NORTH GLASGOW WALKING TOUR

North Glasgow23

Saturday 23rd April // Reflections by John Hutchinson // Photos by Clem Sandison

I think it’s fair to say that North Glasgow doesn’t figure high on the itinerary of most tourists visiting Glasgow, and for those of us living elsewhere in the city, it perhaps isn’t a regular destination. Despite living in Maryhill when I first moved to Glasgow, and having used the canal as a regular running route for the last 10 years or so, I’d rarely ventured to its northern side – so I was keen to explore. Billed as “a walking tour of hidden spaces in North Glasgow, exploring the city’s history and heritage, questions of dereliction, the benefits of wild spaces, and the potential for community transformation of urban land”, this Soil City walking tour led by Clem Sandison, provided the perfect opportunity to investigate.

A group of twenty or so budding urban explorers gathered at the Whisky Bond for a brief introduction, before the short walk along the canal to our first destination of the Hamiltonhilll Claypits. Shiona MacPhail, of the Friends of Possilpark was our expert guide around this captivating urban wilderness. A former industrial site which was vital to the expansion of the canal system – a history of clay extraction, shale-oil extraction, boat repair and iron making have all left their traces on the site, whether it be in the soil, or surface traces of former infrastructure. Left to nature since the demise of these industries, the claypits are now a bustling greenspace of great biodiversity. It was really enjoyable to have a root around and take in the quiet ambience of the place, with that compelling juxtaposition between natural and human-made things that you find in such places – finds ranged from abandoned cans of Tennent’s Super Lager to the bones of roe deer! The hopes of Shiona and the Friends of Possilpark are for the rich biodiversity and industrial heritage of the claypits to become a real asset to the local community, by raising public awareness and improving access to the site.

Next stop on the tour was up the back of the claypits to the Hamiltonhill Allotments. This involved walking up the shale bing left over from its industrial heyday, which provides a fantastic 180 degree view looking South over the city. I even spotted a couple of roe deer amongst the silver birches below, before they turned their cotton wool tails and fled. For me the hidden gem of the claypits are a proper edgeland, what Farley and Roberts describe as – “a wilderness that is much closer than you think: a debatable zone, neither the city nor the countryside, but a place in-between”.    

At the allotments we were met by one of the Soil City roving research bikes and a couple of pre-dug pits to have a closer look at the soil and some worm identification. We also had a chat with one of the allotment holders who showed us around and talked about her relationship to the allotment and the community that surrounds it. The more orderly and organised layout of the allotments provided an interesting contrast to the wilder nature of the claypits. Continuing the theme of community growing, we took a short walk into Possilpark to have lunch in the lovely space of the Back Garden – a community growing space located on formerly derelict land, which has individual, communal and group plots, as well as drop-in social gardening sessions. A great example of how stalled spaces can be co-opted for the benefit of local communities.

Our final stop on the walking tour was nearby Cowlairs Park, a large area of open parkland (formerly several football pitches) which after being effectively abandoned by the council has become somewhat of a dumping ground, and garnered a reputation as a bit of a ‘no go area’ due to drinking and anti-social behaviour. With the absence of any strict regulation the park has been re-purposed for an altogether different use – its open layout and the differing elevations of its former football pitches now provide the perfect race track for motorbike enthusiasts. This was evidenced on the day, as a large number of quad bikes and dirt bikes tore around the place, zooming by at great speed. Added to the rubbish, random discarded objects lying around and scorched areas of grass, the park had a pretty post-apocalyptic, Mad Max feel to it. Despite this, it was a compelling place to be, with great views towards the north of the city and a weird beauty. Although its far from the manicured care of other city parks such as Kelvingrove or Glasgow Green, perhaps places like this are needed, where people are able to get away from the regulated and monitored spaces of the city to find excitement and release some energy by driving motorbikes at high speed? Better here than on the roads! Clem described Cowlairs Park as a “feral commons”, which I think describes its sense of place perfectly.

The short walk back to the Whisky Bond completed our circuit of some of north Glasgow’s hidden spaces, while we chatted and reflected on the places we’d visited. Although they may lie outside the area covered by most of Glasgow’s tourist maps, the various edgelands of north Glasgow are a captivating place for anyone interested in the rich industrial heritage of the city, as well as the opportunities that derelict spaces present for both wild nature and community action. 

WHAT IS SOIL ANYWAY?

Friday 22nd April // Reflections by Hannah Baxter

Today I went along to ‘What is soil?’ because I wasn’t really that sure about it and wanted to find out! The workshop was led by Malcolm Coull, from the James Hutton Institute, and Abi Mordin, from Propagate. There were also quite a few worms involved who led by action rather than with words.

Malcolm gave a talk about soil which, he said, is made from inorganic material, organic materials, water, air and beasties. It is formed by the climate (the wind blowing materials about and the cold pushing rocks apart) and organisms, and it takes a very, very long time to make. Soil is best known for growing things in – and many people in the room were experienced gardeners – but it is also good at storing water, storing carbon, locking up chemicals, supporting buildings and preserving the past. It is also a home for millions of organisms – apparently there are more living things in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet. But there are big problems facing soil – competing demands from various people, pollution from industry, floods washing it away, overgrazing and weathering.

Abi then talked about compost. This led to a little debate about what should go into compost. Is it okay to put in cooked food? Abi thought not, and most agreed, as it can attract rats and mice but an allotment holder present puts it into his compost – controversial! Should orange and lemon peel go in? It can but it takes a long time to break down. And what about human poo? Abi makes humanure! But she wouldn’t use cat or dog poo. Essentially Abi explained that composting is helping to speed up a natural process of organic matter breaking down and for this to happen the organisms doing the work need to be kept happy with food, shelter, heat and water. Compost is not the same as soil; but it is added to soil to improve it.

There was then a practical part of the workshop and we were asked to think about whether soil can be made. If soil is depleted this might actually have to happen as soil would not naturally form as fast as existing soil is being exhausted. Malcolm asked if people would be comfortable with growing plants in this type of soil and mostly everyone seemed cool with that. We then had a go at making soil. I say we but actually I didn’t as my hands are very dry and sore from being in allotment soil a lot this week! This soil was a mix of ground down bricks and ash to make up the non-organic part and Abi’s compost to make the organic part, along with helpful worms and other tiny organisms too small for us to see.

The workshop gave me a lot of questions to think about. Are we being good enough to our soil? What will happen if it is depleted? Will we have to ‘make’ soil and how could this happen on a large enough scale? Abi also asked where does the top soil imported for community gardens and allotments come from – is it okay to move soil around like this? But with these questions, I did get the very helpful answer from Malcolm and Abi to ‘What is soil anyway?’

GORBALS & GOVANHILL

Thursday April 21st // Reflections by John Hutchinson // Photos by Clem Sandison

The weather gods were certainly smiling on us as Glasgow basked in glorious sunshine, and what better way to spend a day in the sun than rooting around in the soil and worm hunting? First port of call for the Soil City roving research team was the Gorbals Rose Garden, a former burial ground established in 1715, which now provides a quiet greenspace for the local community. During redevelopment in 2005, some of the original headstones from its former days as a cemetery were installed into the park walls. This provided us with an interesting nod to its past usage and also spurred some thinking on what lay in the soil beneath our feet. Aside from some local workers sunning themselves in the park at lunchtime, there weren’t a whole lot of people around. Help was on hand however, as two kids in the park with their parents got involved with testing the ph of the soil and worm hunting. Spraying the worms with water to stop them from drying out seemed to be the favourite task!

After finishing up in the Gorbals it was onwards to Govanhill Baths, where a small but pleasant garden sits serenely next to the hustle and bustle of Calder Street. Here we were met with a enthusiastic group who were only too happy to sit in the sun and get their hands dirty. It was a nice ambience sitting in the calm of the park, directly adjacent to the busy street and the curious looks of passers-by. It seems that communal handling of soil is a great way to generate conversation – perhaps there is something in its tactile nature and shared childhood experiences of playing and rooting around in it that facilitate this? When discussing what the soil smelt like, one response was “like freshly cut grass when I was a kid”. After wetting the soil to test its consistency and texture (which turned out to be indicative of a sandy clay loam soil type) more fun was had by making some ‘seedbombs’ – sort of like a bath bomb but made of soil and packed with wild flower seeds! This resulted in some impressively spherical balls of Govanhill soil loaded with wild flower seeds to be dropped elsewhere. On my walk home back to the city centre I duly lobbed mine into the large Brownfield site next to the M74. Perhaps there will be a small patch of wildflowers growing there the next time I walk past…

 

Garnethill Park

Thursday 14th April – Reflections on Garnethilll Park site visit by John Hutchinson

Despite having lived in Glasgow for over 10 years and attended many an event at the Art School, this was the first time I’d actually set foot in Garnethill Park. Although very much in the city, enclosed as it is by buildings, streets and cars, I was impressed by the sense of contemplative space that Garnethill Park offered – almost as if time was moving a little slower while the city trundled on around it. A great spot to just sit and watch people drift through and the local posse of pigeons mill around. The arrival of a local with a bag full of breadcrumbs signaled feeding time – a mad flurry of grey feathers with some opportunistic seagulls bullying their way to the front of the scrum. The birds had obviously been waiting for this regular feed – an example of how small green spaces like this can offer opportunities for people to forge connections with the more-than human.

Delving into the soil, we found a plentiful array of worms. A couple were tentatively identified with the help of a flow chart – who knew there were so many different types!? Funny to think of that hidden world under our feet – a hidden meshwork of worm-ways bisecting and intersecting like an inversion of aviation vapour trails.

Due to the park’s close proximity to the Art School, it seemed only right to try a bit of soil painting. Mixing soil from two different parts of the park with water provided two slightly differing hues of soil paint. Although I’m no artist by any means, I enjoyed painting the shapes which popped into my head without much thought. The end result was a mixture of triangles and swirling lines – a subconscious result I think of having been looking at triangular soil ID charts and wriggling worms! Garnethill Park is a great example of how a small urban green space can provide a welcome breathing space to just be – a welcome island of soil in a sea of asphalt. I’m glad it’s now on my mental map of the green spaces of Glasgow.

Reading the urban soil

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The word ‘indicator’ makes it sound as if plants can be read as signs of soil conditions, when in fact, it is more like a starting point for a more complicated analysis that (in theory at least) takes a range of factors into consideration, including not only the other conditions at the site, but also the relative quantity and vigour of the plants, and the presence of other species. It is also true that soil conditions can vary dramatically in a small area (if polluting or fertilising substances are present, if animals have been defecating there, and so on). The discovery of indicator plants in a given location thus often yields contradictory ‘results’. For example, on our site visits to date, we have observed ragwort (Senecio jacobea), which is an indicator of poor soil, together with nettle and ivy, which are indicators of fertile soil. In practice, indicator plants rarely provide evidence of soil conditions; rather, they pose questions: might the soil be more fertile here than over there? What could lead the soil to be locally basic within an otherwise acidic site?

I prepared a mini guide to indicator plant species for use in the mobile lab. This includes a short list of plant species that are common in Glasgow, and which have a specific and reliable relationship to different kinds of soil (e.g., acidic, basic, fertile, infertile etc.). This was an interesting but surprisingly time consuming task: many of the plants that are strong indicators of soil conditions are only rarely present in the city; at the same time, certain soil conditions (e.g., dampness) are so widespread in Glasgow as to be irrelevant (since they do not distinguish between different sites). Finally, in April, many plants are still at an early stage in their growth cycle (or not even visible), which means that they can only really indicate something to experts. All this underscores the fact that what can be ‘read’ about urban soil through plants is both geographically specific and highly subjective.

Though it is important not to expect too much, the search for indicator plants is a pleasant way to get to know your local park, garden or vacant lot, and a good way to begin to see the inextricable and complex relations between plants and soil. Plants simply do not grow where the soil cannot support them. In this light, the surprising abundance and diversity of vegetation in Glasgow is worth thinking and talking about. What more could we be doing here?

Erin Despard, 14 April, 2016

NORTH KELVIN MEADOW

by John Hutchinson

The bright yellow bikes of the Soil City roving research team brightened up a rather dreich day at North Kelvin Meadow yesterday. Despite the weather, spirits were high and a selection of soil samples were gathered from the site, as well as some worm surveying and recording of tree, plant and bird life. The old red blaes surface upon which the meadow has grown proved to be a recurring theme across the soil samples – a reminder of its previous use as a football pitch and of how quickly nature can flourish if given a chance. It was great to hear the thoughts and feelings of local residents towards the meadow, with a strong sense of community attachment coming to the fore and an appreciation of the meadow as a valuable place in which to play with, experience and learn about nature.