Paradise Found in Salford

Karen Minnitt, a Talking About My Generation reporter and volunteer for RHS Bridgewater Salford, shares her memories of Worsley New Hall Estate and other surrounding countryside areas growing up, as well as explaining how she became part of the team and how you can visit or get involved too. 

In 1970, like many other teenagers before me who grew up in the countryside, I left home and moved to a city. In 1978, having hitchhiked around Europe and lived in several cities by then, settling in Dublin for a while, I arrived in the City of Salford.

I swooped in like a summer swallow with my toddler daughter in tow. My intention was to stay for a couple of months and then fly off to Europe, but my plans fell through. So I stayed in Boothstown and surprisingly started to put down roots.

At that time, there were very few new houses close to the Bridgewater Canal. It was a beautiful wilderness full of summer flowers, frogs and butterflies on one side of the canal and an open rubbish tip on the other. The nearby Worsley Garden Centre operated within an ancient walled garden and was a favourite place to visit.

I went to Salford University as a mature student, was re-housed by Salford Council, and spent many years working within Salford’s voluntary sector.

In 1987, I became involved in a campaign to save the Blackleach Reservoir in Walkden. The Coal Board wanted to fill it in and re-use the land for other purposes, but Blackleach Reservoir was much loved by the local community – it acted as a green lung for the people of North Walkden many of whom did not have cars to help them escape to the countryside.

The campaign lasted for three years and thankfully resulted in the creation of the Blackleach Country Park.

During the campaign, we uncovered the history of the Blackleach Reservoir. The Bridgewater Canal, initiated by the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, was opened in 1761 and used to transport coal from the mines in Worsley into the rapidly industrialising city of Manchester.

The Blackleach Reservoir was created in the 1770s to support the ever-expanding mining of coal. A series of interlinked underground canals were constructed to help bring the coal to the surface and the boats emerged into daylight in the Delph at Worsley for further transportation of the coal along the visible Bridgewater Canal.

Special narrow canal boats called ‘Starvationers’ were used to navigate the underground canals and the men who worked them had to lie on their backs and push them along by walking their feet along the canal roof. Here is a bit of vintage film showing what it was like in the underground canals:

The 3rd Duke of Bridgewater had a very fine residence and grounds at Worsley Old Hall which is still in use as a pub today. But grander plans were afoot and by the 1840s Worsley New Hall had been constructed to the south of the Old Hall and, over time, it featured magnificently landscaped gardens and included a splendid gravity fed fountain reputed to be one of the tallest in the country. The water for this fountain came through a series of pipes from the Blackleach Reservoir in Walkden.

By the Second World War, Worsley New Hall was being used for military purposes. Following a serious fire in 1943, it was finally demolished by 1949.

In 1951, the War Office used part of the site to build an underground concrete bunker, still in existence today, which later became the firing range of a Gun Club. The local Scouts also used part of the grounds, Middlewood, as their Scout Camp. Meanwhile, over a period of decades, the Worsley Garden Centre fell into serious decline and I stopped visiting…

Various plans for the development of the Worsley New Hall estate have been rebuffed over many years until, by the most remarkable twist of fate, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) was searching for a fifth garden and eventually selected this beautiful estate, with considerable support from Salford Council, to become RHS Garden Bridgewater, a garden of national importance sited within easy reach of millions of people in the North West.

Following intensive renovation and restocking of the walled gardens and the creation of new features like the Welcome Centre and the Chinese Waterside Garden, RHS Garden Bridgewater finally opened in May 2021. The tortuous stages of the development have been captured in a BBC documentary, The Great Northern Garden Build, which you can watch on Iplayer.

The walled gardens at RHS Garden Bridgewater, including the exotic Paradise Garden, are looking ever more delightful as each week goes by. The design of the Kitchen Garden is based on the network of the Underground Canal system – a quirky way of linking in the special industrial history that made the creation of the Worsley New Hall estate possible in the first place with wealth derived from the mining of coal.

Out of the ashes of the past RHS Garden Bridgewater is now a place of Paradise in Salford, a calm and peaceful escape from everyday worries and woes.

My time as a volunteer

In April 2021, I became a Volunteer in the Plant Centre at RHS Garden Bridgewater and I regard it as my weekly day of Plant Therapy, helping to display and re-stock the beautiful and unusual specimens as they fly off the shelves and speaking with customers to aid them in their search for a special plant to take home.

The plants are of a very high quality and it is a pleasure to be amongst them come rain or shine. I find my volunteering to be very therapeutic because it gives me fresh air, a bit of exercise, a chance to socialise and a break from the anxieties of life which have been heightened by the pandemic. I am retired and a ‘virtual’ Carer for my parents who are both in their 90s and still living in their own home many miles away, ably assisted by Live In and local Carers.

RHS Garden Bridgewater benefits from the willing services of scores of volunteers who carry out a wide range of roles including welcoming visitors, acting as tour guides, helping out with educational events, digging, weeding, planting, supporting the Community Growing and Community Wellbeing gardens and assisting in the Plant Centre.

Volunteering vacancies, when available, are advertised on the RHS website.

Have you visited RHS Garden Bridgewater as yet? If not, all the details you need are to be found on the website. Please note that you can visit the Welcome Centre Shop, Lakeside Café and Plant Centre any day of the week free of charge without having to buy a ticket to go into the gardens.

Salford residents can apply for a FREE TICKET to visit on a TUESDAY during the first year of the garden being open. Please enjoy your visit to paradise in Salford! 

Photos by My Gen photographer David McLenachan

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