Last week (Tuesday 19.03.2013) I took a walk westward to Urmston. This has always been one of my favourite walks – although it shouldn’t be because it takes the walker through some of the most ravaged and despoiled parts of the Mersey Valley. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising number of interesting things to see and, for me, the route is now laden with memories of various encounters and discoveries.
I started by walking across Ivy Green and eventually came to a gap in the hedge which leads on to Hawthorn Lane – the lane which our local historian Andrew Simpson, calls, with good reason, the “Old Road”. The first thing to note, by the gap itself and comprising part of the hedge, is a specimen of Midland Hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) which differs from Common Hawthorn (C. monogyna) in that its flowers have two stigmas rather than one and it also has less deeply incised leaves. This is a very rare plant in the Mersey Valley and I suspect that this particular specimen was probably planted in the 1970s or 80s.
Turning left, I followed the lane west with Turn Moss playing fields on my right. By the lane are a number of ‘coppiced’ Ash stools with multiple stems. Strictly speaking, these are not true coppice stools because they have not been cut off at ground level but, rather, a few feet above the ground. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the principle that most British native trees will produce multiple growing points if cut off low down. I suspect that these were created by farm labourers hacking them back with edged tools well over a century ago.
Also in this area is a magnificent English Oak tree. John Agar and I tried to date this tree by measuring its girth; we reckon that it’s around 150 years old. This isn’t particularly old for an Oak tree but it’s probably the oldest Oak in the district. Reading Andrew Simpson’s local history blog the other day, I was amazed to see a photograph of Hawthorn Lane from the 1930s and depicted in the photo was, I’m pretty certain, our oak tree as it looked 80 years ago! Here’s the link to Andrew’s blog page: http://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/looking-out-of-chorlton-old-road-in-1930.html
Eventually the lane reaches the base of the river embankment and then bears right towards Stretford. In the shelter belt between the lane and Turn Moss there’s a little clump of Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Every year their flowering tells me that Spring is on the way. On the left, under the hedge below the river bank are some long, thin Crocus leaves. These are the leaves of the Mersey Valley’s most famous plant – the Autumn Crocus (Crocus nudiflorus). This is an alien species, originally from the Pyrenees. No-one really seems to know how it got here and there are a number of competing theories (too complicated to go into here). This plant produces its leaves in the Spring and its flowers in the Autumn (hence the name).
After about a quarter of a mile the Lane passes Stretford cemetery. Just beyond the fence are several rows of tombstones each inscribed with multiple names. My best guess is that these are paupers’ graves – possibly those of some of the former inmates of Stretford workhouse. Growing on some of these graves, at this time of year, are some attractive little pink Crocuses (C. tommasinianus). These plants are originally from Dalmatia (the long, thin strip of land between the Adriatic Sea and the Dinaric Alps and now part of Croatia). Their scientific name commemorates Muzio de Tommasini – a botanist from Trieste who was an expert on the flora of Dalmatia. They were given that name by the 19th century Crocus expert, William Herbert – whose ‘day job’ was Dean of Manchester.
Also on the ‘paupers’ graves’ are a few of the purple flowers of the Spring Crocus (C. vernus) – a mountain plant from western continental Europe and now thoroughly naturalised in Britain.
A few yards further on and we come to the Cut Hole Bridge, a stone-built aqueduct which carries the Bridgewater Canal over the Mersey. This is attributed to the 18th Century engineer James Brindley. Of course, he just designed it and supervised its construction; it was actually built, c.1760, by hundreds of nameless, sweating labourers!
After the bridge the path takes a ‘dog-leg’ – first to the left and then to the right to run parallel to a now choked channel called Kickety Brook. At the beginning of this section there is a small children’s playground a few yards off the path to the right. On the edge of this playground is a Norway Maple tree (Acer platanoides) which I call, for obvious reasons, “the snail tree” i.e. there’s always a large gathering of snails about half-way up the trunk. Norway Maples have been planted in other places as well as this one – but I don’t know of any other snail trees. Presumably the snails are gaining some sort of nutritional benefit from this tree that they can’t get elsewhere (?)
Kickety Brook used to be a good site for botanising 20 or 30 years ago, with plants like watercress in the brook itself and orchids and even heather on the grassy banks. Unfortunately, the area hasn’t been managed in any way for years. Now the brook is choked and silted up and the banks overgrown with brambles and coarse grasses. Presumably one day men will appear with heavy machinery, blitz the whole area and it will take years to recover.
Just before the path goes under the Chester Road Bridge there is a fern growing on the bank of the brook. This is Soft Shield Fern (Polystichum setiferum). Years ago I found a specimen of this fern growing on the edge of Hardy Farm. I was told that, until then, this species was thought to have been extinct in Greater Manchester and that I had re-found it (!) Since then I’ve found a few more – the latest being this one near Chester Road.
Immediately after emerging from under the road bridge and to the right there is a little grove of trees with dark coloured, almost black bark. These are Cherry Plums (Prunus cerasifera). They look a bit like Blackthorn (P. spinosa) but they tend to be taller and less ‘shrub-like’ than Blackthorn and rarely have thorns. In addition they tend to flower in February – in some years around two months earlier than Blackthorn.
In the summer of 2011 I found a mysterious orchid under the planted tree belt to the left of the path. I couldn’t decide whether it was a Helleborine in the genus Epipactis ... or a Helleborine in the genus Cephalanthera (following me so far?). If it had been the latter I probably would have received the Nobel Prize for Botany! I exaggerate, of course, but it would have been a remarkable discovery for this area. Anyway, I e-mailed a photograph to a national orchid expert and he replied that he couldn’t ID my plant from a photograph and could I please pickle two flowers in vodka and post them to him? By the time I got back to the site to pick the flowers they had developed a bit more (they had only just begun to open when I first found them) and I realised that they represented an Epipactis species ... definitely not Cephalanthera. Anyway, after receiving my pickled flowers, the Prof. told me that all I had found was a very pale flowered form of Broad-leaved Helleborine (E. helleborine) - which is quite common. Oh well!
A bit further on and the landscape opens out – although it’s not a pretty landscape (understatement of the century!). To the left is the M60 motorway – thousands of vehicles pouring out CO2 and polluting nitrogen compounds day and night – just one of the countless nails in the coffin of the world. To the right is large grassy area, part of which gradually rises above the surrounding landscape to form a ‘hill’. This hill is known locally as the “Stretford Mountain”. More accurately it is the aftermath of the Lesley Road Tip – a vast mound of domestic rubbish capped with top-soil. Surprisingly, the “mountain” is a good plant hunting area. A few years ago the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit, in collaboration with Salford University, produced ‘An Ecological Framework for Greater Manchester’ (http://www.wigan.gov.uk/Services/Planning/Policies/DevelopmentFramework/GreaterManchesterEcologicalFramework.htm). They identified a number of “ecological improvement areas” throughout the county and the “Mountain” was one of them. To fulfil its potential though it would need to be managed – and, unfortunately, I can’t see that happening any time soon. On the plus side local botanist, Liz Blackman tells me that she has found an orchid called Twayblade (Listera ovata) in the area. It’s a species that I haven’t seen in the Mersey Valley before and I can’t wait for June when I can go looking for it!
Further on there’s a footbridge over the motorway. On the other side, the path winds around a bit and then forks. Last week I took the right hand fork (the left fork is another story). This whole area seems to have been comprehensively bulldozed at some point and then had a liberal layer of nasty, cindery stuff spread over it. On both sides of the path are copses of, mainly planted, trees which should have been thinned out about 20 years ago. To the right of the path, and parallel to it, is a vile, lifeless ditch. Between the path and the dead ditch are some Poplar trees. I think that these are Black Poplars (Populus nigra subsp. betulifolia). This is rare native tree, probably indigenous to East Anglian river valleys. At the end of the 19th Century it was found to be resistant to industrial pollution and was widely planted in the Manchester region – so much so that it acquired the name “Manchester Poplar”. Last year I showed these trees to some very experienced botanists but they couldn’t decide whether they are true Black Poplars are not; nevertheless the leaves are the right shape, the trunks are covered with large bosses and lean away from the vertical - so they’re close!
At the end of the path, on the left hand side, is a dense copse of trees (mainly Willows). Over the last 30 years or so, whenever I’ve had a problem in my life, I’ve walked out here and sat under these trees to think things through. Once it was a more attractive site, its floor consisting of a thick carpet of Polytrichum moss. It’s now, like far too many parts of the Mersey Valley, overgrown and gloomy. Two interesting plants that I’ve found here, over the years, are Hard Fern (Blechnum spicant) and Rhododendron ponticum. The former is a rare fern in the Mersey Valley and I only know it from two other sites. In several parts of the country, R. ponticum is a wildly invasive alien but in the Mersey Valley I’ve only ever found it in this one site. In fact I’ve watched it grow from a seedling into a full-sized, flowering shrub. So far it shows no sign of spreading.
Beyond the copse, the path comes out on the river bank. Looking east, back along the river towards Stretford it’s possible to see, in the middle distance, a grove of large trees which shield Stretford Sewage Works from the river. In the tops of these trees is a large and thriving rookery. Rooks (Corvus frugilegus) are a characteristic bird of the British countryside, but around here they are now rare (I’d be interested to know if anyone knows of any more local rookeries). There’s something wild and elemental about Rooks: their harsh cawing and the way they look like ragged, black scraps blown across harsh winter skies. I suppose it’s possible to confuse them with Carrion Crows (Corvus corone) but the difference between the two species is neatly summed up in a passage in a novel called ‘The Liar’ by the ubiquitous Stephen Fry. In this book a callow youth is working for a laconic old farmer called Mr Sutcliffe:
“ ... [He] caught sight of a gathering of huge birds, as black as priests, pecking at rotten potatoes at the further end of the field.
‘Look at the size of those crows!’ he had cried.
‘Boy’, said Mr Sutcliffe, tugging at a sack, ‘when you see a lot of crows in a field, them’s rooks. And when you see a rook on his own, that’s a f***ing crow.’ ”
Anyway, moving swiftly on!
After admiring the rookery, I turned right and continued my walk in a westerly direction along the river bank. After about half a mile the path stopped and if I had wanted to proceed any further west, I would have had to have crossed over a footbridge to the opposite bank. At this point there’s a tall, feathery grass growing at the top of the embankment (only dead stalks in mid-March, of course). This is Wood Small-reed (Calamagrostis epigeios) – another local rarity. Instead of crossing the footbridge, I turned right again and walked down a lane towards Urmston.
There’s more to relate - but this is too long already. Let’s just say that I walked into Urmston, had lunch in the dining room of Whittaker’s rather wonderful chippy, bought a fern for my garden at Urmston market and then caught the number 23A bus back to Chorlton.
Dave Bishop, March 2013