On July 23 the Commonwealth Games will open in Glasgow, welcoming competitors from 70 different nations. The 4,500 participants will move into the shiny new Athletes’ Village in the east end of the city, a 35-hectare site offering up to 6,000 beds in energy efficient buildings that will be converted into 1,000 residential homes after the games. More than 250,000 items of furniture in the village have been recycled from the London 2012 Olympic Village. Across the river Clyde from the village, and the looming bulk of Celtic’s stadium in Parkhead, is a peninsula of land formed by a hairpin loop in the river. The athletes would be forgiven for not giving it a second glance, although they might notice a stationary excavator or two.

This is the Cuningar Loop, a part of Glasgow’s east end with a colourful and varied history and now, thanks to the games, a new future. As one of the key (dread word) legacy projects of the games it will use horticulture, woodland and nature to promote healthy living and the “re-wilding” of the local population.

The Loop is being regenerated as the Cuningar Loop Riverside Woodland Park, forming the £5m centrepiece of a wider Commonwealth Woodlands scheme that takes in 14 woodlands in the city and adjacent counties. The project at Cuningar Loop – in which 15 hectares of the 30-hectare site are being turned into accessible city woodland – is being managed by Forestry Commission Scotland, South Lanarkshire Council and Clyde Gateway.

The promotion of healthy lifestyles is the cornerstone of the scheme. Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy figures in the UK. A male child born in 2012 will have a life expectancy of 72.6, a female 78.5, against the UK averages of 78.9 and 82.7. Only 75 per cent of boys and 85 per cent of girls born in the city are expected to reach their 65th birthday. Obesity, diabetes, diet and alcohol consumption are all cited as reasons for a “Glasgow effect” on life expectancy. The east end has additional problems, with some of the worst statistics in western Europe for drug abuse, child poverty and crime. The arrival of the games offers an obvious springboard from which to promote alternative ways to keep fit and healthy – although the woodlands scheme is rather more subtle than the nearby monolithic Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome.

Despite being in a populous part of a bustling city, Cuningar Loop has been off the grid for 50 years for all but a few intrepid local naturalists and dog walkers bold enough to venture in. In the 1800s the site was occupied by fresh water reservoirs that formed part of the city’s water scheme, designed by the eminent engineers James Watt and Thomas Telford. When the water scheme was superseded, the Loop was abandoned for a few years, before unlicensed mining and quarrying commenced. This came to a sticky end in the early 1900s when a shaft collapsed, and the site then became a waste dump for the city.

Lost pocket change, old bottles, shoes and – appropriately, given the proximity of Celtic’s stadium – deflated leather footballs are among the detritus of daily life that has risen to the surface during the development works. These have formed part of the education programme, involving two artists in residence, James Winnett and Rob Mulholland, which was put in place to engage local residents and school children in the run-up to the site reopening. In the early 1960s demolition waste from the infamous Gorbals area of the city – described in the 1930s as the most dangerous place in the UK – ended up at Cuningar, before the site was once again abandoned.

Over the intervening five decades, nature slowly reclaimed the ravaged peninsula. Pioneer species like birch (Betula pendula), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), goat willow (Salix caprea) and elder (Sambucus nigra) blew in from the outside. The decades of dumped waste concealed more than just deflated footballs and old bottles; fruit trees sprang from buried seeds discarded from a thousand Glasgow tenements – apples, pears and plums. Somehow these hardy trailblazers battled through the layers of rubbish to establish proto woodland of often stunted, contorted trees, a hybrid of wild wood and chaotic orchard.

Beneath them an exotic mixture of native wildflowers, garden plants and invasive aliens grew, the most notable (and notorious) being giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). This native of the Caucasus is a monster, growing up to five metres high, with coarse leaves and branched hollow stems topped with parsley-like white flowers. Introduced as an ornamental plant in the 19th century, it was soon discarded into the wild once its unpleasant habits were discovered; it can cause phytophotodermatitis to such an extent that the resulting blisters scar for life, and contact with the eyes can cause blindness. An old Google Earth view of the site, shows Cuningar Loop as a white thumb jutting into the Clyde – the colour coming from the thousands of hogweed plants that had colonised the peninsula like malevolent triffids. The presence of such a noxious weed, along with the occasional sudden subsidence from the long-lost shallow mine shafts, added to the sense that Cuningar Loop was a place to keep out of.

The comparative lack of human intervention did, however, create a haven for wildlife, with numerous species of nesting birds, mammals and insects finding the ideal home in the middle of the city. Bullfinch, orange tip butterfly, goldeneye duck, otters, woodcock and roe deer are some of the highlights in this most incongruous of nature reserves.

The presence of an established woodland structure, abundant wildlife and, on the other hand, deeply undesirable toxic weeds has led to some interesting challenges for the team working on the project. An ecological clerk of works has been appointed to ensure wildlife is protected throughout the development phase. The plans include the creation of two looping tracks for mountain biking, BMX cycling and dirt jump bikes. There will also be an outdoor bouldering park for freestyle rock climbing, the first of its type in Scotland. Many of the stunted self-sown trees on the site are ideal for climbing too, and this will be encouraged.

To date about 15,000 trees, 30,000 shrubs and 40,000 bulbs have been planted. In addition, meadow grass has been sown along the new path network, and natural play facilities, picnic areas and an amphitheatre for outdoor learning have been created. The machines will fall silent for the duration of the games, but will start up again once the Paralympic athletes have gone, with the aim of reopening the woodland by spring next year.

It is hard not to compare the development of Cuningar Loop to the high-profile landscaped parkland created at the London Olympic 2012 site. Both were made on land deeply scarred by industry, and for long periods left to rot. Cuningar Loop may be on a more modest scale than the 2012 park – recently reopened as one of the largest post-Victorian parks in the UK – but its position in the city, and its goal to reconnect the east end of Glasgow’s inhabitants to a wilder place, are equally important. Part of the magic of the site lies in the sense that it is a forgotten corner of the city, a wild wood hiding in plain sight. If the development team can pull off the trick of maintaining that magic, it really will be a great legacy for Glasgow.

Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London

Slideshow photographs: Gillespies; Pattyn Wouter/Alamy; Torbjörn Arvidson/Alamy; John Drysdale/Getty; Graham Bell/Getty

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