Our park 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.
While I recovered I was pedestrianised, with a ban from the Doctors on driving or cycling. Used to 'home' being a retreat for evenings and weekends, 'home' now became the centre of my very shrunken world. I couldn't go far - it hurt! And I didn't want to go far - the busy main streets full of jostling people, noisy traffic and erratic drivers were scary.
From being fit and in a hurry, I suddenly became one of the people who I'd always rushed past before. The elderly, the disabled, young parents with small children - all can be invisible to the active. Their journeys are often by foot, and local. Now I joined them. The 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 the 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 with the small protruding 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 with varying degrees of vigour while they stand chatting. 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 needed. Walking round once was a triumph. 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, 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 this was the bowling green where older men and women in immaculate 'whites' patiently rolled their bowls in a captivating ritual. Next to it is the remains of the tennis court where they now play basketball. Beyond lie the former allotments which have been transformed into 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 discarded beer cans which I found myself picking up at weekends were evidence of nocturnal use by local teenagers. Tolerated as long as remaining within certain (unspecified) limits, they must get cold.
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 is gone, what is provided for the elder generation? The basketball has been a real success, but perhaps some would still like to play tennis. Would both be a better option? The playground equipment could be modernised, new tree planting would be good, and so would be some colour - flower beds can't cost much, more spring bulbs would be a start.
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 on its all too brief appearances, all made me feel much, much better. Seeing and chatting to people helped me reconnect with the world.
I still visit the park daily, at last back at work, much better and walking with ease. I have never appreciated spring so much before, seeing the leaves appear on the trees that had seemed bare for so long. Summer has passed too, the leaves have gone from vibrant green to golden brown, and now lie dark and wet on the ground. Twelve months ago I was lying in a hospital bed unsure if I was ever going to witness this again. I think I will remember this year and those trees like no other.
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. And to those who have maintained and refurbished it over the years. 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 amongst the trees 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. The developers leave us 'Community Centres' but probably the best, most accessible 'community centre' is a well designed park. You never know when you will need it yourself. I do now.
Allan Brigham: Dec 2008
Published: Cambridge City Council Community Services Romsey Newsletter. 2009
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