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.
“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.
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.
After the Commonwealth Games of 2002 it will arguably be the single most important factor in east Manchester’s economic revival. But, for the time being, it’s all roadworks and dumper trucks. Len Grant sets off to take a look at the progress of Metrolink.
Clutching their red hard hats, two young men are waiting on Ashton New Road, as their bus negotiates the temporary traffic lights.
“Will you be using the Metrolink when it’s finished?” I ask.
“Does it go near college?” asks one, the distinctive hard hats being tell-tale signs that these lads are on a construction course at The Manchester College.
“Not this line, no.”
“Then I won’t,” he says.
“I’m from Newton Heath,” says his mate, “so they’ll be no good for me.” I put his right about the Oldham line and his local stop at Central Park. He’s almost impressed.
Today I am on a journey of discovery. Lately I’ve been diverted and (very briefly) delayed driving around east Manchester as work on the new Metrolink track continues. So this afternoon I’ve parked my car near Clayton Hall and, with camera and tape recorder in hand, decide to follow the track into the city centre.
I’m near Gate 69 as an old black and white photograph comes to mind. It’s a picture I’ve seen of this part of Clayton taken maybe a century ago with trams making their way to and from Ashton. History now repeats itself although, for the time being, this line will only reach Droylsden.
Alongside the fencing I attempt to engage a construction manager in conversation. “It’s more complicated that I’d imagined,” I say after I’ve told him I’m taking images on behalf of the local regeneration company. “You’ve got all the drainage and other utilities to think about,” he says. “It’s not just a case of laying the track.” I’m very unfair to this man, putting him on the spot for an impromptu interview. “I’ve got to get on,” he says, taking the card I offer him. “I’ll get our PR people to call you.”
The line sweeps behind the Little Gem Hand Car Wash and appears to hit a brick wall, literally. Maybe this is one of the sites yet to be compulsory purchased. Staff from the nearby MOT garage have already relocated to Clayton Bridge, says a sign.
Now at Gate 61 (how did I miss 68-62?) I can see there is much activity around the Ashton Canal. A new bridge is being built to take the trams over the canal before they cross the main road. There’ll be a stop between here and Asda called Sportcity: Velodrome. Outside the superstore I stop Mark and Joanne who are happy to talk into my tape recorder. Read more of this article »
There was never going to be anything conventional about New Islington. Already the social housing at Islington Square is included on architecture tours. Now they’ll have to add Chips, too, says Len Grant.
The Chips building in New Islington is now complete
It’s been a long time coming. In fact, just over three years since I photographed workers preparing to dig the basement car park. But with water on three sides, it’s been a complex project. One construction manager apparently commented, “Normally you’d build the castle first, and then the moat!” Here the ‘moat’ was ready-made.
‘Three fat chips on a plate’ is how the building was originally described and that’s just what it looks like. There’s nothing ‘blocky’ about this apartment block.
It’s the first residential building in the UK that architect Will Alsop has completed and the first opportunity for city living pioneers to buy into New Islington. Less than half a dozen of the 142 apartments are unsold and already, with still a handful of yellow-vested workers on site, some apartments are occupied.
Fifty apartments have been sold to Manchester Methodist Housing Association, the social landlord for New Islington and one of the partners in this Millennium Community Programme. There are shared equity schemes and ‘try before you buy’ plans, which means you rent for a while before you put your money on the table.
I’ve been around Chips several times whilst it was being built but today my tour guide is Urban Splash’s Chris Stalker. “We always wanted a feature here,” he says, as he leads me into the foyer. “This is what we call the ‘jelly bean wall’.” Dozens of jelly bean-shaped recesses dissolve from one bright colour to another. Subtle, effective and very photogenic.
The 'jelly bean wall'
We take the lift. The views from the top floors are impressive, looking over the new park, (now called Cotton Field), towards the renovated Ancoats mills. I can imagine in 10 years all the cleared land will be occupied with buildings as adventurous as Chips, and you won’t be able to move for architecture tourists!
On the Ashton Canal side we can see the Metrolink engineering work and the site of the new tram stop. “That connectivity is very important,” says Chris. “It will really open up this area.”
Stunning views that will only get better
It’s true. You can see all the elements coming together: the tram, the canals, the new park, the health centre, and all against the city centre backdrop. Not that much is coming out of the ground at the moment – not even New Islington is immune from the ‘crunch’ – but when things do start rolling again, Chips will have been just the starter.
Names of local rivers and canals wrap around Chips
Chris leaves me to wander around the outside of the building and I try to take in all the names of canals and rivers that wrap around the cladding, supposedly like newsprint. Cheshire Ring, Bolton and Bury, Bridgewater, Ashton, Mersey, Rochdale. Are these all the waterways you can reach from here? Maybe so.
Soon brightly-painted boats will be mooring alongside the newly-created canal arms, their crew enjoying a pint (and a packet of salt ‘n’ vinegar) at Chips’ restaurant/bar. Not long now.
About buying or renting in Chips:
About Manchester Methodist Housing Association: