It was a flash of white half-glimpsed beyond the thick tangle of hawthorns, crack-willows and alders that caught my old mate Taff’s eye. The handsome devil (the bird, not Taff) proved to be a male goosander [a saw-billed duck] paddling easily against the current, regularly diving into the depths in pursuit of fishy fodder. Several more drifted into sight, including two females resplendent with their brown heads and manes of feathers; it’s easy to wile away a few minutes guessing just where they will surface again, as these uncommon waterfowl are exceptional underwater swimmers. Just how they spot fish in the swirling brown water is anyone’s guess.
High above the river on the abutment of the long-demolished old railway bridge stood a heron, whilst bank-top bushes echoed with the alarm calls of sparrows and finches all-of-a-lather because of a patrolling kestrel nearby. Moorhen shrieked their unmistakeable call and long-tailed tits pipped and flitted amongst the branches of old apple trees, vestiges of long-gone orchards. The winter sun shone; all was well with the world.
And where is this earthly paradise? Right opposite Cheadle sewage works, hemmed-in by the frantically busy M60 motorway, industrial estates and slap-bang beneath the main flight-path to nearby Manchester Airport. Just three decades ago the Mersey was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe; virtually lifeless and only a short step from being treated as a fire hazard as, famously, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio was in the late 1950’s.
Sterling work by the Mersey Basin Campaign, its partners and countless volunteers has seen a miraculous transformation since 1984. Dredging, new treatment works, creation of weirs, vegetation management, pollution removal schemes, land management changes, planning controls and a host of other facilitating measures have come together to wrest the Mersey from the brink of extinction.
Were it still open and running, passengers on the old Midland main line between Manchester Central and St Pancras would see another world from the carriage windows, one totally unrecognisable and transformed from open industrial sewer into a vibrant green, watery corridor richly endowed with wildlife – canoeists paddle where once chemical cocktails brewed, whilst ramblers ply the old trackbed along wooded corridors that lead to riverside paths. That goosanders fish here is the icing on the cake of this remarkable transformation.
The lively rapids above Burnage Rugby Club often host a couple of herons and kingfishers fish here, too.
Local rumour speaks of otters seen at the old Cheadle Bridge just downstream and salmon are back. Foxes pad and weasels scurry maniacally across the paths, enlivening strolls in the slowly lengthening hours of daylight. Only a few days ago I watched a buzzard being mobbed by crows, and my stroll back to The Griffin for a pint or two of post-walk analysis was accompanied by a tawny owl pair’s familiar “To whit To whoo” drifting from the churchyard’s encircling old trees.
Such an improbable resurgence of a wildlife and vegetation corridor is ample evidence that, given resources and time, even basket-cases can be revived and renewed. It’s also proof that you don’t need to live in the depths of the countryside to enjoy visits and walks rich with the promise of sharing nature’s bounty. If urban countryside is the most accessible green space you can reach, then a few hours and a few visits will reward your time and effort many-fold.
Look out in the future for more of Footpad’s perambulations and observations in the great Heaton Mersey Outdoors.
© ‘Footpad’ ‘Footpad is a leisure and countryside writer living in Heaton Mersey.