You are currently reading Issue 175: Women in Energy and Sustainability, February 2024

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Womanthology Icon

Cultivating a green gem in Manchester’s urban jungle

Nancy Scheerhout, Head Gardener for Castlefield Viaduct

Castlefield Viaduct - Manchester

Nancy Scheerhout is head gardener for the National Trust-supported Castlefield Viaduct, the Victorian-era steel viaduct transformed into a temporary green ‘sky garden’ in the heart of Manchester. Nancy had previously worked as an occupational therapist before transitioning into horticulture and she initially joined the project leading community engagement before moving across to the head gardener role. With years of experience in gardening and landscape management, Nancy, her colleagues, and a team of volunteer gardeners have transformed the space into an oasis of beauty and tranquillity, set against a stunning post-industrial urban cityscape.

Nancy Scheerhout - National Trust
Nancy Scheerhout

“It’s my dream job and I can’t believe it. I still have to pinch myself sometimes.”

Two years on and going strong

I was trained as an occupational therapist some years ago and not long after this I became interested in gardening, so I decided to combine the two by leading gardening for health groups in parks and other activities like that. That led me here when this project opened. I’d been passing this viaduct for years on the Metrolink, which runs along another viaduct right next to us. [See below right image.] I’ve been looking at all the stuff growing on it because it’s been abandoned since 1969, thinking how I’d love to get my hands on the space.

Castlefield Viaduct - ManchesterI had no idea that a few years later the National Trust would step in and create these beautiful gardens and I’d get the opportunity to apply for the head gardener’s job. I started on the project in a community role but I’ve got a gardening background so then when our previous head gardener from the National Trust property at Dunham Massey returned to her old role after a year, I got the chance to apply. It’s my dream job and I can’t believe it. I still have to pinch myself sometimes.

We opened in Summer 2022 and I’ve been in the post of head gardener since April 2023, so I’ve not quite done it a full year and all the seasons. It’s a unique site in terms of the location and the heritage, but also in terms of microclimate because we’re at height.

We’ve also built an event space at the end and planted loads of trees now. I counted them the other day and there are seventy-four, which I couldn’t quite believe. The garden was planted up for initially as a year-long pilot to ask the people of Manchester what they could foresee and what they’d like us to do with this site, and gauge if there was any support for it. I’m delighted to say there has been an enormous response from the community and four years on we’re still going strong.

Living my gardening dream

The role of head gardener has been really interesting because I’ve developed it in terms of the sustainability aspects. So, since I started, I’ve developed a composting system and I’ve created a nursery bed so that we can take plants out and keep them, and then either give them away to community groups, or reuse them. I work with all the volunteers and I still do a fair bit of the community work.

There are lots of groups that we were working with before but it was quite difficult to do lots of different sorts of activities on this site, but we’ve recently opened a new workshop space that makes it makes it much easier. This new space gives us huge potential to do more work with the community.

On a day-to-day basis, there might be various groups visiting. We’ve been really busy since we opened, so the chances are there is something going on any given day, either an event or a community group coming up, or activities that we’ve put on, so I’ll be involved in all of that. It’s extremely varied whilst looking after what is effectively a show garden, albeit a very large one, that must have interest all year round.

That’s quite a tricky one but as a gardener, I’ve learnt about layering up planting so we’ve got interest at all levels. Again, this nursery bed helps with that so we can switch plants in and out when they’re at the most interesting.

Community first

Because I started in the community lead role when we first opened, I had various groups that I’d been working with in previous jobs, but actually, a lot of them were new contacts because it was such an interesting project and a unique site.

We work the groups like MASH — Manchester Action on Street Health. We also work with lots of mental health charities and groups for young people. We’ve been incredibly busy the first year just getting all those contacts made and people up here to visit and to see what we’re doing but that translated into all sorts of different activities and events.

Urban oasis

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is a hot topic at the moment. Essentially, it’s an approach to commercial development that tries to make sure that habitats for wildlife are left in a measurably better state than they were before development takes place. What we’re doing is slightly different — to replace what was here before with something richer in species and habitat removed. Even the ‘wild’ side of the viaduct that was left as it was for nature to reclaim was more diverse than before.

We have attracted an abundance of wildlife, so bird species and loads of bees and butterflies in summer. We’ve planted things that are beneficial to insect colonies and we’ve included native planting with all that in mind. It’s worked wonders and you can see the biodiversity across the different seasons.

Nancy Scheerhout - Castlefield Viaduct
Image ©National Trust, Mark Waugh

The Viaduct provides much-needed green space because there is a distinct lack in the city centre. Research tells us that one in five people in England struggles to access green space so it’s an important part of what we do to help address this. Across Greater Manchester generally, there are lots of parks but in the immediate area, there’s very little green at the moment so it makes a huge difference, especially with all the high-rise development.

Going with the urban flow

Initial funding has come from the National Trust alongside the People’s Postcode Lottery. When we first opened it was all free pre-bookable tours. Within a year or so we then introduced more open times where you didn’t have to book a slot and it’s just free flow. We’ve got a limit on the numbers that we can have on the site at any one time so we have to make sure that we’re within that.

We’re now into our second pilot year (after the initial 18 months) and entry onto the structure will remain free when it reopens to the public this weekend. Members of the public can visit, without booking, every afternoon from 12.30pm and all day on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. To find out more about the history of the viaduct and this temporary project from the National Trust, visitors can book a guided talk in advance on the website. Bookable guided talks take place on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between 10.30am and 12 midday.

How the Womanthology Community can support

The Womanthology community can help us by spreading the word far and wide that this is an amazing thing for the city and so I’d encourage everyone to visit as you need to experience it for yourself.

The National Trust is working with landscape architects from the Manchester-based design practice, BDP, to design bigger, bolder plans for the next phase of the viaduct, for which funding is still required. As part of these future plans, it has the potential to include a new pedestrian bridge which would connect Manchester via the viaduct to Pomona Island in Trafford and via Woden Street Bridge to Salford. We are looking to extend for almost a kilometre.

It would make such a huge difference to the city centre because when people come and there’s such a beautiful, lush green space in the middle of the city they understand that it’s not just about what’s been done already but it’s also about all the possibilities with the site. It’s powerful when people recognise what a difference that would make to the city, especially now when the population’s increasing.

Coming up next

I’m looking forward to a holiday in Cornwall at Easter. That’s at the forefront of my mind because I just booked it. Beyond this, I’d love to find out that we’ve been able to secure the funding to keep the space open permanently would be my absolute dream.

We’ve looked at the landscape architect’s plan and there is so much potential to have different exits off the route, as well as various bits of green space and community buildings. It would just be so exciting. This is my dream job already, but if that happens, then it really would be the cherry on the cake.


Header image: All images ©National Trust Images — Annapurna Mellor, except where stated

Share this article