Bristol residents' fight to save Northern Slopes
Just beyond the streets of red brick houses in Knowle West, there are rolling grassy hills and leafy woodlands.
These are the Northern Slopes, an urban oasis where the locals come to pick blackberries, walk their dogs, watch wildlife, or simply to admire the spectacular views across Bristol.
"The slopes are south Bristol's answer to The Downs, and they have a rich environmental heritage," declares Alister Palmer, vicar for the parish of Filwood Park.
However, concern is mounting among local residents that this unspoilt idyll, which is a site of Nature Conservation Interest, may be affected by plans to regenerate Knowle West estate, which dates back to the 1930s.
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Plans are still being drawn up under the Knowle West Regeneration Framework, which will be a blueprint for development over the next two decades and will cover an area stretching from Wingfield Road and Marksbury Road in the north to Airport Road in the south; and from Hartcliffe Way in the west to Salcombe Road in the east.
However, the scheme is widely expected to feature a Bus Rapid Transit to Hengrove from the city centre which could go across open space near Kingswear Road and Glyn Vale.
The plans will also include housing development. It is not known yet what this will consist of, but recent Bristol City Council planning documents in line with the Government's Regional Spatial Strategy set out plans to provide a minimum of 10,000 dwellings in south Bristol.
The Rev Palmer, who represents the Knowle West Residents' Planning Group, emphasises that the point at which the Northern Slopes could be said to be under threat has not yet been reached.
But he adds: "Whether this will remain the case will depend greatly on how the consultation and planning process goes in coming weeks and months.
"There is concern that some in the local authority may have ideas as to what they would like to see happen which may be different from the views held by local residents.
"I think the community is in a good position to produce a plan that resolves some of these issues to our satisfaction – but we remain very cautious and are ready for battle if needs be."
His concerns are shared by Glenn Vowles co-ordinator of the environmental group Transition Knowle, who has fond memories of playing on the slopes as a child growing up in Knowle West.
He points out that at recent meetings to discuss the Knowle/Windmill Hill/Filwood Area Green Space Plan, Bristol City Council officers only dealt with Knowle and Windmill Hill. As a result, Filwood – which includes the Northern Slopes – is yet to be discussed.
He says: "My concern is that Filwood's green spaces are not being dealt with by the same process as the other two Neighbourhood Partnership wards, which, to me, is unfair.
"We need cast-iron guarantees that council policy on green spaces will be properly and fully followed, which means fully involving local people in assessing the true and full value of open, green spaces."
Glenn adds that The Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) Stakeholder Technical Assessment lists possible sites for housing and has maps which including site ST111, an area which encompasses a large part of the Northern Slopes.
He says: "I spent many happy hours at the 'bommie', building dens, picnicking, and blackberrying. My dad probably played there as a kid too, as he lived in Kenmare Road, Knowle West when he was at school.
"Locals in Knowle West value their open, green spaces very highly. Many have experienced the disappearance of areas they and their friends and family once roamed around and played in.
"In an urban area open, green spaces are vital to the quality of our lives. They are a way of connecting with and appreciating the natural world vital to wellbeing and to encouraging respect for nature."
The unique character of the S-shaped escarpment of the Northern Slopes is something Knowle West resident Mil Lusk, a 43-year-old mother of two, knows only too well.
She is the project manager for Buried Treasure, an environmental gardening social enterprise for Knowle West, and is also a member of the Northern Slopes Initiative, which was set up to conserve and enhance the area. She says: "I spend a lot of time on the slopes, and I know that if anything were to happen to change them it would be such a lost resource.
"There are rare orchids, and rare grasses that you don't see anywhere else in Bristol. When you're standing in the middle, you'd find it hard to believe you're so close to housing and the city centre.
"The whole place would be changed if it got fragmented by new housing being built, or if there were buses going past."
Mil, who lives in Throgmorton Road, organises activities such as walks and blackberry gathering for Buried Treasure, and also takes part in regular events involving members of the Northern Slopes Initiative.
She explains: "All sorts of organisations come out here, such as schools and groups from Knowle West Media Centre.
"The slopes don't get much work done by the council. There are a few places where the grass gets cut but other areas that aren't on the contract aren't touched, so volunteers do anything else that's needed such as sowing wild flowers, planting trees and clearing paths of brambles."
Tracey Pool, who has lived in Knowle West for 32 years and is founder and chairwoman of local equestrian organisation the Grassroots Urban Horse and Pony Club is also keen to see the Northern Slopes preserved.
However, she also has another ambition that could build upon Knowle West's semi-rural setting.
She explains: "We want to use the Northern Slopes for managed grazing, and to create an equestrian academy in the area currently occupied by the tennis courts at the Park Centre on Daventry Road.
"There would be an arena, with stables, storage space for equipment, a small paddock and a room for training.
"We're looking at the potential for horse-drawn vehicles to be used to carry homegrown produce, to transport residents, and to contribute towards Knowle West's Carbon Makeover Project."
Tracey – a lay minister and project worker for the Tree of Life Venture – has introduced heavy horses to plough the Tree of Life Allotment in Knowle West and has plans to develop ploughing courses for young people.
She has already gained the support of the British Horse Society, the RSPCA and local charity Horseworld.
However, she points out: "Preserving the slopes is crucial to what we're trying to achieve. Horses are part of the unique culture of Knowle West, and so are the slopes.
"We want enhance what we have here, instead of seeing it diminished in the name of development."