Jonathan Schofield appreciates quality and flair at the city centre's 6.5 acre park opening in autumn

“It’s six and half landscaped acres, 100,000 plants in, another 20,000 to go. There are 140 trees spread across 58 species, 70 metres of the River Medlock unculverted, 230 square metres of rain gardens, 2,400 square metres of wildflower meadow and around 2,100 square metres of lawn.” says Emma Cullen, the project manager of U+I, reeling off the figures with a grin as wide as a reused culvert beam. 

"The river is key. It was so important to the overall design

What's lovely is there's nothing smug about Cullen's delight, just enthusiasm about what's been achieved on a site that has been one of the most heavily industrialised locations in world history.

The park was made possible by £23m from the government as part of its commitment to "shovel ready" projects during the barren COVID years. The original design envisaged a spend of £45m, more of this later. 

What does Mayfield Park look like at this stage?

The park, opening in autumn, is enchanting already, even as it beds in, embracing a gorgeous design by Studio Egret West. There are lawned terraces sloping down from the former Mayfield rail depot, now happily hosting Freight Island festival space, larger lawns seeded with tough festival grass with trees bordered by wildflowers, formal plant arrangements, tough good looking benches and other furniture, handsome bridges and toilets being finished off.

There's a huge new playground too with nods to the industrial past of the site but best of all, while it provides a perfectly safe environment, there's an element of perceived risk and challenge to make it more exciting for kids. The playground is the work of Stockport's Massey & Harris. 

If you like parks and gardens you'll probably have visited RHS Bridgewater between Worsley and Boothstown, eight miles west. This opened in May 2021. The quality and finish at Mayfield Park is just as good as that at RHS Bridgewater, an institution which also generously offered their advice.  

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The entrance carries a remnant of the mighty beams that held up the culvert over the River Mayfield Image: Confidentials
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This park lies below Depot Mayfield, yes DEPOT MAYFIELD in capitals Image: Confidentials
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The River Medlock is the key to unlocking the site, here a footbridge reuses those culvert beams Image: Confidentials

So how did that budget cut affect the plans? 

“We’ve had to be clever and use our imagination,” Cullen says. “With the River Medlock for instance we’ve retained the brick and stone river walls that originally held up the factories and buildings. In this way, we have all these beautiful textures on each side of the river rather than costly concrete retaining walls. We've reused the iron beams from the culvert which spanned the river on bridges and over the public entrance."

Cullen pauses, and adds, "The river is key. It was so important to the overall design and the huge budget cut has actually added to its character rather than detracting from it.”

Cullen is right. The park no matter how lovely would have been diminished without the river which adds movement, gurgling rhythm and good natural habitats. A couple of kingfishers have already been spotted.

Cleaning up the river Medlock

The River Medlock was a right mess prior to the park work, silted up with banks of abominable material and the detritus of two hundred and fifty years of industrial exploitation and use as a sewer.

I walked under those culverts in waders way before the park was even a twinkle in U+I’s eye. It was a scary but atmospheric place held up by the huge iron beams, Cullen mentions, possibly the work of the big Manchester iron foundries of Bellhouse or Galloway. In between the long culverts, there were open stretches colonised by invasive species of plants such as Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and that plant-vandal, buddleia.

The Greater Manchester rivers have often been called "the hardest worked rivers in the world" and often smell and feel like it. The River Medlock definitely excels at it. 

The culverts under the site of Mayfield Park looked like the one below from a little downstream, off Oxford Road.

Mayfield In The Culvert
The culverts of the Medlock showing how much filth and waste there was to clear from Mayfield Park area Images: Confidential
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May 2020 and although the ground is being cleared of various trading units the river is hidden Image: Confidentials

That the River Medlock at Mayfield Park is now freed from its tunnel-like prison with all that nastiness cleared out is something of a miracle. 

Cullen also refers to introducing "riffles" and "ripraps". The first of these lifts areas within the river bed and makes the water flow faster and thus gives it a more natural appearance and the second features roughly placed rocks to support the embankment, again, in as naturalistic a way as possible. 

A happy contribution to the site is that some of the huge iron beams from the culverts have been reused as features holding up footbridges and even introducing the site to visitors from Baring Street. 

Trees At Mayfield
August 2021 and the river is revealed Image: Confidentials
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May at Mayfield 2022 and the site is green and the river is free Image: Confidentials
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Some of the old industrial remnants, such as this engine base, have been retained Image: Confidentials

The only cloud on the horizon is outside Mayfield's park hands and applies across the country. The water companies' tactic of discharging sewage into rivers to relieve flood pressures has to be halted. United Utilities in this instance needs to find the money to bring in known engineering to prevent this. In cities and outside cities across the UK this has to be sorted - and quickly. 

As a further point I hope there's some interpretation of the historic features on the site, maybe QR codes given everybody is so familiar with them now. 

A triumph of design and delivery

Those concerns aside Mayfield Park is a triumph of design and delivery. It's unique in being created before the other elements of the Mayfield site, the buildings, residential and commercial, have been built. That's a Christmas-came-early result.

The autumn date of opening is to allow some of the soft landscaping features to be completed and for plants to establish themselves. We'll soon be there, autumn's not far away. The park will be open from dawn to dusk seven days a week. Maintenance budgets are being sorted to ensure the longevity of the park. 

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The new toilet block going up at Mayfield Park Image: Confidentials
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A proper city centre play area not that thing in Piccadilly Gardens Image: Confidentials

"What's not to love about delivering Mayfield Park," says Cullen. "It's creating a space for people to come on their lunch, bring their families, relax. We've wanted to honour the history of the site too and reuse materials which is a lot riskier in terms of development. I'm very very proud to have been part of this."

Everybody involved should be proud. 

Mayfield Park opens to the public in Autumn 2022 and will be off Baring Street, between Piccadilly Station and the Mancunian Way - right next to Escape To Freight Island.

You can join a Jonathan Schofied Manchester tour here.

Read next: An insider’s guide to eating and drinking in Monton

Read again: Way Above the Houses: the aerial art performance taking over MediaCity

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