Outside New Mills Leisure Centre there is a steep bank that slopes down to the road. There is a silver birch growing and one or two other trees but it is mostly grass and usually kept nail-clipper short by the local authority gardeners. Due to Covid-19 and so many of the workforce being furloughed, it has been left to grow wild. Like many other roadsides verges over the county and the country, it has thrown up a few surprises.
Opposite the steep bankside, there is a converted mill block of flats. Karen Rogers, a professional botanist, lives in one of the flats and has watched the development of this ‘pop up meadow’ with interest. She offered to show me around.
‘It just brings a bit of joy, doesn’t it? In a time when joy is limited.’ says Karen, as we contemplated the pleasing mix of grasses and splashes of wildflowers.
Karen is everything you want a professional botanist to be. The scientific names of all the plants and grasses trip easily from her tongue but the common names, many of which I remember from my childhood, sometimes take a little longer. Her quiet enthusiasm is infectious.
‘Although what you are looking at is a bank outside a leisure centre, from the species in here it strikes me that it is a remnant of an old wildflower meadow.’ says Karen.
Here is a list of some of those plants: red clover, lesser stitchwort, birdsfoot trefoil (both lesser and common), marsh bedstraw, native alchemilla, Meadow buttercup, creeping buttercup, ribwort plantain, Ox eye daisy, Black knapweed, one of the commoner orchids… there are no great rarities here but the joyous list goes on.
‘But it is the grasses more than anything that tell you you’ve got a meadow,’ says Karen. ‘The key ones are sweet vernal grass, this is what gives hay its sweet scent, and you’ve got red fescue - there are lots of bits and pieces in here that just make it nice to look at.’
I try to remember when this leisure centre was built - the 1980s I think, and who knows how this ground had been disturbed before that? It strikes me that what we’ve also got here is some seeds with a story: surviving this long, just waiting for their chance to burst forth.
‘Every time I hear the mower coming round I get really worried, I think ‘Oh no!’’ says Karen. In actual fact, they have only mowed a one-metre strip beside the kerb so far, a safety consideration to ensure the road users’ view isn’t obscured.
Earlier this year, New Mills Transition Group organised a town consultation to discover residents’ views on how the town might look in 2030 if we were to live a low carbon lifestyle and manage our towns in a more sympathetic way which would encourage nature to thrive. More ‘scruffiness’ was one change people wanted to see - public spaces less manicured and wild plants left to flourish.
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