Tale of Two Cities underway

In November 2014, Tale of Two Cities was crowned as the Grow Wild England flagship project. In preparation for its launch in summer 2015, teams in Liverpool and Manchester are busily preparing stunning wild flower spaces. We sent along Len Grant, a freelance photographer, writer and blogger based in Manchester to experience the project’s first community sowing event. 

“Thank you for turning out today for the launch of our Tale of Two Cities project,” says the National Wildflower Centre’s Richard Scott from beneath a golf umbrella. “Some people said we’d never get Liverpool and Manchester to work together… but we’ve proved them wrong.”

It’s Sunday morning – the first of British Summertime – and a group of hardy volunteers are at Everton Park, overlooking Liverpool city centre and the River Mersey below.

Today is a special day for A Tale of Two Cities, Grow Wild’s flagship site in England. For the first time, local residents from both cities will sow wild flower seeds together to kick off their historic partnership.

“The patches we’ve marked out for sowing all correspond to the old street lines of yesteryear, just beneath our feet,” says Richard. “Lots of people passed through these streets…it’s part of the story of Liverpool, part of the tale.”

Before the bags of seed are distributed I chat to resident Ann O’Brian and her granddaughter, eight-year-old Lauren, both now sheltering under the umbrella. “I remember when this was all back-to-backs,” says Ann, waving an arm behind her. “It was a proper community where we all looked after each other and your door was always open.”

Lauren says she’s been sowing seeds with her school, planting wild flowers at the local sport centre. “So we’ve got the past and, as long as the children are involved, we’ve got the future,” says Ann. “I think that’s brilliant.”

The volunteers take bags of seeds, a blend that gives red, white and blue flowers, a nod, Richard says, to the cities footballing allegiances.Forming a line at the top they slowly make their way down the first muddy slope, scattering as they go. “It’s like gold dust flying in the air, spreading the seeds of nature,” says Ann.

To become Grow Wild’s England flagship site A Tale of Two Cities beat off tough competition – from communities in Bristol, Plymouth, east London and Sheffield – in an online vote last November. By June next year the ambitious project will have sown wild flower landscapes, the size of 20 football pitches, in both cities, uniting local people along the way.

“I’m stuck!” calls Lauren from the middle of the sowing bed. “Just pull one leg up and then the other,” shouts her nan.

Clutching her empty bag and with boots caked in mud, Lauren tells me she’s never been to Manchester before.

“What do you think it will be like?” I ask.

“It’s just going to be like Liverpool but with a different accent, isn’t it?”

She’s not wrong. Hulme in Manchester and Everton have similar pasts: both tight-knit, highly-populated communities whose residents were scattered during 1960s slum clearances. Subsequent regeneration efforts had limited success with some residents, like Ann, now living in their third phase of social housing.

Thirty-five miles and an hour or so later, the Everton volunteers meet their Manchester counterparts in the middle of a roundabout under the elevated Mancunian Way. At least the flyover offers some shelter.

I ask Dave Barlow from Manchester City Council about the importance of the Two Cities project. “It’s about getting communities to see how simple it is to transform a space,” he says. “If we can inspire families and young people to do things differently in their gardens and their parks, that will bode well for how cities evolve. I’m not saying green spaces can do everything, but they are a huge contributing factor to wellbeing.”

Dave and Richard welcome the volunteers, many getting involved for the first time after hearing about the winning bid or seeing local posters.

I introduce Lauren to 11-year-old Reanne from Hulme and someone suggests there might be an historic handshake, hands-across-the-divide kind of thing, but the girls are having none of it. They’re here to sow wildflowers and can’t wait to get started. Reanne and five-year-old Brandon have come with Lee Ann Igbon from Manchester Young Lives who run the local adventure playground. “As a local resident, I can see the potential for this,” she says as seed is scattered around us. “We’ll get our young people involved with future events, so they can take more ownership. It’s a great project.”Within an hour the grass verges are sown. “In 12 weeks this place will be transformed,” declares Dave, “and next time we’ll come over and help our friends in Liverpool.”

“Have you enjoyed yourselves?” I ask Ann and Lauren.

“It’s been really good,” says Ann, “We’ve been sowing the seeds of the future.”

For updates on Tale of Two Cities, visit the National Wildflower Centre’s website and Facebook page

Come back for more updates from Len as he follows the progress of Tale of Two Cities throughout the year and see more of his award-winning work on his website.