Eastwood nature reserve, Stalybridge turns over a new leaf

Eastwood nature reserve

Eastwood nature reserve - Credit: As filename

Eastwood nature reserve near Stalybridge was set to turn over a new leaf last year, after years blighted by vandalism and access problems. A crack team of local volunteers set about the task, but did the plan come together? Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Tom Marshall finds out

Eastwood nature reserve - Nuthatch (c) John Hawkins

Eastwood nature reserve - Nuthatch (c) John Hawkins - Credit: As filename

In spring and summer a verdant green, sunlit canopy envelops Eastwood nature reserve, bluebells create a colourful carpet in quiet corners and the bubbling of the brook just about muffles the noise of Stalybridge centre, just a stone’s throw away. When I met the reserve’s project assistant earlier this year, though, the woodland seemed more like a First World War movie set, all mud and wooden planking and the only colour on offer being varying shades of brown.

Eastwood nature reserve - Paths in progress (c) Andy Sheridan

Eastwood nature reserve - Paths in progress (c) Andy Sheridan - Credit: As filename

‘It’s amazing what this team of volunteers have achieved over what seems like a year-long winter,’ said Andy Sheridan, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s project assistant, looking out across a series of new paths, bridges and dozens of steps that now snake through the Eastwood reserve. No mean feat it seems, as the inches-deep squelching mud is still in evidence, rippling beside new trails that will in time, do away with muddy boots after an afternoon stroll.

The task at Eastwood was never going to be an easy one. The reserve sits in a steep-sided clough woodland, flanked by Cheetham Park, Staylbridge Celtic FC and the main road into the town. With the brook as a watery artery running through the middle, it was always a stunning place to enjoy the dawn chorus or a walk among spring wildflowers, but getting around this site easily has always been the problem.

‘We wanted to give people a chance to experience the heart of the woodland, but the existing site infrastructure just wasn’t up to the job any more,’ Andy added. Years at Mother Nature’s mercy had seen traditional wooden boardwalks succumb to the elements, while burgeoning tree roosts slowly pushed aside once ample paths and trails. Add to this crumbling bridges and anti-social behaviour problems that often led to unsightly temporary fencing and even barb wire being required, Eastwood had become something of a fortress, open only one day a week with a core of local volunteer supporters doing their best to keep things going.

To kick start this latest transformation was a welcome £40,000 injection from Biffa Award secured by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, along with the support of Tameside Borough Council. However, this was not a site where JCBs could simply turn up do the hard work.

So up stepped a team of local volunteers, some of whom have been involved at Eastwood for many years, and groups from Trained Up, a local training and skills initiative and local businesses – after all, many hands make light work.

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The list of tasks was long; several new bridges, changes to the flow of the brook to improve its health and quality, dozens of steps, new gates and a new meandering boardwalk through the aptly-named wet woodland.

It was clear that conventional wooden structures were never going to work at this damp site, so state-of-the-art recycled materials – similar to those being rolled out across Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves network – were needed.

‘The recycled plastics we’re using make so much more sense,’ says Andy. ‘They can have a shelf life of up to 50 years, have anti-slip textures already built in and are significantly harder to ignite than wood, reducing vandalism. It also means we’re re-using plastics that would otherwise be in landfill too, so it’s a win-win.’

The downside is the weight of the boardwalk panels and 20ft long bridge spans alone, tonnes of which had to be carried by the team down the precipitous and slippery sides of the reserve during the second wettest winter on record.

‘I really hope when people get in and enjoy the trails, they spare a thought for the volunteers who’ve made all this possible, heading down to the reserve rain or shine every week to keep the project on schedule despite the weather’s best efforts to scupper things,’ says Andy.

One of the most dedicated members of Andy’s team was Steve Hynes, who remained undeterred despite the reality that followed a call for help in the local paper. ‘Come and get your hands dirty’. Steve recalls the advert suggesting ‘If there was ever an understatement!

‘We came together in the late spring, early summer of last year. Some long-standing volunteers, the rest recruited in response to ads.

‘It has been challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, as we have seen the rebirth of a long neglected hidden jewel, a real haven for wildlife. The British weather has been far from co-operative. It was wet, oh was it wet, and when it wasn’t wet it was cold!’

So with everything the skies could throw at them, what kept the team coming, week-in-week-out? ‘We’re like-minded people who care passionately for this environment, knowing it’s uniquely special,’ added Steve. ‘Believing we are doing something for the community; but most importantly, Eastwood makes us feel good about ourselves.’

Cut to early spring this year. The team take a seat with a well-earned cuppa, looking out across a transformed nature reserve, with a multitude of trails that already seem to be blending in with the natural curves and contours of this hidden gem, perhaps in time appearing like they’ve always been there.

The last word is perhaps best left with Andy: ‘The paths will need time to bed-in, but in time the footprints of a year’s hard graft will gradually get taken over by the woodland, and we can’t wait for a new generation to enjoy this wonderful little reserve once again.’

Eastwood’s wildlife highlights

This is a classic English woodland where woodpeckers drum in spring and nuthatches and treecreepers carefully navigate the towering trunks. The brook is home to the dipper, a bird of fast-flowing upland streams, while the lower lake plays host to kingfishers and herons. Small corners of the reserve still find themselves awash with bluebells, and the dappled shade of summer sees butterflies like the speckled wood flying sorties along the trails, along with dragonflies too. Two new information boards have also been installed at the reserve covering the main seasonal highlights for those enjoying a visit.

Where is Eastwood?

Eastwood is just south of Stalybridge town, next to Cheetham Park and Stalybridge Celtic FC adjacent to Mottram Road (A6018). The reserve can be accessed from multiple points including the football club, Cheetham Park and Mottram Road. Eastwood is owned by the RSPB and managed by Cheshire Wildlife Trust.