In Haunt

Peel Park Landscape

It welcomed Queen Victoria in 1851 and was a hit with L.S. Lowry – Peel Park is a place rich with historic wonder and interesting goings-on, tucked down on the Salford Flood Plain. Now it has its own Writer in Residence: Adam Farrer.

Adam is no stranger to uncovering strange and surprising stories about places and people. A long-term writer, he is also the Editor of The Real Story, an online publisher and reading series which celebrates creative non-fiction from across the UK.

He’s celebrated the power of storytelling at many local events – with The University of Salford’s Festival of Research, the Northern Light Writers Conference and Dave Haslam’s debut WAM (Words And Music) Festival being just some examples – though Peel Park is a location which particularly intrigues him.

Peel Park is after all one of the oldest Public Parks in the country, first opening in 1846 - named after Sir Robert Peel, the Bury-born MP who went onto be Prime Minister on two separate occasions, and also regarded to be the father of the modern Police Force. A statue of him, created by sculptor Matthew Noble and erected following Peel’s unexpected death in 1850, initially stood in the park, though was later moved to Cheshire.  

Other additions to the park in the 19th Century included a stone arch at the entranceway (no longer present), decorated with Indian-inspired designs. This was intended to be in honour of the then-monarch Queen Victoria, whose Royal visit to Manchester in Salford in 1851 saw an estimated 80,000 people crowd into the park to welcome her.

Yet despite its highs, the park has also had to endure its own kind of hauntings and turbulence. As it lies on the flood plain, it has faced the plight of the weather on numerous occasions – flooding devastatingly in 1866 when the River Irwell burst its banks.

 But over the years, not only has water passed through this public realm, but numerous local people, fascinating wildlife, visitors, even L.S. Lowry who painted the location a number of times – and crucially, stories. Dr Luke Blazejewski even created  a short film ‘Birds of Peel Park’, focusing on the birdlife of the area and considering the history of the park, including how the Industrial Revolution impacted wildlife. It is an area he still continues to champion today - and the film was selected for the SunChild International Environmental Film Festival.

Adam has already used writing to unravel stories in the secretive spaces of Salford – as The Real Story partnered up with Not Quite Light Weekend for a unique half-light event at Not Quite Light Festival 2018, and returns to the festival this year with The Real Story: Transition on Friday March 29th. But how will he take on the stories of Peel Park in the months afterwards? HAUNT Manchester decided to speak to Adam to find out more…

Adam Farrer

Hello Adam – congratulations! How did you go about becoming Writer in Residence of the park and why do you think it is important?

“Peel Park struck me as somewhere that deserved to be written about. It’s a real gem, full of interesting locals, teeming with birdlife, steeped in history but hidden away behind the university and housing developments. I’m lucky enough to work right next to but it didn’t really become an important place for me until I made it part of my daily fitness routine. I hate strenuous exercise but figured that I could manage a few gentle strolls a day and some distance from a vending machine. So, I started leaving the office during breaks and doing a few loops of the park, taking in the wildlife and the people. It quickly became a sanctuary for me, a way to clear my head, walk off any stresses and think.

“Because I’m naturally curious, I’d often spot or overhear something interesting and get drawn into it, running into unusual characters and scenes. A small child being hushed by his parents as he loudly sounds out a graffiti’d swear word on a wall. The woman who walks a French bulldog that has more outfits than I do. The old man who runs daily with a blaring transistor radio strapped to his chest. At one point I found myself standing on the banks of the Irwell, 2ft away from a grey heron, marvelling at how close I was to this massive bird. I soon began nattering away to it, because the silence felt awkward for some reason, and after a few minutes I realised that there was a man filming me from behind a tree. When he noticed that I’d clocked him he said “I had to, this is really rare,” then scurried off into the park. It dawned on me that I’d become one of those park characters, perhaps part of someone else’s anecdote: “Pauline, that man who chats up the herons is back again...” This gave me the idea to write about the park, capture these incidents and pull together longer pieces, inspired by the place and its heritage.

“So, I contacted the Friends of Peel Park and asked them if they had a Writer in Residence in place. I wasn’t hopeful, assuming that someone was already doing it, as I know several other writers in Manchester who work in this role, like Rosie Garland over at John Rylands and Tania Hershman at Southern Cemetery. But it turned out that no one was, so I met with them, discussed my intentions and they gave me the role at the start of the year.”

How will go about writing about this unique location – where to start?

“I’ll be documenting a year in the park and broken up into seasons, producing diaries as well as personal essays and short creative nonfiction stories inspired by the things I encounter there. I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Salford Museum archives, looking through the park’s annual reports and the weekly park keeper diaries. I’m planning on creating an updated form of these. Easily digestible accounts and statistics that offer snapshots of life in the park.

“I’ve particularly focussed on the entries from 1919, which are full of fascinating stories, some of them quite dark but presented with an oddly formal tone. I’ve already learned to brace myself when reading an entry that begins ‘I regret to inform you…’ because this generally means that something dreadful has happened, like the discovery of a corpse in the river. I hope that I don’t have to write ’I regret to inform you…’ too often, but I’ve lived around here long enough to know that all kinds of trouble can float down the Irwell.”

Peel Park Trees

Inner city parks are often associated with themes of threat and mystery, especially at night. Do you think it is important to encounter these darker themes when writing about the park?

“I think it would be quite deceptive of me not to address this. I’m keen to evangelise about this place, but I’m also a nonfiction writer, so I can’t in good conscience make out that there isn’t a darker side. That said, if I did only push the lighter side, it’s not like I’d be encouraging people to step into shark-infested waters. I’ve rarely seen any trouble in the park. Honestly, the most distressing thing I’ve encountered there happened last year, when I ran into three students who were competing in a rap battle. That really made my insides flinch and seriously, I’d rather they’d mugged me. This seems like an exaggeration but you've not known pain until you’ve witnessed a group of lads from the Home Counties who’ve had a misguided epiphany after watching 8 Mile.

“Having lived and worked in the area around Peel Park for 22 years now, I can recall large periods of time when it was regarded as a no-go area. It’s where mounted Police officers patrolled, and dangerous characters roamed.

“But Salford has changed a lot and while I have issues with some of some the regeneration projects there, a lot of good is clearly being done, in large part by enthusiastic volunteer groups like the Friends of Peel Park. Peel Park itself has been transformed and now resembles its heyday, so I’m confident about telling people to visit. Looking through the archives and reading about the gang issues, the random vandalism and the various types of thuggery of the past, I know that I’d have felt more under threat 100 years ago than I do now. The main difference seems to be that if you were caught getting up to no good in the park back in 1919 you were sent to the assizes and quickly sentenced to hard labour, whereas these days you can traumatise passers-by with a rap battle and get off scot free.”

How have you been inspired in your own creativity by the darker side of Greater Manchester? 

“The darker side of Manchester and Salford has always provided creative fuel for me. When I first started writing creative nonfiction, a lot of my work touched on this. Mostly crime stories. The gang-related murder of one of my neighbours, machete attacks, targeted intimidation. I never wrote about this with any relish, as I’m squeamish about violence and don’t find criminality particularly glamourous or impressive but ultimately there were people at the heart of these stories and that’s really what I’ve always been interested in. Trying to find the warmer, lighter side of some unsavoury things.

“My first job in Manchester involved running the cloakroom in a club that was often infiltrated by armed gangs, who’d force their way in and demand champagne in exchange for not shooting the patrons. Generally, they were nicer to me than most of the customers, wise enough to know that it’s bad form to point a gun at the only person who knows where your £800 jacket is. Later, I spent several years running a city centre photo lab, back in the pre-digital days, where if someone wanted to capture something strange and private, they had little option but to bring their film into the lab and hope that I wouldn’t look at it. Of course, I did and was given a window into the people of Greater Manchester’s capacity for pushing behavioural conventions. I still occasionally see my old customers around town and struggle to place them, wondering “Were they in Coronation Street?” before remembering that I knew them from something unspeakable I saw them doing in a toilet back in 2002. It’s a photographic memory, I guess but not the useful kind. In any case, it’s all writing material.”

Peel Park Monument

Do you have any particularly unusual stories of the park you can tell us from your studying of it so far?

“The archives have really drawn me in and already seeded several ideas for essays and stories. For example, I was going through the annual reports and was drawn to the lists of taxidermy items donated to the Natural History Museum at the nearby Buile Hill park. Chimps, lions, tigers, a polar bear. A Tasmanian devil. Name an animal and it’s a fair bet that they’d had it shot and mounted in an attack pose. When the museum closed down, I wondered what happened to these animals, so I started to dig into it, hoping that I might discover a store cupboard deep in the archives, crammed with motheaten ocelots and baby elephants.

“As it was, I found out that most of the collection was absorbed by Manchester Museum, but I learned of other outcomes. Stories of disgruntled ex-Buile Hill staff stealing items in protest, leaving you with the lovely, Lowry-like mental image of someone on their last day thinking “Screw you guys!” then angrily marching home with a stuffed ostrich under their arm. If you uncover something like that, a story begins to write itself. About these exhibits being discovered years later by relatives, leading to tall tales and speculation to explain why granddad kept a Bengal tiger in the loft. An alternative suggestion I was offered was that the excess animals had simply been burned. Just picture that, a gorilla on a bonfire. It’s a hell of an image. Really, the history of this place is all mutilated bicycles, underage thuggery and sizzling taxidermy, which has made my research so far feel like I’m leafing through a list of unused Morrissey lyrics. So, obviously I’m having a brilliant time.”

By Emily Oldfield

Photograph of Adam – credit Sarah Myers

Photographs 1 & 3 - credit Simon Buckley/Not Quite Light

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