The beautiful, ingenious ginnel gardens of Levenshulme

'I noticed earlier this year we had a robin, which I’ve not seen around in all the years I’ve lived here'

By Dani Cole

A walk down Levenshulme high street offers up a colourful array of mini-marts, betting shops and discount stores with leaflets posted over the windows.  A chicken shop is fronted by an impossibly large pane of clear glass, its signage a fluorescent green. The inside resembles an arcade – a blaze of white lights and TV screens - rather than an eatery.

A little further along, a square of empty land has been left to rewild itself behind a billboard and spiked fence. Styrofoam takeaway boxes, crushed plastic cups and shreds of carrier bags are scattered amidst tall grass and blackberry thickets. It’s mid-September and they are starting to ripen. Nobody pays much notice to the litter.

May Grove Alley is tucked away down a quiet road away from the noise of the traffic. A few years ago, there was little to set it apart from the other detritus-strewn ginnels across the city. These days it’s thriving under the watch of Natalie Bayford and her neighbour Chrissie. When we sit down to talk, Natalie shows me a photograph of what the place looked like in 2015. The ginnel was crowded with pallets, plastic sheeting and a pile of concrete blocks. “You know,” she shrugs. “What a waste.”

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May Grove Alley in 2015 (image courtesy of Natalie Bayford)

After clearing the rubbish away, Natalie started with a few potted plants before turning her attention to the rest of the ginnel. With the help of another neighbour, Emily, they were able to secure a £1500 Neighbourhood Investment Fund from Manchester City Council. Most of the money went towards getting hanging baskets and hiring a joiner to make the planters. Natalie tells me that the ginnel had helped sell a house last year, over in the next street. An estate agent took a photograph and included it with the property.

Touches of ingenuity have solved the issue of space. Every inch is devoted to greenery. A pair of boots serve as two flower pots. Pouches of succulents are draped on the wall. At the far end, a curtain of ivy climbs up a wire trellis. Nasturtiums, fiery montbretia, fuchsia, geraniums, hydrangeas, a leafy bamboo and two silver-green eucalyptus saplings all miraculously fit inside the various pots.

If May Grove Alley’s commitment to welcoming nature in wasn’t evident enough, an iron planter reads: “All we are saying is give bees a chance.”

A red dragon stands guard at Chrissie’s back gate.

Neighbours Natalie (left) and Chrissie (right) sitting in their ginnel

“I noticed earlier this year we had a robin, which I’ve not seen around in all the years I’ve lived here,” Chrissie tells me. She moved from South Wales to Manchester in the early 1980s to do nursing. It isn’t hard to find her back gate – it’s the one with the red dragon.

As we walk around the ginnel, Natalie and Chrissie pause to pick deadheads off flowers or inspect a plant. Most of the plants here are low-maintenance and hardy. Prior to moving to Manchester, both women had only lived in flats. “We don’t know much, but you do learn as you go along,” says Chrissie.

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Despite the transformation, Natalie and Chrissie have kept their ginnel gated off. Fly-tipping is still an issue. “A lot of people seem to stop in that street,” Natalie says pointing towards the main road. “Just young lads. They chuck rubbish out of the window. During lockdown there was no rubbish because the takeaways weren’t open.”

Though the ginnel is closed to passers-by, it hasn’t stopped people from enjoying it. Chrissie has put action figures and a plastic T-Rex on display by her back gate. They’re for the children and parents who pass on their way to Cringle Park. “I’ve had a few people walk past and tell me ‘I just come this way to cheer myself up and have a look to see what you’ve done,’” she says. “It’s very relaxing just being around plants. And it’s just relaxing doing a bit of gardening.”

“It makes us feel good.” Natalie nods. “I love seeing plants and flowers.”

Colourful bunting and lights strung across May Grove Alley

The rich variety of dialects across this nation means that depending on where you hail from, a ginnel might be called a snicket, wynd, jitty, drangway, twitten, tenfoots, cut, close or alleyway. The snickelways of York are a portmanteau of snicket, ginnel, and alleyway. “Ginnel” is used across the Midlands and the North, and in particular in Greater Manchester.

Running between or behind houses, they make for convenient shortcuts and access points. The first record of the word ginnel dates to around the 17th century. While the exact etymology is contested, it is widely thought that ginnel is a corruption of the French word ‘chenel’, or channel

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In Barry Hines’s novel Kestrel for A Knave, after throwing pebbles at a friend’s house, Billy Caspar “cut down a snicket between two houses, out into the fields, leaving the estate behind him.” The narrowest alley in the country, Exeter’s Parliament Street, measures just 0.64 metres across at one point.

Whatever you call them, ginnels are a ubiquitous part of Britain’s urban identity. On National Poetry Day in 2017, 13 poets celebrated different local words and Leeds -born poet Vidyan Ravinthiran chose the word “ginnel”.

“The Leeds side streets that you slip down”, sang Morrissey.

Trinco’s mafting.

“This is the corridor,” says my mother, unsure of the English word, “your uncle ran this way to escape the gunfire.”

As I walked around Levenshulme, I ducked into one ginnel to take a photograph. Broken glass crunched underfoot. Aside from the remnants of a sofa and a discarded mattress propped against the wall, this place was empty. The cobbles were under a thin layer of straggling weeds. This ginnel was quiet, and the shade seemed cooler here.

A neglected ginnel in Levenshulme

A fifteen-minute walk from May Grove Alley takes you to another ginnel that runs between Field Bank Grove and Bournville Grove. Here the plants grow taller and wilder, including several 10ft-high sunflowers. Like May Grove Alley, imagination is needed to address the lack of space. Rose bushes are planted in a stack of painted car tyres. A partially-buried wheelbarrow spills over with pansies. The bins are covered by a wooden frame that doubles as a flowerbed.

I catch up with Martina Street, who works in Children’s Services at Manchester City Council. It’s a Sunday and thanks to a tip-off, I’ve caught the two streets during their annual photograph. Since their ginnel garden started three years ago, the residents have a photograph together to see their gardening progress. 

Martina is the chief photographer today. She also applied for the Neighbourhood Investment Fund on behalf of the ginnel. “I couldn’t have applied for it if I didn’t have the support of my neighbours.” She says. “There needs to be a critical mass”

Martina standing next to a planter filled with nasturtiums and montbretia

Dave, who helps with the maintenance around the ginnel. 

The creation of the Field Bank/Bournville Grove ginnel was in response to its condition, which like May Grove Alley, was full of litter. “This alleyway was a bit of a mess,” Martina tells me. “There was loads of litter and it was getting us down. A few people started talking to each other when they took the bins out.”

The photographs having been snapped, we watch everyone slowly disperse, each keeping a safe distance. Dave, who is in charge of the general maintenance around the ginnel, stops in front of his gate to look at the dahlias. In 2018 the ginnel got £300, which was the first of their grants.

“It was that really gorgeous summer.” Martina continues. “Everyone wanted to be out. We had a day when we planted all the flowers we got from Bud Garden Centre. Then it all started from there.”

As I was about to leave Field Bank Grove/Bournville Grove, Dave gently pushed three freshly-cut dahlias into my hands. “There you go.” He smiled. They were the ones we had just been admiring. Their large blooms were a glorious yellow - the colour of bright sunshine. 

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Dani is The Mill’s trainee reporter. You can find her on Twitter here. To see more photos of the ginnel gardens, go to our Flickr account.