Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A Cambridge sanctuary

I have known Allan for a good few years now, but we have never met. We know one another because Allan is one of the best local historians in the country and contributed articles to Local History Magazine in the days when we were its editors and publishers. We soon found that we shared other interests as well and when he saw my park blog he told me about how his local park has been helping him to recover from a serious operation and illness, so I asked him to write about his park, which he described as his 'sanctuary' and to send some pictures as well.

This summer we are planning a visit to Cambridge to see another friend and will make sure we meet Allan for the first time and visit Romsey Recreation Ground. By coincidence, our friend Angela knows Allan and lives close by. I am sure that there are many millions of similar stories waiting to be told across the country. The more we talk and write about the parks we love the more likely they are to get the attention and funding they deserve. We should not be ashamed to make parks political — as Councillor Dave Trimble made clear in my blog last Saturday (26 April). In the meantime enjoy Allan's story about his local park.

Romsey Recreation Ground, Cambridge,
was my saviour and my sanctuary when I emerged from three long weeks in the local hospital. Everyone should have one within five minutes walk of where they live.

Banned from driving or cycling while I recovered, I was pedestrianised. Used to ‘home’ being a retreat for evenings and weekends, ‘home’ became the centre of my now very shrunken world. I couldn’t go very far - it hurt! And I didn’t want to go very far –the idea of someone knocking into me while negotiating the busy main streets full of jostling people, noisy traffic and erratic drivers was scary. From being fit and in a hurry, I suddenly became one of the people whom I’d always rushed past before, often invisible to the active - the elderly, the disabled, young parents with small children. The local pavements, not the road with no horizon, became my way of moving around, and everything was very, very different.

The nearby park was my daily excursion beyond the security of the front door. I could reach it without crossing a main road, and it became a destination for a walk, to see people, for a sight of the sky, and for a sense of space in a very urban environment of terraced housing.

Go through the park gate, past the hedge and the small tree that succeeding generations of children clamber to the top of, and there is a large square of grass. It is used for informal games of football, and by adults throwing balls for their dogs while they stand around talking to each other. Ball games were beyond me, but it was liberating in the early months of the year to be in a wide open space and to sense the winter light, away from the confines of small houses and narrow gardens. It made me feel good.

The path around the central square of grass became my daily route, shared with the occasional jogger or passer-by to whom I could nod, or have a brief conversation. It provided contact with people again, with the knowledge that I could always get home if I needed to. Walking round once was a triumph to begin with. Slowly it reached five circuits, and then five circuits twice a day. It takes being unable to walk to appreciate just how good it is to be able to do this.

There would always be someone in the park, whatever the weather. Children on the way to and from the local Primary School, teenagers playing basketball daily, or once a week a group of young mothers who left one of their number guarding their parked buggies while the others went running together.

Low railings surround a fenced off children’ s play area which even in the depths of winter was frequently alive with pre-school children and their parents. Not so long ago, before local authority budget cuts, this was the bowling green where older men and women in immaculate ‘whites’ patiently rolled their bowls in a captivating ritual. Beyond lies the former allotments, now an informal ‘wildlife’ area of trees and brambles where dens are made in the bushes and where you can sit quietly and not see a single house or roof top.

The park looks like many others. It’s kept clean, the kids use the playground equipment, the grass is cut regularly and the trees are maintained. It could be better. Why the park isn’t cleaned at weekends when it is most busy remains a mystery. Now the bowling green has gone, what is provided for the elder generation ? The playground equipment could be modernised, new tree planting would be good, and so would be some colour - flower beds can’t cost much? Hopefully these improvements will happen. But for now this is no Victorian gem. It is a very ordinary 20th century ‘recreation ground’. But for me, walking round in the winter months, this was a very special place.

Being outdoors, surrounded by green grass and trees, and seeing the sky, the clouds, and the sun when it came out, all made me feel much, much better. Seeing and chatting to people helped me reconnect with the world.

It is easy to take for granted what we have. But I’m immensely grateful to those long dead councillors and local people who fought to establish this park. It is here because people argued and lobbied for it. It could have been used for housing. Today it probably would. The new developments I see have only token play areas, no where big enough for football, or for my daily perambulations, or to sit undisturbed away from hard surfaces and buildings. But we need all these. Not a car-journey away, but close to home so that children and the elderly (or recovering hospital patients!) can get there safely on foot. Today high density housing is the mantra of the planners and the delight of developers. But to make it work we need well maintained, easily accessible, attractive open spaces too. Others fought for these in the past. We need to leave our mark for the next generation. You never know when you will need it yourself. I do now.

Allan Brigham, Cambridge, April 2008.

Lollipop men and women are about to undergo a Robocop-style makeover: their signs are to be equipped with cameras in an effort to combat "lollipop rage" by aggressive drivers. The new 'lollycams' cost £890 each and will allow lollipop men and women to record dangerous driving and capture car number plates.

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