“I MET my love by the factory wall, dirty old town, dirty old town.”
Even the usually open-country buzzard is regularly seen swooping between the MediaCity towers
The unofficial 2am slur of Dublin nightlife, was penned by Broughton’s Ewan Maccoll about his smoggy, industrial home of Salford. When covered by the Dubliners in 1968, history noted a Dublin anthem and once again Salford’s glory had been appropriated, though for once not by Manchester.
The glory of Britain’s industrial heyday is often handed to Manchester and the unfair image left of Salford is deprivation and post-industrial rot. Even MediaCity seems to be built with its hunched back turned to the surrounding neighbourhoods of Weast and Langworthy like a pack of coy schoolboys avoiding the glares of the school bullies.
But the Dirty Old Town tag remaining in 2016 is unfair for a city of 60% green space, including wildlife havens and the country’s first public park.
Splitting the central borders of Salford and neighbouring Manchester, the River Irwell slinks 39 miles south from its source in Cliviger, through some of the most picturesque basins in the country.
The River Irwell
When the Royal Museum and Public Library, now the Salford Museum and Art Gallery opened in 1850 the first curator, John Plant, spent thirty years walking through adjacent Peel Park noting the species of birds he saw. From the beginning of his notings through the succeeding 30 years of industrial encroachment into the Irwell, the number fell from 71 species to just 2.
In the 1960s, the attritious process of cleaning the Irwell, aided by the slow death of major industry in the region, allowed fish to be reintroduced to its waters. In turn, over the last five decades flocks of birds have migrated back to the river in a way that hasn’t been seen for almost two hundred years.
“The Irwell Valley is a really popular site for wintering foul who come over from Iceland.” Salford-based nature documentarian Luke Blawjeweski tells me, whose internationally-acclaimed short documentary Stories of the River Irwell explores how a city reacts to its almost forgotten river basin, “If you compare the biodiversity of the Irwell to 40 years ago, it’s literally come back from the brink of extinction.”
While many Salfordians bemoan the recent yuppie arrivals to the city’s shiny new luxury apartments, the largest flock of new residents has gone almost completely unnoticed. Kingfishers, herons, cormorants, golden eyes, tufted ducks, goosanders, grebes have all re-emerged on the water and banks of the River Irwell.
Perhaps no area reflects the changing face of Salford more than MediaCityUK. Built on the corpse of Manchester Docks and now home to many BBC and ITV departments, the jewel in Northern England’s media crown is also home to some of Greater Manchester’s rarest wildlife.
“The thing about MediaCity is that you can go birdwatching 24 hours.” Says local birdwatcher James Walsh, whose latest ebook The Birds of Salford Docklands highlights the wildlife between the studios.
Northern pot shores, lapwings, herons, kingfishers, warblers, mute swans and more all dine alongside the media luvvies, though few have noticed. Even the usually open-country buzzard is regularly seen swooping between the MediaCity towers.
“We’ve recorded over a hundred species here. It’s like a secret wonderland for birders.”
A sparrow in the city
Beside the hidden nature in the built areas of Salford, there are huge swathes of open nature that take up most of the city. The mosses on the north and west sides of the city are well-known nature reserves, including a recognition of EU Special Area of Conservation for Chat Moss.
Plans for an 800-acre city park should work to combine a disconnected collection of green spaces of the Salford, Bury and Bolton borders into an enclosed and marketable escape from the urbanity in close distance. City Forest Park as it is to be known, would ease access to some encapsulating woodland and develop biodiverse brownfield sites across an area larger than Heaton Park.
Enticing the residents of the city to take full advantage of Salford’s wealth of natural resources wasn’t helped when on Boxing Day 2015, the River Irwell burst its banks and flooded Lower Broughton with over 3 feet of water in some streets. The devastation of homes potentially set back years of a developing relationship between nature and resident.
The Boxing Day floods also highlighted the horrendous amount of litter in Salford’s waterways. As the water level began to reside, tens of thousands of plastic bags clung to tree branches along the river bank, a devastating homage to the harshest collision between nature and human disregard.
A Bridge Over The Irwell
For Salford’s status as an ever-more attractive city for professionals, development is rife.
Mayor Paul Dennett has voiced his desire for green spaces to be secured but the recently published Greater Manchester Spatial Framework doesn’t agree, earmarking several large sites in Salford for construction.
The health benefits of more natural spaces and biodiversity in a city are huge and undoubted. While across the border in Manchester, efforts are made to green a nature-dry city centre, Salford faces some of the worst air pollution levels in the country. Unfortunately, often in times of austerity, environmental efforts are the first to be cut from a strapped council’s budget.
Yet there are endless benefits to making more use of the multitudinous spaces of nature and biodiversity in Salford. Regular interaction with nature exudes health benefits including lowering stress levels and pressure.
“Perceptions take a lot longer to change than reality.” Says Luke Blazejeweski about the Irwell Valley. “In the modern world nature has become something disassociated from everyday life - something we travel to, go on holiday for. A lot of people still think there’s nothing there for them.”
Salfordians aren’t in short supply of natural spots of beauty and biodiversity, the challenge is to familiarise the city’s residents and future generations with the many forms of life they walk alongside and how best to take care of them.
Alec Herron is a freelance journalist who has penned articles for The Guardian, the BBC and Confidential, including An Ode To Wythenshawe and How To Green A City: Manchester's Thirst For Nature.