Sunday, November 01, 2009

Hands off Heaton Park!

MANY of the happiest memories of my childhood are located on Heaton Park, to the north of Manchester.
I remember the hot summer afternoon when a bunch of us backstreet kids were taken by our mums to discover the joys of paddling in cool water that flowed over a gentle series of steps.

The Sunday mornings, when my Dad taught me to row on Heaton Park lake.

The ascent to the Observatory on the hill, around which you could walk in a circle looking at the view. Then the descent into a quiet area of woods, long grass and green weed-covered pond beyond.

The grotto-like rocky tunnel that gave onto the olde worlde formal gardens. Or walking through the grand millstone grit pillars that stood like a mysteriously isolated remnant of Classical antiquity above the path behind the boating lake. I later learned this had once been the facade of the old Manchester town hall.

I remember the commando games with my mates, for which the Park's varied scenery played backcloth, including the time we made our way up a long culvert for concealment, and after storming the Observatory, we crawled under a barbed-wire fence into the "enemy base" to plant sticks, supposedly dynamite, at the base of their radio mast. That was before the Manchester Police radio station acquired a concrete-clad telecomms tower (obviously they were not going to give us a second chance).

I remember the first time me and my pal took refuge from a shower in Heaton Hall, with its 18th century drawing rooms, old musical instruments, and - nude ladies in stone! This was well before page 3 days. We returned with I-Spy Antiques, learning to tell a Sheraton from a Chippendale, and a spinet from a harpsichord. Barry's dad was a furniture craftsman, so he took pride in becoming knowledgable even though he was to become a chemist.

If anyone took more delight than me in Heaton Park it was Our Dog. Besides participating in our games, he had his own trick, disappearing suddenly into dense bush to nose around among dead leaves and emerge triumphantly with a golf or tennis ball that someone had lost. I don't think I ever had to buy a ball while Rover was alive.

I also remember the Winter day when, dodging school, I went into Heaton Park, crossing it from Middleton Road to Heaton Park village, tramping through clean white snow and admiring its tracery on the branches. If you grew up like me in sooty streets without a tree in sight you'll understand.

I may as well also recall the Sunday morning football game, near St.Margaret's Gate, when our side lost 11-2, and my own role was so distinguished that in the second half the other side was shouting "Give the ball to Charlie!"

On my last visit to Heaton Park, when I had been living away from Manchester for some time, I was pleased to see the council had made some innovations, such as introducing Highlnnd Cattle. Behind the thick wild red hair and fierce horns the one I passed the time of day with seemed quite amiable, and I dare say might have vouched the same for me (I didn't have horns, but did have red hair). They had some foxes too, behind a wire enclosure. The one who greeted me hopefully, playing arond a post, might have thought I'd come to help him escape, but I suppose they got their food, and were not hunted, and in those days as a city kid you might not get to see a fox otherwise.

Anyway, by now you are wondering what brought on this flood of reminiscence, and the answer is another threatened innovation, and it has to do with balls, again, and goals, though not like those scored or conceded in the fairly innocent days of my youth. Rover won't be able to find balls in the undergrowth, and kids won't have so many opportunities to get mud on their knees if the council proceeds with plans drawn up with Goals Soccer Centres which wants to place a large chunk of parkland under 12 synthetic surface soccer pitches, six tennis and netball courts, a skate park and climbing wall, a cage for "extreme football", and a licensed bar.

The quiet area where I strolled one pleasant evening after work with my Mum, and we sat and read our library books, will be turned into a floodlit complex behind a high wire fence. OK, Heaton Park is a big park, and maybe there'll still be space for kids and parents to enjoy freely. But Manchester has owned this park since 1902, we grew up enjoying and appreciating its space to play and explore, not expecting to see yet more of our public space fenced off as private, our pleasures something to pay for. "Sanctuary from the city" is what an official website promises.

Are there no more areas of waste land and dereliction in Greater Manchester which Goals could purchase and develop if it wants to provide claimed benefits to the public? Or would that be less profitable than taking park land off a hard-up council?

The move began under the Tories to introduce children young to the Wonderful World of Money, that nothing was worth having unless it cost you plenty, nobody worth respect unless they had plenty to spend (how they acquired it was another issue), and that without it you were enitled to nothing. We had the attempt to turn museums into money-making businesses, the swimming pools that had once been a cheap place for the kids to spend school holidays turned into pricey "leisure complexes". Football -well. The national game evolved into something else. It's astronomical sums make it a world of its own.

Commercialised pitches are an offshoot, and artificial surfaces an improvement on those we used to know, made of cinders. But what happens when the keenness goes into decline, and what is now profitable becomes no longer so? What are you left with?

If I am being sentimental about keeping the park and the grass, it seems I am not alone. There is a campaign to save Heaton Park from this development, and I hope the campaigners succeed, for future generations to enjoy at least the free space we did.

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