Tuesday, 6 August 2013

A Walk from Chorlton to Didsbury in July

When Transport for Greater Manchester destroyed the wonderful plants and habitats of the Lower Hardy Farm SBI, with their hideous Metrolink-to-the-Airport bridge, they also closed off the path, on the south side of the river, which leads eastward towards Didsbury and Stockport. Recently, though, they have re-opened this path and on Tuesday  9th July 2013 I seized the opportunity to walk it again and re-visit those of my favourite spots which haven’t been destroyed by ‘progress’ ... yet.

The weather was gorgeous and the day felt to me to have a particularly pleasing, summery ‘savour and flavour’ to it.

The first part of the walk took me past Sale Golf Course. Now here’s a thought - have you ever noticed how much green space in Greater Manchester is devoted to golf courses? If it has never occurred to you, just try flicking through the ‘Manchester A to Z’;  there appears to be a golf course on nearly every page (apart from the City Centre of course!); some pages show two – or even three. I just thought I’d point this out – particularly as golf courses are not particularly biodiverse. If we had as many biodiverse spaces as golf courses then, perhaps, we wouldn’t be in the midst of a biodiversity crisis (?)

Beyond the golf course there’s a large electricity sub-station with extensive open space around it.  I’ve known this area for at least 30 years and it’s always had an interesting flora. I think this is mainly due to the fact that, sometime in the past, a load of limestone chippings were spread over it. Part of this space is open and the other part now has a rather sparse birch wood growing on it. On the open part is a sign saying ‘Private Land’. Although I’ve never been stopped from entering site, I always experience a slight ‘frisson’ when stepping over the rusty barbed wire perimeter. I calm myself by pretending that I’m the great early 19th century Manchester botanist, James Crowther. James, a warehouse porter from Hulme, would range miles on his botanical expeditions and was often chased by gamekeepers - who tended to mistake him for a poacher. James usually managed to out-run the gamekeepers but there’s no doubt that, these days, they’d catch me easily! I also suppose that if, on that Tuesday in July, anyone had intercepted me I would merely have been ordered off the site. James, on the other hand, probably risked being transported to Botany Bay (how horribly ironic that particular fate would have been for him!).

There were numerous Common Spotted Orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) on the site. In spite of the name, these are not as common around here as the members of the Marsh Orchid group (also in the genus Dactylorhiza). They are slim and delicate and often have dark spots on the leaves – which are probably the origin of the common name.

Also present on this site were small patches of Mouse-ear Hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum). These have delicate little, lemon- yellow, dandelion-like flowers. The patches have runners and small leaves with white hairs (I assume that these leaves are supposed to resemble the ears of mice ...).

Is Mouse-ear Hawkweed really a ‘Hawkweed’? That name should possibly only apply to plants in the genus Hieracium. But Pilosella and Hieracium are closely related (Professor Stace informs us that “evidence for [their] distinctness is equivocal”). Nevertheless, there is at least one ‘true’ Hawkweed on the site. At present, I can’t name this plant and would probably have to send off a specimen for full identification. You see, Hawkweeds are one of the most difficult groups in the British Flora. Apparently, all Hieracium flowers are female and the plants reproduce via an asexual process called ‘apomyxis’. One of the consequences of this process is that it gives rise to a multiplicity of similar, but distinct, forms known as ‘apomictic microspecies’ (no, I don’t understand any of this either – I’m just parroting what I’ve read - and I realise that I’m in very deep water here!).

Prof. Stace, in his magisterial ‘New Flora of the British Isles, tells us that, “411 microspp. are currently recognised in the British Isles.” Even he doesn’t give a full account but divides the genus up into 15 sections.  A simpler account, in a book called ‘Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland’ by M. Blamey, R. Fitter and A. Fitter, gives three main types of Hawkweed: Leafy, Few-leaved and Basal Leaved. I think that the plants under discussion are probably of the Few-leaved type. We used to have at least two of the ‘Leafy’ type on Lower Hardy Farm (one of them, I believe, quite rare) but, as noted at the beginning of this piece, that wonderful place has now been destroyed.

The open part of the sub-station site shows every sign of being rabbit nibbled. As I noticed this, as if on cue, a rabbit appeared. It has always puzzled me as to why rabbits occur much more frequently on the south side of the river than on the north side. I’m a little disappointed that, in the middle of the night, the rabbits don’t go ‘hippity-hoppity’ across the footbridges, like characters in a Beatrix Potter story ... but they probably don’t ... oh well ...

A bit further on, a large wild rose bush marked an entrance to the Kenworthy Woods site. I identified the bush as Sweetbriar (Rosa rubiginosa). Our wild roses have such beautiful flowers, but they only last for a few weeks each year. As you can see from the photograph, the hoverflies appreciated the lovely flowers too.


Less than a hundred yards beyond the rose bush, I encountered, on the upper bank, the creamy white flowers of Common Valerian (Valeriana officinalis). I believe that the ‘officinalis’ part of the scientific name translates as “of the shop” – by implication, the apothecary’s shop – for this is a herb with medicinal properties. In her book, ‘A Modern Herbal’ (1931) Mrs M. Grieve tells us that extracts of Valerian can be used to treat disorders of the nervous system. I have a species of Valerian growing in my garden (I’m not sure which species it is because the magpies long ago stole the label). This plant certainly has an effect on the nervous systems of cats. Last winter I noticed that the soil of the site where the Valerian grows was so compressed it was almost shiny. One day I caught a small black cat rolling frenziedly around on this patch of ground. Valerian is a perennial which dies down in the winter and at that time of year nothing is visible. So I must assume that the cat’s nervous system was being stimulated by the scent of the plant’s dormant roots lying just below the surface.


A long stretch of upper bank was dominated by the huge leaves of Butterbur (Petasites hybridus). In my mind this plant is highly characteristic of the Mersey Valley. I believe that generations of local kids have known it as “wild rhubarb” – although the resemblance is superficial. It is, in fact, related to the Hawkweeds I encountered earlier – not rhubarb! Both Hawkweeds and Butterbur are members of the great Dandelion/Daisy family – the Asteraceae. In the case of Butterbur, the flowers appear before the leaves and these leaves don’t appear until the flowers have died away. In many parts of the UK, only the male flowers are present. In these cases they reproduce vegetatively, presumably forming clonal patches and spreading via pieces of root breaking off and forming new patches. In this part of the North West both male and female flowers occur and the females produce seeds (not sure how viable they are though). Both male and female flower heads are odd pinkish, almost ‘fungoid’ looking things. Once the female flower heads are fertilised they elongate into long tassels which are easy to spot in March/April.

I walked further and by this time the sun was getting hotter. On the opposite bank I noted two gentlemen striding along deep in conversation. They were smartly dressed and their only concession to the weather was to have doffed their suit jackets and to have donned Panama hats. There was something rather Edwardian about them. They fitted in well with the fine Edwardian houses of West Didsbury just visible through the trees.

On my side of the river I spotted something ominous on the lower bank – a specimen of the alien Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). This is a member of the Carrot family – the Apiaceae. It is closely related to our native Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium). Members of this family tend to have the same general form with white or yellow flowers arranged in a flat head or ‘umbel’. H. mantegazzianum is as monstrous as its sinister, buzzing name. It’s about twice as big as our native species and its great hollow, hairy stems are covered in sickly looking reddish-brown patches. The leaves have a spiky outline and the compound umbels are huge. But even more monstrous is its effects on human skin. By coincidence, I was talking to a Polish lady recently who had encountered this plant on a visit to Russia. Somehow she had brushed against it and it had raised blisters on her arms. Soon these blisters had turned to infected ulcers for which she had required medical treatment.

Giant Hogweed is a native of the Caucasus Mountains. It’s certainly a dramatic plant and that’s probably why Victorian gardeners introduced it into British gardens. What they didn’t realise, until it was too late, is that it’s very invasive (as well as toxic!). Now Greater Manchester river valleys are full of it. It’s certainly common in the Croal-Irwell and the Bollin Valleys but 2013 is the first year that I’ve begun spotting it in the Mersey Valley too.

Eventually I arrived in Northenden for lunch. I like Northenden – it’s a pleasant riverside settlement. Or, rather, it probably was just a few decades ago. Now, like hundreds of other settlements, in Greater Manchester and the rest of the UK, it’s being steadily ‘ruined-by-progress’. Surrendering our landscapes to the motor car and handing property developers so much power over our built environment and green spaces were never good ideas and future generations will curse us for these follies.  In a front window I spotted a sign saying: “Save Northenden Library”. The sign prompted the gloomy reflection that perhaps our society is now in the process of abandoning ‘real’ progress. Things like public libraries and universal education and the National Health Service were truly progressive – now our political masters want to either sell them off to the highest bidder or to dump them all together; why are we putting up with this?

After lunch I walked down Ford Lane, past Northenden’s fine old sandstone church, and still muttering darkly to myself about the state of the world. I cheered up a bit when I spotted a Polypody (Polypodium sp.) fern growing on an earthen bank at the base of a hedge. I expect to see these ferns growing on walls or, occasionally, on trees – so this was an unusual sighting. There are three species of Polypody in the British flora: Common, Intermediate and Southern. To cut a very long story short, the species around here usually turns out to be Intermediate Polypody (P. interjectum). The picture below, by the way, is of a specimen that I found on a wall near my house a couple of years ago - it's a better picture than the one that I took on the day of the walk.

I continued on until I reached Simon’s Bridge and crossing this bridge, I arrived at the head of Stenner Lane, Didsbury. In base of the hedge, by the side of this lane, is a patch of a plant called Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis perennis). I always make obeisance to this plant as I pass it as it’s an indicator of ancient woodland. At one time the floodplain of the Mersey would have been fringed with woodland – and in this district, this plant may be all that is left of those old woods. Recently, a fellow member of the Manchester Field Club told me that the doyenne of local botanists, the late Audrey Franks, discovered this little patch of Dog’s Mercury long before I did.

A few yards further on the leaves of Ramsons (Allium ursinum) appear in the hedge bottom and beyond that Ivy (Hedera helix) appears. I suspect that this mixture of plants implies that this hedge has a complex history and that one end is much older than the other.

A couple of years ago I found a plant called Ivy Broomrape (Orobanche hederae) growing on the Ivy covered bank of a ditch within about 2 miles of this spot.  Broomrapes are parasites which have no chlorophyll and derive all of their nutrients from the roots of their hosts. The plant on the bank is the only Broomrape that I have ever found around here and now I scan every patch of Ivy I encounter for more. I had no luck on this particular day but a few days later Mike Pettipher, of the Altrincham Naturalists, sent me an amazing photograph of a huge patch of Broomrape (probably O. hederae) growing on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal somewhere between Stretford and Manchester city centre. I haven’t had a chance to go and see this plant yet and will probably have to wait until next year now.
And so to Fletcher Moss and a nice cold drink in the park’s excellent cafe.

And then I caught the number 23 bus back to Chorlton.

Dave Bishop, August 2013

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