now there’s only one cygnet left. I don’t know how the others died, maybe the fox got them.
“Yes, it many ways it’s a dream job but I’ll be glad when there are people on the park, able to enjoy it with me.”
See the New Islington website here.