Flower power: why the King is backing the Manor Estate
First Sheffield, then the world
By David Bocking
A determined land girl is driving a cherry-red tractor across a ploughed field, industrial chimneys smoking behind her. A barrage balloon floats in the sky, along with the faint black death spiral of an aerial gun battle, high above the city’s old cathedral. The scene would look like Soviet wartime propaganda were it not for the inane English scarecrow grinning in the foreground.
The painting, by artist Joss Presdee, is on a barn wall on the hillside between the Wybourn estate and Manor Lane, illustrating how the land of Sheffield’s inner city was used in the Dig for Victory campaign of the Second World War. This was a time when the unlikeliest parts of the country were put to use for local people at a time of crisis — a tradition which is still going on in Sheffield today.
It’s one of several murals decorating the wooden education centre of Green Estate, a social enterprise set up in the late 90s initially to look after the landscape around the old Manor Lodge as an offshoot of Manor and Castle Development Trust. Presumably it’s a welcome addition to the area, since it uses the profits it makes to benefit the local community rather than private shareholders.
University students and school pupils can step out from the education centre for a breather and gaze down at the contemporary view from the same spot depicted in Joss’s painting: Sheffield Parkway rumbles below a new set of fields and a new kind of inner-city Sheffield, minus the smoking chimneys.
These fields, and the old farmhouses nearby, and the people who live and work here on the Manor Estate, have gradually helped build a social enterprise business with a £2.5 million turnover. Plus, since the vast majority of Sheffield employers (83%) now have less than six employees, with 70 staff, Green Estate can count themselves among the larger employers in the city.
Before we get into it, it’s useful to know that the Green Estate serves two important purposes. One, they provide land — both for farmers who want to grow things to eat, and those (think: researchers and students) who want to experiment and tinker with how best to grow things to eat. This last part is growing more important by the day during the climate emergency. They also have a very informal collaboration with the university, both in terms of working together on research and in terms of offering a space where students of botany, land use and horticulture can be educated. This might sound small-scale but it’s not. Green Estate CEO Roz Davies’ take can be summarised along the lines of the following: first Sheffield, then the world.
Roz is looking over a stone wall at the same view with me, next to a farmhouse that less than 30 years ago was a ruin avoided by locals due to the fierce dogs kept by men living in a caravan round the back. (There were rumours it was an illegal breeding programme for popular local dog fighting nights.)
“It’s taken a lot of hard work,” Roz says, explaining that doing that work in a place where locals have been hit by generations of low income and unemployment is an example for the rest of the city and the country. “If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”
The King approves. In just over a week, Roz Davies heads down to Buckingham Palace to potentially meet him as she joins fellow recipients of the Sustainable Development category of the new King’s Awards for Enterprise. I ask her what she plans to say to King Charles III.
“If he asks me what the award will mean to us I’ll say our work has been hidden in plain sight. Your seal of approval will help us to come out of the shadows and showcase the art of the possible in growing beautiful adaptive and resilient urban places,” she tells me. The royal seal will sit on the organisation’s letterheads for five years. She explains it will help them to grow their influence, impact and income so they can invest back into their people and community.
Sheffield is good at hiding its virtues, not always in plain sight. You can still find people who think of the Manor as a place to avoid, but Roz’s colleague, Ted Talbot, told me last year that he’s now hearing talk about gentrification of the area. It’s perhaps a measure of the size and scope of Green Estate that Ted’s official title is now the somewhat highfalutin ‘Director of Place’, rather than Parks Manager, or some such.
Ted remembers visiting the glorious Manor Fields Park in its infancy when he was a council park ranger, when he and his colleagues would bring along an extra few bags of crisps in the school holidays to bribe inquisitive kids with grins on their faces to please bring their tools back.
Some of those kids ended up chatting about gardening and park rangering, and some may even have ended up on Green Estate education programmes, he says. This is when the council had some kind of citywide budget for outward looking park ranger work, he adds pointedly.
Ted takes me for a wander around the new rural landscape of the Sheffield Manor, just a few hundred yards from the crumbling ruin of the old Sheffield Manor Lodge, the once lavish 16th-century royal prison of Mary Queen of Scots.
There are still suggestions of the old Sheffield deer park landscape, which spread across the area in the past: in the award winning Manor Fields Park, there are pockets of heathland, albeit recreated by modern management.
In the 1990s, the site had deteriorated into a fly-tipping and joy-riding graveyard of a green space until a combination of the city council and the local Manor and Castle development agency won a couple of million pounds of mostly European money to coax it back to life. The landscape was a mess at that time, Ted tells me, so there were virtually no challenges to unusual ideas about how to make a modern green space. This is key — it’s usually quite rare when decision makers think a park should be closer to the carefully lawned promenading venue beloved of the Victorians. On the Manor at that time, experimentation was really the only option, he explains.
For example, like many neglected urban green spaces, there was a problem with blankets of brambles in some parts of the park, which look messy and tend to blanket out less muscular wild flowers for most of the year. So Green Estate successfully trialled the vigorous Giant Fleece Flower from the mountains of eastern Asia, which now towers happily over the brambles with bright white flowers every year.
Last week Ted met a Nepalese family harvesting the plant for a cucumber-flavoured addition to their salad. (He’s reluctant to go into specifics when it comes to the location, however, after reported problems with over-picking of wild garlic this spring. “We don’t want a rush of celebrity chefs harvesting it,” he says.)
The new Manor Fields Park coincided with the early years of Green Estate and research by Sheffield University on special seed mats and mixes with a combination of native and non-native flowers that can survive most weather extremes, and will beautify urban spaces hindered by poor soil. You might already be familiar with this sort of flower: Californian poppies, oxeye daisies, cornflowers and corn marigolds, for example (you can see them now at Sheffield’s Grey to Green schemes in the city centre and on some roadside verges).
At a time when towns and cities were faced with budget cuts for parks and landscapes, planting low maintenance but stunning flower mixes on roadsides and empty urban sites meant that councils could save on mowing and maintenance costs, while keeping the landscape interesting for humans, and more hospitable for insects and wildlife.
Those seed mixes were trialled on Manor Fields, along with new sustainable urban drainage (or SUD) schemes, which create drainage features in sections of parks and green spaces so they can become temporary ponds to slow the flow of water after the heavy rainstorms we get nowadays. In dry weather, the SUD schemes become informal football fields or picnic sites.
Why has it taken the council 20 years to finally put the success of the Manor Fields SUD schemes into action elsewhere? (The recent Grey to Green scheme in the city centre, for example). Whatever the reason, Ted notes the recent month-long spell of dry weather we’ve been having, yet again.
“SUD schemes are one of the logical things to do when we’re facing a climate emergency,” he says. “We’re now in another drought, which will probably be followed very, very soon by some very heavy downpours and probably more flooding.” When SUD schemes all over the city might be very handy.
Like the SUD scheme, the urban seed planting ideas also worked out well on Manor Fields, and thanks to Sheffield University professors James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett, the Pictorial Meadows company was formed, with profits from its work heading to Green Estate.
In return Green Estate provided fields and land for research projects. Ted shows me a huge swale, a drainage ditch dug into the hillside, where a research student is trialling plants that would survive a series of deluges in a Chinese mega city. Just down the hill, the Pictorial Meadows seed and landscaping experts are now working with clients across Europe.
And the crumbling Manor Lodge ancient monument, threatened now by further collapse due to extreme weather rapid freezing and drying effects on its remaining stones, is awaiting news in the next week or two of a large Heritage Lottery Fund bid from its managers Green Estate to research how turf and sedum plant mixtures might protect ancient ruins all over the country.
Roz Davies tells me the turnover of Green Estate has almost doubled since 2021 to an expected £2.9m this year. Less than 10% of their income comes from grants, she says, with the majority coming from land use and expertise, the use of the old farm buildings as wedding and conference venues, green recycling and landscaping services, and profits from Pictorial Meadows.
So why the huge increase in turnover? The return from Covid helped with the Green Estate hospitality income, and spending so much time at home made people much more interested in sustainable gardening and seed mixes. But they’ve also got a bit more organised, Roz says.
That financial success is important to Roz not least because it helps demonstrate the strengths of the area, like community and resilience. An urban neighbourhood that’s still a proud community in the face of years of job losses and low income is nothing if not resilient, she observes.
She adds that the common practice of defining working class areas like the Manor by their deficits, as still happens almost every time the place is mentioned in the media, is helpful to no-one.
Plus, that badmouthing of a place that is doing so much good seems strange. In the government’s 2021 UK food security report, the government observed that UK wheat yields dropped by 40% in 2020 as a result of heavy rainfall and droughts. Similarly, in the Met Office’s 2021 study, they predicted that in 30-50 years’ time, “late blight” (a disease which affects potato crops based in wet, warm weather) will happen up to 70% more often in some parts of the UK, impacting the potato harvest for the worse. Clearly, there’s lots to be done. But that last word is crucial: doing. If we plan now, and do enough, then we can be more optimistic about the future. Green Estate, with its emphasis on thinking (and farming) locally and expanding their ideas globally, has the right idea.
Facing the climate emergency and its impacts means cities will have to behave differently, Roz tells me. Pulling together, using local skills and companies to provide local services, and local land to provide local food, and local universities to provide expertise and support and income, is the kind of economy we’re going to need in a future dominated by financial and climate insecurity.
“Building a strong web of local supply chains would mean we are less vulnerable to economic, environmental and political, national and global shocks,” she says.
Roz believes that self-reliant local economies are the future for successful towns and cities. What does she mean by “self-reliant local economies”, exactly? Ones that maintain dignity and income, that are regenerative rather than extractive, and stay within sustainable environmental boundaries. And that’s how the King-approved social enterprise on The Manor is trying to operate. ‘Doughnut Economics’ in action, for those planning a role in the city’s new Policy Campus.
80 years after Dig for Victory, the Green Estate hillsides on the edge of the Manor Estate are busy again, with researchers and swales and seed mixtures, and a little digging, ready for forthcoming national crises. And soon, Roz Davies will invite the King up to the Manor to learn something about how to face the future.
To see the work of Green Estate for yourself, visit Sheffield Manor Lodge’s Marvellous Meadows day on Sunday, 2 July (10.30am-4.00pm).