THE SS NORRIS
An abandoned ship
The market town of Stockport is around seven miles south-east of Manchester city centre – and some fifty miles from the coast. Yet overlooking Stockport town centre sits a small concrete boat, the SS Norris. The boat is permanently run aground on one of the hills which characterise the town, and distinguish it topographically from the largely flat landscapes of the nearby city.
Instead of waves lapping at its prow, the SS Norris is surrounded by the chattering of squirrels, scampering across its deck, as birds carry on conversation in the trees above.
Its anchor is a large tree; its mooring is a small nature garden. The boat rests in Heaton Norris Park, a Victorian amenity first opened in 1875.
The park takes its name from the suburban area of terraced housing by which it’s surrounded, with enticingly named streets such as ‘Love Lane’. Its grassy expanses slope downhill towards the town centre, affording expansive views of the town. It rises above the traffic fumes of the A6, one of the main routes between the city of Manchester and the Peak District. It’s a surprisingly tranquil spot, given that it’s also bounded by the incessant movement of the outer ring road, the M60, which slices through the red sandstone rock on which the town is built (this stone gives its name to the Red Rock entertainment complex, visible from the park, which was recently awarded the dubious accolade of the annual Carbuncle Cup).
In summer, the view is obscured by foliage, but in winter the leaves fall away to reveal a stunning vantage point of the Stockport skyline: visible are the town’s famous redbrick viaduct, with its eleven million bricks, over which train passengers are whisked to London and the south; the glittering neon sign of Stockport Plaza, a glamorous art deco anomaly in the urban townscape; and the grand grey stone towers of Stockport’s municipal buildings.
Short for steam ship, ‘SS’ denotes a boat powered by steam. Such boats included the grand ocean liners which once set sail across the ocean from Liverpool – a port connected to Stockport by the River Mersey, which begins at the confluence of the Goyt and Tame rivers in the town centre. The Mersey joins the Manchester Ship Canal and flows out through Cheshire and Merseyside before reaching the sea at the Wirral.
SS Norris is the centre point of Hatton Hilltop Sanctuary, a fenced off nature garden within the Heaton Norris Park. It’s the sole survivor of what was once a play area for the children of the surrounding area. The Sanctuary takes its name from Hatton Street, the steep cobbled road which runs alongside it, before ending abruptly at the motorway. Stockport town centre is full of streets like these; small passageways and flights of steps with hand rails running down the middle, connecting the different levels on which the town is built. Archival images from the 1960s show Hatton Street to be a rundown area of terraced housing, shops, small businesses, pubs and a cinema. When the M63 (now absorbed into the M60) was built in the 1970s, it cut the street off from the rest of the town: now, viewed from beneath, St Mary’s Church appears to perch precariously on a ledge above the fast-flowing traffic below.
Abandoned and overgrown by the 1980s, the playground attracted vandalism, fly-tipping and antisocial behaviour – but also a boom in wildlife. Reborn as Hatton Hilltop Sanctuary in the mid-2000s, it is maintained by volunteers, including dedicated residents of the nearby tower blocks which overlook the park. It’s now home to bird feeders, insect hotels and bat boxes, and regularly hosts events such as nature walks. As well as tending the flora and fauna of the area, the boat itself is kept ship shape and lovingly decorated according to the seasons. At Easter, it’s bedecked with eggs and bunnies, and planted with daffodils; at Hallowe’en it’s given a spooky makeover. At Christmas, it’s draped in tinsel, baubles and quirky and creative recycled Christmas decorations, such as red-caped Santas riding bicycles with old CDs for wheels.
The SS Norris may set sail in children’s imaginations no more, but still she prompts flights of fancy, and dreams of voyages to worlds far away from this industrial town.