In conversation with Robert Alston

February in Glasgow. The skies were slate grey, it was decidedly chilly, and rain swept in regularly, yet nothing could take away from the sheer delight that is Claypits Local Nature Reserve.  Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this is an incredible transformation. Join Robert Alston on a tour of this site and you come away enthused with how people can really make a difference.

Claypits Local Nature Reserve is one of the most popular things to come out of the impressive Canal & North Gateway project.  The transformation of an area that was neglected, wildly overgrown, and acting as a physical barrier to enjoying the canal surroundings is well worth celebrating. Visit the same area today and you can’t fail to be impressed.

Robert Alston is one of a band of local enthusiasts who worked with Scottish Canals and Glasgow City Council to drive change on a staggering scale. His story is one of happy coincidence that leans as much on ‘right man, right place’ as it does on a crafted plan.

“At the time I was on the Woodside Community Council,” he explains with a twinkle in his eye, “and our chairman Steve Bailey brought the subject of the canal area up and the fact that Glasgow City Council were keen to transform the site.  He said that someone should go and represent the community council. So, I put my hand up, not realising that it was going to change my life. I came along to that meeting in 2015, and I’m still here.  That simple act of putting my hand up to volunteer actually changed my life.”

Claypits Local Nature Reserve - Interpretive sign

“A few days later I walked through the site. It was nothing like it is today. It was all overgrown, strewn with litter, and had decaying buildings that Scottish Canals had inherited from the canal’s industrial hey-day. Everywhere you looked there was neglect. Yet strangely I liked what I saw, and thought ‘We could really do something with this’.’’

“Anyway, that is how I got involved. Every meeting since then I’ve been at it representing the people of Woodside.

“The impetus for success came when Glasgow City Council and Scottish Canals, got together and put all the land under one ownership. That was a huge step forward, and removed a fair amount of complexity surrounding the site. The next big challenge was money. Nobody was really in a position to fund an ambitious scheme at the time, but during a visit to the Scottish Parliament, to present our ideas, a couple of civil servants pulled us to the side and said ‘What you have got is really good, you should approach the EU. They have a European Regional Development Fund that might be able to help you.’

“And, to cut a long story short, we did. We filled out the application, sent it to Brussels, made a video, invited delegates from the EU to visit the site and ultimately, we got the money we were seeking. It was decided that Scottish Canals would be best placed to oversee the project. Now, I’ve shortened that story a fair bit, it took a long time, but it was progress and a chance to realise our dreams.”

“Getting the money wasn’t our only hurdle. As you can imagine COVID-19 threw a mighty spanner in the works, and Brexit wasn’t a help either. Beset by delays, we finally opened on 31 July 2021. However, the people of the area have quickly grown to cherish this place and despite the delays it has been a whirlwind for us all. For me it has been six or seven years of my life. All for putting up my hand and saying ‘Yes, I will go to one meeting.’ Little did I know what a commitment lay in store, but I’m happy that it is here.”

Joining Robert on a stroll through the site offers a wonderful first-hand insight into the amazing transformation that has taken place.

“First up, nature is coming back onto the site,” Robert beams. “When the initial works were carried out we had to remove about 300 trees, but we’ve since replaced them with 700 and we are going to plant more. In November 2021 we got 650 trees from OVO Energy and the kids and local people have been helping us plant these trees. We’ve surveyed the wildlife living here, and we’ve got deer, a range of interesting birds (coot, moorhen, swans, heron, sparrowhawk, jays), squirrels, rabbits and foxes. In an urban context this is great for people to enjoy, and we get a sense that we have really made space for nature.

“On the subject of trees, I’m so proud that they are planted by the local communities. Those you see right here … we had the local school and nursery come and help us. That’s the way of it, anything we do we aim to get the local community to help us. All of our trees are native species – we’ve got elm, oak, beech, and even have some Scots Pines too.

Claypits Local Nature Reserve - SuDS retention pond

“One of the things that really gets folk excited about this project is the SuDs pond. Standing on the edge you can see a huge pipe that comes down from Hamiltonhill. The idea is that when it rains all the rainwater comes down through this pipe into this pond.  Here it settles, and is slowly released in a controlled fashion into the canal; it’s part of a system called a ‘smart canal’. They are building around 600 houses up in Hamiltonhill, so this system means that instead of having to create sewage pipes to take the rainwater away, and clean it, the rainwater is being slowly released into the canal. One of the first of its type in UK and Europe, it has already won awards and is a sustainable way to get rid of rainwater.

“The Claypits LNR is attracting a good range of different users. We’ve got dogwalkers, people having picnics (although not today!), people cycling, joggers and commuters. It’s amazing to think that we are only a 25-minute walk from Sauchiehall Street, yet have all this nature around us. Essentially what we’ve done is create a local nature reserve in the middle of a big, built-up city.  This land was unloved and unused, now it caters to all the people in the area.

Claypits Local Nature Reserve - Promotional sign and site map

“We love our retractable bridge too. The pedestrian bridge is one of the most expensive things here, it cost about £3m.  It slides open to let boats through and connects Hamiltonhill with Garscube. This is something that makes a real difference to local people. Previously if you wanted to get from one area to the other you had to go away down to the Scottish Canals office, cross the bridge there and then come all the way back on the other side of the canal.  But the bridge removes that detour and increases local connectivity.

“Mind you, some people would say we are most famous for our giant slide which sits on the Maryhill side of the bridge. On opening day this was the only place there was a queue. Hundreds of kids, and adults, wanted a go on the slide. By the way the reason it has a pronounced kink in it is that this was the only way we could satisfy health and safety. If the bridge had gone straight down it would have been too steep, too fast, and pretty dangerous.

Claypits Local Nature Reserve - User friendly walkways

“The surfaces through this reserve are important. The walkways are user friendly, people with wheelchairs and prams can travel easily through the site. We deliberately made sure it is accessible to everybody. The surface is a light colour on top of tarmac, this makes it brighter and hence the nickname it got of ‘The Yellow Brick Road’.  And we have lights set into the paths so as they can be used at night.

“Nowadays, more than ever people realise the mental health benefits of having places like this. The number of people that stop me and say “It’s so great having this space. I come home from work and have a walk through here in the evening, especially in the summer time. I’ve actually been up here at 10.00pm on a summer night, when of course it is still light, and there have been people all around. You wouldn’t have had that here before Claypits LNR was created.”

And the old adage that if you build it they will come is pretty apt here.  There are various entrances to the site giving access from all points of the compass. However, the Panmure Gate entrance certainly has a decided wow factor about it. Here a long boardwalk weaves between reed beds to take the visitor or commuter on a nature laden ramble. Robert describes the story behind it.  “The reason it is here”, he explains, “is to connect Panmure Gate with the rest of Garscube and Hamiltonhill. This nature rich area was tantalisingly outside their house, but they couldn’t easily access it.  Now they can talk a lovely walk on this raised boardwalk alongside the canal. The original plans avoided the reed beds, but we thought it would be better for people to walk in amongst nature as they come into the site. Everyone we talk to has said it is great.”

A people-counter at every entrance confirms that around 3,500 to 4,000 people a week are accessing the site.  The figures are similar for summer and winter, which is a pleasant surprise as many predicted use would drop dramatically in winter. The urban park is on the doorstep of around 12,000 people so the figures are fairly impressive.

What drove Robert to stick with the project when it presented various hurdles along the way?   “I have been in Scotland for 50 years, and Scotland has been very good to me’, he notes, “and what I’m doing here is paying back what people have given to me.”

Anyone visiting the site would say that Robert and indeed everyone behind this project has certainly given the local communities something special. As pay days go this one hits the jackpot.

Find out more about the Claypits LNR on twitter
Logo - ERDF


The Green Infrastructure Fund Is part of the Scottish Government’s current European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, which runs through to 2023.  This is one of two ERDF Strategic Interventions led by NatureScot – the other is the Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund.

You can follow the European Structural Funds blog for ESF activities, news and updates. For twitter updates go to @scotgovESIF or use the hashtags #ERDF and #europeanstructuralfunds

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