Jonathan Schofield recommends this glorious place two miles from Deansgate as the crow flies
This is a fascinating and impressive area three and a half miles slightly north west of the city centre (just under two as the crow flies). The very extensive Kersal Wetlands is a bird sanctuary and a huge open area defined by an exaggerated, no let’s say ridiculous, meander of the River Irwell. If you’ve not been you have to go.
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
The name refers to the Wetlands being a designated flood alleviation scheme. If there is a major flood scare sluices can be opened to accommodate up to 650 million litres of water – the equivalent of 260 Olympic-size swimming pools.
A walk round the full circuit on the raised level is recommended and provides the best fresh air close to the city centre. At the northern end is Harry’s Hill, dedicated to a generous soul who lived in Kersal and worked hard here and elsewhere to make the suburb better.
Sport is the main theme here. Kersal Wetlands used to be home to Manchester Races which attracted up to 70,000 people but closed in 1963 with the last race, The Goodbye Consolation Plate, won by Lester Piggot.
United’s traditional training ground The Cliff lies over the river on the eastern side and is still used by the club although the first team training ground, resembling a prisoner-of-war camp with gated access, is lost in dull Carrington. It was at the Cliff where both the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings were nurtured.
There’s a further United link with Kersal that has become part of stadium life across the country. When the Castle Irwell racecourse decided to knock down the old stand and open a new one in 1961 it included something novel. It included the ‘private viewing box’ now better known as the ‘corporate box’ or ‘executive box’ or the ‘prawn sandwich brigade box’.
When the architect of Castle Irwell, Ernest Atherden, was asked to build a new stand at Old Trafford he persuaded the club to include the UK’s first such boxes, now even clubs such as Rochdale have them.
Before the races there had been a large house in the middle of the site, Castle Irwell, which was home to John Fitzgerald, brother of the more famous Edward Fitzgerald, translator of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
‘Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.
‘Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry.”’
All together dear lovers…
‘Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.’
The 60s brought lots of ideas about new social housing. They didn't work. The demolition of Kersal flats in 1990 still makes for dramatic viewing.
Much more sweet is the 1980s video of kids having a sports day on the racecourse site with the flats as a backdrop. Meanwhile, the Castle Pub video with the ladies in furs from around the same time is hilarious.
The beautiful 60s modernist bridge from the Wetlands to the woods is a classic of its age. I've not traced who the designer was. Does anybody know?
If you want to add to your day out then Kersal Dale woods are very extensive, filled with all manner of flora and fauna. In the nineteenth century, this was a favourite haunt of ‘artisan botanists’ from around Manchester. These were self-taught, working-class botanists and naturalists with other jobs such as weaver, shoemaker, blacksmith, saddler, mechanic, bleacher and twister-in but sadly no butcher, baker or candlestick maker.
Today, a key asset of Kersal Wetlands is the connectivity with the city centre. By bike, I’ve done the journey several times and it’s twenty minutes if you are very slow, via a lovely route through the Meadows and Peel Park. The nature you can spot on the way is an advantage.
The Irwell (once called "the hardest worked river in the world") has populations of fish again including brown trout, while off its bank kingfishers occasionally come careening through the air. The ancient Greek for kingfisher was "halcyon", so should you spot one you'll be enjoying a "halcyon day."
During lockdown a couple of us cycled out in the night and under a bright moon on Harry's Hill heated water for Pot Noodles with the aid of a camping stove and drank cans of beer. The city was very quiet, almost silent aside from a gentle wind whispering in the grass. A fox barked sharply and geese and duck scattered loudly into the air from the ponds in the middle of the Wetlands. "Rus in urbe" indeed.
Kersal Wetlands. Visit it in any season, it’s a fabulous place.
You can access Kersal Wetlands off Cromwell Road via a path hugging the River Irwell or off Littleton Road via Grandstand Avenue. The only thing missing is a pub or cafe so bring your own refreshments.
Read next: Pioneer Quay, where cans of Stella Artois go to die
Read again: The Visit: Ordsall Hall
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