'It’s about thinking about the future and doing something for the future'
The UK's longest urban cycle route is facing a metamorphosis
By Ella Robinson
“In the middle of the sound of the city, it’s unusual to have a long corridor of green.” David’s right. We’re stood in the middle of a lush orchard and there’s birdsong. I’d be close to feeling like I was on holiday — there’s even fruit, which is supposed to be picked by the local community — were it not for the hum of tyres on tarmac, an audible reminder that we’re still in South Manchester.
The Fallowfield Loop is thought to be the longest urban cycle route in Britain at almost eight miles long, and pedestrians and horse riders also use it. Linking Debdale to Chorlton, it’s always been a key part of navigating South Manchester, but its popularity only waxed over lockdown, and the organisation which promotes it —Friends of Fallowfield Loop, who planted the community orchards we’re in — now have almost 200 members. The Friends want to maintain the Loop as a community resource and to encourage as many people as possible to use it.
Talk to anyone who regularly uses the Loop, and they’ll have an opinion. Just ask Manchester City Council, who recently ran a consultation about the Loop to attempt to improve old routes. Work is expected to start in early 2022, 20 years after it first opened to the public. After soliciting responses since 2020, they received over 5300 responses, demonstrating just how important the Loop is to the local community.
In July, they released findings from last year’s consultation: responses stressed how much users enjoyed the feeling of green space in the midst of the city. But the consultation wasn’t purely a Loop love-in: others highlighted concerns about anti-social behaviour along the route, problems with fly tipping, and a lack of accessibility — not just for those who have difficulty walking, but also for those who wanted to use the route with larger bicycles.
It would be coy to write a piece about the Fallowfield Loop without citing the safety concerns that some people have about it — if you google “Fallowfield Loop Reddit,” the first result is an anecdote where the poster — writing two years ago — claims to have experienced an attempted mugging at knifepoint there just after 6pm in the evening. The second result asks “How safe is the Fallowfield Loop cycle route?” Even Manchester City Council has proposed changes to make it a less “intimidating environment.”
Arguably, this may have already happened to some extent — not due to council intervention, but thanks to the reality of post-pandemic Manchester. With more people working from home and the Loop functioning as one place which guarantees some variety, it’s shifted from being a commuter cycleway to somewhere more leisure-focused — a place to exercise or hang out.
Plus, it’s known for its changing landscapes, as Frances, Secretary of the Friends, describes: “You go two or three hundred yards, and then you’re in a different piece of the countryside…it gives you this micro experience of being in lots of different habitats and environments.”
But the Loop’s post-pandemic significance is nothing new. While it’s now a beautiful leafy butterfly, it started life as a sturdy caterpillar. Before it was a cycle route, it was first constructed as a trainline in the 1890s. Back then, it was the Fallowfield Line — a trainline linking Fairfield and Chorlton — and at this time, the surrounding area was virtually all open countryside and farmland.
The four stations on the line were built to a lavish scale, with wooden parquet flooring and stained-glass windows. Now president of the Friends and author of The Fallowfield Line, Eddie Johnson’s first memories, aged five, are of watching the trains go past his “Auntie” Dorothy’s garden, and leaning over the railings “looking down onto what’s now Sainsbury’s car park and seeing this steam engine. That is the very first memory I’ve got”.
In its heyday, early in the twentieth century, there were 21 trains each way on a weekday stopping at Fallowfield Station. The line was also at its cultural prime in those years: with the Royal Agricultural Society Show being hosted at nearby Hough End in July 1930, over 3000 animals in 500 wagons arrived at the station, although Eddie told me that “the Duke of Gloucester — the RAS Patron who opened the show — arrived by air!”
The local passenger trains stopped running in 1958, killed off by the electric tram opening in 1901 and the bus service in 1938, drawing away most of the passenger traffic, and the line closed for good in 1988. But Eddie’s passion for the line, sown in those early encounters aged five, didn’t wane, and at 18 he befriended the signal box man, Ernie Thompson, when cycling over the green lattice bridge one day at Levenshulme South. They became very friendly, and Eddie learnt more about the workings of the line: “he even used to let me alone in the signal box while he went to the betting shop!”
Six years after the trainline closed to stopping traffic, Granada TV brought its Blues and Gospel train to Wilbraham Road Station. The American Folk Blues Festival had played one UK date two years prior, to an audience of 2000 in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, but when the American Blues and Gospel Caravan was filmed on this occasion in 1964 by Granada TV for a one-off special, it reached an audience of 12 million, bringing Blues into the mainstream.
The station was renamed “Chorltonville” for the occasion, and decorated to look like the American South, with “Wanted” posters and a single lonely goat. Granada TV’s efforts might have made for a convincing trip to the Deep South, had the wet weather not reminded the audience exactly where they were: before long, puddles formed on the platform.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe made that platform her stage, with a last-minute switch to the deeply appropriate “Didn’t it Rain”, a traditional African-American spiritual, evolving out of plantation work songs and telling the story of Noah’s ark. You can watch the performance on YouTube — a fellow singer helps Sister Rosetta out of a horse-drawn carriage and the pair gamely navigate a platform slick with rain, a wind strong enough that the man reaches up to secure his beret from flying off his head. Sister Rosetta popularised the song and her Chorltonville performance’ to the 200-strong audience, remains one of the most well-known renditions — it’s easy to see why.
Unfortunately, this sterling performance didn’t mark the start of an upwards trajectory for the Fallowfield Line’s post-train life. After the line closed to all trains in 1988 it very quickly fell into disrepair, becoming overgrown and largely “used as a rubbish dump, unfortunately,” as Eddie described.
Frances agreed: “The stream [which runs alongside the loop] was just really horrible, it was full of trolleys, there was a microwave that had been dropped in, just full of rubbish.” She organised her friends and family, along with the British walking and cycling charity Sustrans, the City Council and members of the local community to do a complete clear out of the stream. “There was probably a couple of decades of stuff that we were able to pull out.”
But since it was taken over by Sustrans and transformed into the Fallowfield Loop as we know it today, from day one it was a huge success, says Eddie.
20 years later, as the consultation continues, the Fallowfield Loop’s future appears to be at a crossroads. Having received funding as part of the Bee Network, which aims to make travelling via foot or bike more attractive, all Bee Network routes must provide at least low-level lighting. And indeed, the lack of lighting seems to play a big role in people’s safety concerns: as the attempted mugging victim on Reddit ended her post, “in an ideal world get some fucking lighting for the pathway.”
But it’s not that simple: an ecology report conducted by Manchester City Council recorded the presence of bats and endangered wildlife along the Loop, which has to be taken into consideration in terms of lighting the route.
A council spokesperson tells The Mill that no firm decisions have been reached yet but that they will need to balance new lighting with the wide range of wildlife that already live on the route, along with local people who live adjacent. Amongst other lighting options being considered are bat-friendly bollards for low-light areas so people can still travel safely.
Still, there’s lemonade along with the lemons. The Loop’s stream was cleared and there was wildflower planting, thanks to The Friends of the Fallowfield Loop, with the support of Sustrans. Besides which, the Friends also developed a Points of Interest map which outlines the history of the area along with photographing the route’s access points so those with mobility issues can evaluate how easy it is to access a path ahead of a trip.
This focus on the future feels key to the project: the Friends don’t just want to enable you to take a gorgeous wildlife walk, but want to safeguard the Loop for the generations who will follow us, too. “It’s a long-term project, if you plant trees,” David says. “You will probably be dead before they come into their best but it’s about thinking about the future and doing something for the future.”