The Best Job?

Posted by editor on October 12, 2010 under Environment

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.

Ben Knott: "I creep on in the mornings to watch the herons."

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.

Maintaining Manchester's one and only beach“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.”

Of the six eggs laid, one cygnet has survived.

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.

Cotton Field: adjacent to the renovated mills of Ancoats.

Cotton Field: adjacent to the renovated mills of Ancoats.

From next Spring, a tranquil spot for residents and visitors.

Cotton Field, named following a competition.

The island has nesting holes left in the stonework.

Trail Blazers

Posted by editor on July 20, 2010 under Community, Environment

Surrounded by wildflower meadows, kingfishers and tawny owls, you’d never guess you were in Gorton. But, as Len Grant reports, there’s a whole lot to discover beyond Tesco and the busy Hyde Road.

Simon and Vicky on part of the Gorton Heritage Trail: "It celebrates local heritage amongst outstanding wildlife habitats."

Simon hasn’t always lived in Gorton. In fact, when he moved here from Whalley Range in south Manchester just three years ago he admits he had negative preconceptions about the place. “I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this house,” he says. “But it was the location that really sold it for me: the views and the amazing habitats right on the doorstep.”

Simon’s small cottage is part of a conservation area with some older houses nearby dating back to the Gorton Hall estate. He didn’t realise until he’d moved in that his new home was right next to the Gorton Heritage Trail. “One of the neighbours gave me a leaflet, and that was the first I’d heard of it.”

The Trail was established 10 years earlier in 1997, inspired by local councillor and one time Lord Mayor of Manchester, James Ashley. It was Ashley and a group of local people he brought together who first recognised the potential of celebrating local heritage within a trail that took in some outstanding wildlife habitats. The trail includes Richard Peacock’s Mausoleum (he of Beyer Peacock fame), the ‘Dissenters Graveyard’ at Brookfield Church, an old salt road and lots of clues to an old tannery.

With his fiancée, Vicky Evans, Simon joined in with the group’s efforts to maintain the trail. “As ecologists we are both interested in practical conservation work – we help with the Wildlife Trust as well – and we thought we could lend a hand with some of the hard work.” Content with weeding, litter picking and clearing paths, he wasn’t so keen at first on joining the organising committee.

“James Ashley had died a year or so before I moved here and the committee was becoming gradually disillusioned. They’d put in a massive effort over the first few years but needed new blood to take things forward. And so, despite paperwork not being a strong point, I reluctantly agreed to come on board.”

The timing was good, however. In early 2009 the Environment Team at New East Manchester contacted the group and asked how they could help.

“They asked how the trail was being used,” recalls Simon, “and how it could be developed further as a community asset. Groundwork was then commissioned to conduct a consultation which lasted several months.”

Exhibitions were set up locally in the library and the indoor market; there were door-to-door questionnaires; and walkers were stopped on the footpaths and quizzed about their use of the trail. “Groundwork produced a really detailed masterplan which captured everyone’s comments and ideas and set out funding opportunities and a whole list of medium and long-term goals.

“It’s really invigorated the committee,” enthuses Simon. “Since then we’ve won funding for tools and safety equipment for our clean-up days and new computer equipment for all our admin.”

But there’s a lot to do. “One of the long-term goals is to have a pedestrian crossing at the point where the footpath dissects the busy Hyde Road. That’s quite crucial to the future of the trail. New East Manchester are also applying for an ‘Access to Nature’ grant on our behalf so we could afford a part-time development worker. Yes, the last 18 months have been good, which has been down to the help we’ve had from New East Manchester.

“If I were able to see into the future I’d see the trail being used by lots more local people, being well sign-posted and being accessible to local schools and youth groups for things like pond-dipping and bug hunts. It’d be great!”

See the Gorton Heritage Trail website here

Flash, Bang, Wallop

Posted by editor on July 2, 2010 under Art, sport and leisure, Environment

On the same afternoon as England’s bid to reach the World Cup quarter finals, photographer Len Grant led a photography workshop at Clayton Vale hosted by Groundwork.

Photography workshop in the beautiful Clayton Vale. Photo: Len Grant

I was surprised anyone showed up at all. This was the big one: England versus Germany and it seemed every other house in east Manchester was sporting a massive St George’s flag or half a mile of bunting. Many had both.

But as our own kick-off arrived there were many eager snappers fingering their dials and knobs ready to capture the beauty of the Vale.

Billed as being totally non-technical, I firstly extolled the virtues of ‘looking at light’, imagining the sun as one massive photographic light that could be either on, off or many variations in between.

Getting a different viewpoint. Photo: Elliot Brown

The committed participants also heard my recommendation for ‘moving about’, looking for the best viewpoint and not being content with the view of a scene that first presents itself. It sounds incredibly basic but it is consistently overlooked and can make a good photograph even better.

I remember my photographic education – such as it was – took great leaps forward when my evening class teacher encouraged us to start taking pictures in a sequence rather than looking just for that killer shot. So my workshop participants were sent off to take a series of images, of any subject matter, that might be the beginning of ‘story-telling’, or at least thinking about they wanted to say with their photography before lifting the viewfinder to the eye.

Congratulation to all involved. It was a constructive afternoon for photography if not for English football. Here are some of the results.

Grow It. Cook It. Eat It.

Posted by editor on June 22, 2010 under Community, Education and health, Environment

Well known for their recycling, east Manchester’s EMERGE is progressively launching new local initiatives that encourage sustainable living. Here Len Grant meets newest recruit, Ben Lear, their Growing Foods Project Leader.

Ben Lear: "Growing and cooking our own food... these are skills we could lose."

Ben’s new job seems easy enough: encourage local people to start growing their own food. On a sunny day in June with the first pea pods appearing in the EMERGE teaching garden, it is surely an idyllic task.

But, even with the increasing popularity of growing your own, the odds are stacked against him. On the main road opposite the newly created garden the construction of two new fast food outlets highlights our preference for instant, unhealthy food. Many of the lorries driving into the New Smithfield Market – where EMERGE are based – bring more fruit and vegetables from around the world and, says Ben, serve as a constant reminder of the importance of locally grown food.

Food containers, tyres... you can grow food in anything

Since arriving in April Ben has coordinated the construction of EMERGE’s teaching garden. There are now raised vegetable plots with courgettes, squash, leeks, spinach and lettuce all making a tentative appearance. Discarded tyres act as pots for potatoes; specially bred worms munch their way through food waste to make ‘the very best compost’, and a large ‘poly tunnel’ has been built as a classroom for Ben’s new project.

“We’re starting a four week course here on July 8th,” he says. “It’s aimed specifically at beginners to give people the confidence to start growing their own food. We’ll start by talking about soils; how to plant things and how to water them; which containers to use. Maybe later we’ll talk a little about garden design and crop rotation but we’ll see how we get on.”

Ben has already set up a Saturday gardening drop-in club down at the wholesale market. “There’s lots to do here and I’m hopeful local people will just pop along and get involved. We’ve built some beds but need more and there’s always lots of maintenance needed at this time of year.”

Keen to take his project out to the community, Ben has already forged linked with some local groups. “With the African Francophone Integration Project in Beswick we are creating a community garden and we might even try and grow some native African vegetables. But I’d like to hear from other groups or individuals who have a plot, however small, that they’d like to cultivate.”

Ben’s job at EMERGE – the social enterprise that spearheaded recycling in Manchester long before it become mainstream – is funded by the Manchester Carbon Innovation Fund. Manchester City Council has invested £1 million in local projects that tackle climate change.

Trucks bringing fruit and veg from around the world are a constant reminder

There are beehives in urban allotments, ‘green roofs’ on community buildings and, in the Northern Quarter, the first ‘smart energy business district’ where offices and homes can monitor and reduce their energy use.

“Following the Growing Foods Project we hoping to open a cookery centre here,” says Ben, “it’s the logical next step after you’ve grown your own local, nutritious food. My granddad is a great gardener and my grandma is a great cook and it’s those skills that we are in danger of losing.”

Like to know more about growing your own food?
Contact Ben Lear at EMERGE on 0161 223 8200 or

See EMERGE’s website
Read more about the Manchester Carbon Innovation Fund