Unlikely Places… Salford Quays


IMG_20170713_122724[1]Heavy, deep, brutal, eerie even, the watery lost soul of Salford’s Quays reverberates ghost and memory in iron and murky impenetrable depth; the neglected intersection of several watery dead ends. Its past imposes itself on its today. Boom. Decline. Hasty rebirth. Modern decay. Some recent success. The Quays has lived all of this. All of this can be read plainly on its weathered surface. It has no choice but to bear witness to its former function, but is has struggled to find a modern purpose.

The sense of scale here is difficult to describe. As a habitat it resists easy categorisation and covers a great deal of ground (and water), at various stages of development. The bare bones are old and industrial; now post-industrial. In terms of vegetation there is between little and none at all. Brick and iron; deep basins, vertical walls and featureless sediment. Around the more populated basins there are Canada Geese, Pigeons and Mute Swans – all the regular beneficiaries of half eaten sandwiches.

Mute Swan, honest.

Mute Swan, honestly.

There are three smaller quays that have been permanently closed off from the main flow of the Manchester Ship Canal, and in these, the water quality is visibly superior to that of the main canal. The water quality here is monitored by APEM Ltd, who have also introduced small floating reefs of vegetation (interesting article from APEM HERE ). The three smaller quays in the centre have what look like the optimistic beginnings of a reed habitat being encouraged, and there is a small population of coots here that seems well established. Plus the obligatory gulls and the occasional mallard. Not much else though. In the nearly two years that I have worked on the Quays, this habitat has been err …treading water. Lets hope that it has a future that takes it from simple water quality, to water-bird variety.



For that progress to happen, I think, and perhaps this is counter-intuitive, there is a need for more people on the Quays, because that means more people with a stake in the area and its future. At the moment, there is a little residential housing there, but not much. The walkways around the water are covered in a residual film of dust, the railings and lamp-posts are cobwebbed. There is a qualitative difference between this dirt and the lived-in grime of the centre of the city. The place has been effectively moth-balled; the dust has literally settled over it in a layer. And because the environment is bricked, paved and water-tight, even the most common and irrepressible nature has struggled to reclaim it. The weeds have not crept back in, for anything to be done it has to be acknowledged that this cannot be anything other than a managed environment.

The area does not see much footfall other than a handful of drifting office workers with a lunch-hour to spare and nowhere else to go. But the rest of the time this is a socially and recreatively neglected space, subject only to through-traffic. Certainly it is not a place that you would think to head for to watch wildlife if you had the option to go elsewhere first.

The three main Quays at the end of the Manchester Ship Canal are vast deep bodies, the Quays spans 120 acres of water and 1000 acres of land. Once the third busiest port in Britain, they have been empty of meaningful shipping traffic since closure in 1982. Redevelopment has been hit and miss, and the hip buzzingness of The Lowry Theatre and Media City UK, home to the BBC, that occupies piers 7, 8 and 9 of Salford Quays throws into stark relief the undeveloped areas toward Trafford and Pomona Quay.

The Quays that form what used to be the Manchester Docks (previously & imaginatively named Quays 1 – 9) are now named, in part, after the Great Lakes. Of the three largest, Erie Quay, is the quietest and most undeveloped. In terms of bird-life, however, it hosts my favourite characters of the quays: it has a fabulous set of resident cormorants! And there is no pleasure quite like rounding the Quays on a lunch-hour, whatever the weather, and seeing these wonderful reptilian looking birds idling on the floating barrier at the end of the quay.


The Cormorant Community Meeting Place

Their relative peace may be about to be disturbed, however, as the Quays appears to be undergoing a bit of a housing boom. Around the late Nineties/early Noughties, the redevelopment of Salford Quays saw tens of large commercial office-type buildings spring up to welcome new and expanding businesses into a new home on the quays. When the demand for the vacant premises (evidently) failed to materialise and the boom never got started, a good majority of these buildings sat empty and collecting various amounts of dust and decay for getting-on-for two decades. Development: this year (2017) several of these buildings have pretty suddenly VANISHED. Right down to the foundations. Hoarding went up around them, weeks later nothing remains but a neat tarmac platform on the Quays. Interesting. Meanwhile, Sir Robert McAlpine is making noise (and what a noise) with new a new development of apartments on the edge of the quays.

Well, this looks promising, if there is one thing that the centre of Manchester does desperately need it is more housing. Housing in the city centre is at a premium right now, which is pushing rents eye-wateringly high (not a unique situation, by any stretch). Obviously Joe-Bloggs (this one, too) hopes that the new developments will be at the affordable end of the scale. This however, remains to be seen.

For a bonus point, can you spot the Grey Wagtail?… If I’m going to keep this up I shall have to invest in a camera.


Grey Wagtail. If you squint.

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Somewhere to Start

To this beginner the natural world is just waiting to be sought out, someday in the future when there is time and funds enough to go-there and see-that. 

In muted wanderlust I explore my immediate environment, to gingerly dip in a toe, to dip my toe in with eternal hope of some magic and wonder that will spur me – estranged mammal – to seek out the more specialised and rarefied encounters with the wildlife and specimens that exist out there in the world beyond easy reach. Strike a match.

…and beyond that, those encounters that linger in the near untouchable realm of dreams; the realm of the rarely seen and little known, and of the specialisms that are way out there, to be explored and unearthed if only there could be time and resources in infinite supply.

My own little flame is nurtured by the everyday small wonders that are accessible in and around the little patch that I call home. I guard this flame of small-wonder like a worshipper in anticipation of pilgrimage. This ritual familiarity with the familiar, this veneration of the nettles; groundwork for the freer tomorrow that I promise myself in perpetuity, that never comes.

This is a keeping of accounts in which the treasurer is found to be clueless and wanting and needy. I am a minor clerk and the till is colossal. Everywhere the unnamed tentacles draw out the vital richness and leave behind a sickening world. Love of nature, here, today, is an act of mourning. It is a wilful exposure to violence. In learning the names of the declined, the decimated and the rarity, it is a litany of abuse and annihilation ….

…and a choice. Perhaps. Perhaps a choice between resignation and making amends. Gesturing.

What use the affirming flame? This, here, is the true guilty pleasure. It is insurmountable. How do I take pleasure in the beauty of the wild things when I make myself a powerless bystander, a gratuitous onlooker at the precipice of a catastrophe? If I look to the sky and see Armageddon, then what use my preserving the crockery from ruin?

Is my eye looking down the wrong end of the telescope?

I am looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

I am scared. That is all. Scared. Scared to be an amateur. Scared to take pleasure in the world as-it-is. To take it and to not be able to give back its full measure and nurture it in kind. Scared to be found wanting. Scared to love and be the unworthy lover. I choose ignorance because I am overwhelmed.

I have been looking down the wrong end of the telescope and I want to start again. Hail, hail. Pilgrim. Lets give it a go. Lets take pleasure; put your money away and get your head out of the marketplace. Perhaps. Get your binoculars out. Perhaps this ought not to be transactional but organic. I need to grow and I need to learn because right now I do not know where to start. I will feel my own way out of the cave. I will start small because I am so small right now. Not only small within the world, but small within myself.

Here is where I start to build an artefact. Call it a blog. No doubt an artefact of indulgence, but also of this place, and of seasonal and yearly cycles to measure in a small way what we do have. Somewhere to start. Will I ever look back on progress? Perhaps. Perhaps, in a minor key. I very much hope that I am of some practical good, meantime.

Maybe don’t hold tight, it’s going to be a slow ride!


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