Community parks and gardens combat Covid

Volunteer gardeners at Chichele

An important but often overlooked part of the UK’s landscape heritage is owned and run not by local authorities, national organisations, or private families, but by independent charities with very special community relationships. Here, we look at how these community parks and gardens have fared through Covid.

Warley Woods: riding the storm

Warley Woods in the Black Country is an 18th century landscape now run as a public park. It is managed by the Warley Woods Community Trust, using revenue from sources such as an on-site golf course and events. Viv Cole, Trust Manager, talks us through their experience: “In March the Board cancelled its meeting, but a few Trustees met to agree our way forward. We cancelled volunteering sessions and meetings, but even then in the meeting we sat right next to each other. Then pretty soon afterwards those plans came to nothing as we closed totally and all went home. It was on that very last day that we heard that one of our long standing Trustees, John McBride, had died of Coronavirus. The world already felt surreal enough, but this was just such shocking news and incredibly sad. We still have not been able to grieve properly for him, but he is so very missed.

This made it seem even more important to keep everyone safe, and I officially furloughed everyone apart from myself and a member of staff employed on Wild Warley, a National Lottery Heritage Fund project. My priority was to secure every bit of funding that was available and to keep the organisation legally ticking forward. In the early weeks it was eerily quiet, as everyone including Trustees tried to find their way forward in the new locked down world. Some of the jobs which could have been done just didn’t seem important enough, but I kept up with Communications work and started to do things like put all of our oral history sound clips onto our new website.

I rebudgeted and tried to reassure us all that we could survive financially, but only for a while. We do have some reserves, but we are always careful to put these by for new equipment, for lean years, and for capital repairs and renewals. I could see how fast these reserves would disappear, and while we might come out the other end still existing, we would be financially vulnerable with nothing at all to fall back on. The spring and summer is when we put away income from the golf course and events which then see us through the autumn and winter. The lovely sunshine which started beating down was a reproach – after months of rain and quiet months on the golf course, all of sudden it was perfect playing weather, but we were closed.

It was incredibly important to keep our staff furloughed so we could claim the grant aid, but of course the Woods did need caring for. As always, the public visiting the site were amazing. Not only reporting things as they usually do, but also solving them when they realised there were no staff on site at all. People made and laminated signage at home, cable-tied play area gates closed, and without the valiant litter pickers Warley Woods would have become a foul place that no one would have found a pleasure to visit. It was good to know the site was in good caring hands.

In late April things started to change for the better for us. I did a public appeal asking for help and the response was beyond amazing. I think people suddenly became very clear that we were something they wanted to support – they were visiting Warley Woods more than ever, or missing it because they couldn’t travel to it, and as the Trust’s financial situation became really acute they could see that our other incomes were gone and that we had become reliant on public donations. The Trust is very lucky to have a diverse range of income streams – many charities don’t – but at this point we were down to two: our council grant, which wasn’t going to increase just because we were in difficult times, and anything our community might give. We had already raised a very good amount when actress Dame Julie Walters replied to an email and agreed to do a video appeal. I added the video to our appeal page and things went donation-crazy for days. My inbox pinged with news of donations sometimes going on after midnight and then starting again early morning. The particularly magical things were those small direct debits, and I really hope those people keep supporting us, even when the current situation has eased.

We heard from Sandwell Council that we were eligible for a government leisure grant. I had given up all hope of this, as an application couldn’t be submitted without a business rates reference number and we didn’t have one. And incredibly we didn’t only get a grant, we got it at the higher level. It was at this point that the Trustees agreed to bring off furlough our Head Greenkeeper and Park Manager, Alan. He had been desperate to come back – he didn’t want to see all the hard work he and his team had put in start to fall apart. I know he found it so hard not to work and he had to stay away for three weeks. Once back he worked 12 hour days and I think every day for a week to get things as good as they could be.

Then came that very odd Sunday night when I watched the Prime Minister’s announcement and learnt that golf courses could reopen in 48 hours. We were exceedingly lucky that the golf industry lobbied so hard to reopen because although we did nothing to support this we benefitted from their efforts. So, it was change again and we had to work out how quickly could we safely reopen, what needed doing to enable it and how long it would take. I don‘t know how some golf courses opened in 48 hours when, amongst other things, you had to give staff notice to return from furlough, but it took us 8 working days. Within two days the Board had agreed the plan and staff could be asked to return to work to prepare the shop and the golf course. We are also very grateful to find that the public who had been using the golf course for exercise while it was closed mostly returned willingly back to the perimeter path.

Warley Woods community site
Warley Woods, where the Gardens Trust recently worked as part of our audience development project

More about GT Warley Woods project

I know many people are trying to help us with our business models, but actually our models aren’t necessarily broken – it is just extraordinary circumstances. No-one is saying the airlines need a new business model. We have been lucky that our income stream of public support remained open to us. We have been building public relationships for over 10 years and the pandemic has doubled our supporter base, especially with those people who finally understand that the park doesn’t happen for free, and with those who can’t say “what you need to do is this… (eg hold a barn dance)” … and then walk away to simply enjoy the view without actually getting involved.”

Wicksteed Park: working out of devastation

Wicksteed Park was founded in 1921 as part of the extraordinary legacy of entrepreneur and engineer Charles Wicksteed, who created a public park for free outdoor recreation and play opportunities for the people of Kettering and beyond. It is registered at Grade II on the National Heritage List and is owned by the Wicksteed Charitable Trust. In 2018 it hosted our annual Family Picnic with Northamptonshire Gardens Trust.

Since its founding a century ago, the park has operated with an infamously tricky business model – funding the year-round operation of a free public park through seasonal income streams such as events and fairground rides, all of which are run by a subsidiary company, Wicksteed Park Limited. Covid and the associated loss of business and revenue struck a fatal blow to this shaky model, leaving it with only limited car parking revenue to try to support a park that costs £100,000 each month to run. To make matters worse, as the charity has invested millions in recent years on restorations and business development, the Government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme was not an option as banks could not look beyond this exceptional spending to recognise its usual profitability. Even if a loan had been secured, it would have been impossible to afford the repayments whilst maintaining charitable outputs such as free access to playgrounds and parkland.

Oliver Wicksteed, chairman of the Wicksteed Charitable Trust (and great-grandson of the park’s founder), is clear that “There has been no meaningful government support for charities such as ours, apart from the furlough scheme, despite our making a contribution to the local economy of at least £11 million each year and supporting health and well-being immeasurably, particularly in these extremely challenging times. Even if park rides opened in July, the costs of social distancing measures and the reduced capacity at which the park would have had to operate, would have meant it was unlikely to be financially viable.” After several months of uncertainty and anxiety, in June the limited company went into administration, with the devastating loss of 48 permanent staff and 67 part-time and other jobs.

Following this collapse, the Charitable Trust’s Board and a small group of some dozen surviving employees, working incredibly hard, have formed a new company much reduced in size, to try and safeguard the future of the park and develop a new, more resilient model. Oliver says “the new company is a much more streamlined business aimed at getting the park through to next spring when it can hopefully start to re-open fully”.

The park is still very definitely not out of danger yet, but it is taking tentative and sensible steps towards a new and more secure future. From all the pain, a real positive has emerged in a new strength in its relationship with its visitors and local community. For many, the dramatic news was the first time they truly understood that Wicksteed Park is run by a charity, and that its existence couldn’t be taken for granted.

Shock and support on the park’s social media was extremely moving, especially since much of it was accompanied by donations to a fundraising campaign from supporters who could ill-afford it. Fundraising members of the community report “We are climbing Snowdon in aid of Wicksteed Park for Wicksteed Charitable Trust because We need to save this wonderful facility”, and “Running 15 miles, from one parkrun to another, for Wicksteed Charitable Trust because Wicksteed Park is a place we love”, or simply give donations because “”My family has had many visits to the Park over the years. My first job was on the carpark , my sister in the Oaktree serving ice-cream. I want to take my grandchildren there too. Please continue.” Providing a real lifeline, the local fundraising efforts were joined by a £247,000 emergency grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and most recently with another £247,000 from the Culture Recovery Fund for Heritage.

Wicksteed Community Garden volunteers
Some ‘Wicksteed Wednesday’ volunteers at Wicksteed Park in July 2020

Local reaction to the park’s threatened demise also resulted in a volunteer army mobilising to keep the park in good condition, tackling many of the jobs that had stood still since the staff were tragically made redundant. These ‘Wicksteed Wednesday’ volunteers have made impressive in-roads on weeding, planting and other maintenance, and are routinely cheered on and thanked by the park’s social media followers.

Railworld Wildlife Haven: a lifetime’s work facing an unprecedented challenge

At many sites, the volunteer effort is positively herculean. Railworld Wildlife Haven garden in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, was created on a derelict power station coal yard purchased by the Reverend Richard Paten in 1985. Over the years, volunteers have planted hundreds of trees, restored redundant sections of the 1840s Great Northern Railway Aqueduct, donated by British Rail in 1990, created waterfalls, streams and ponds using hundreds of tonnes of stone and clay donated by local industries, and built a ‘Globe Hall Earth Centre’ over twenty years. It even has 2,000 square feet of model railway!

As Brian Pearce, Chairman of the Railworld Wildlife Haven, says: “Not bad for a small group of volunteers! Last year our recorded volunteer hours reached 16,242 hours. We have really proved what can be achieved if volunteers, companies, groups and individuals work together for a common cause – looking after this amazing planet we all call home.”

Brian’s contribution alone is mammoth, not least of all this summer: “I may be Chair of the trustees but in any small charity you have to muck in and do most things. Lead from the front and all that! One day I may start off emptying the bins, then mend a door and finally go off and do a talk to 100 people that are members of an interested organisation, or maybe a school or college. Next day I may have the chance of a JCB Digger and Operator for the day so I sort out work for that and spend all day with the machine going from one job to another.

The past month has involved a big job, all made harder because of Covid. I managed to get funding of £9,850 for a footpath across our car park, but I acted as a labourer to do whatever was needed to keep the costs down  – I am a free resource. This past month I was at the garden from 8:00am till 6:00pm most days, and then had to do my emails in the evenings and weekends – a bit crazy when you are 72 and retired. Our volunteer numbers have dropped as many of them are in the ‘at risk’ category – some are well over 80, and most are retired so we need to be careful. We have had a few younger ones helping out though, such as a new lad who is only 26 and has been furloughed. He has been working wonders with the model railway! Normally we might hold a Community Team Day with support from businesses who might lend us over 300 employees for the day to help out. This hasn’t been possible since March.

Railway Wildlife Haven community garden
Railworld Wildlife Haven, showcasing a Bellis and Morcom twin cylinder steam engine built in 1916, with an alternator added in the 1930s. In the background is one of the 1840’s Great Northern Railway Aqueduct sections.

But we have coped, and are managing OK. It really honestly has been a labour of love … and let’s remember, never say die and never, never, ever give up!”
Read The Volunteers’ Story here

Chichele: a reminder of the importance of open space

Chichele College Garden in Northamptonshire is a community garden created on the site of a college for secular cannons founded in 1422. It is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster, and English Heritage are its custodians, but the community garden was created by a group of volunteers who strive to make the town of Higham Ferrers a better place. It was designed as a medieval-style garden, with the extensive knowledge and guidance from Jenny Burt and Michael Brown of the Northamptonshire Gardens Trust ensuring that the planting is true to the period.

In 2019 over 5,000 people visited events held there, with many more just visiting on ordinary days as it is always open and free to enter. During the strange times of the Covid-19 lockdown however, this community garden has become a place of quiet repose for those fortunate enough to be able to take a daily walk, most especially for those without a garden of their own, whilst many images of the garden’s blooms and blossoms have been shared online for those who can’t get out.

Claira, a NHS worker and volunteer with the Gateway Group, a charity that uses Chichele for its work with adults with learning difficulties, reflects on what the garden has meant to her through Covid: “Chichele has been so magical for me during this time. There were a few occasions on Thursday nights, especially when it had been a difficult week for us in the NHS, I would go and sit on ‘my bench’ and hear Higham’s Clap for Carers appreciation of the key workers. Whilst I was not on the NHS front line, my work was still helping drive the Covid emergency response and so I was working very long hours. It was my sanctuary and where I could shed a few tears.

Sadly the Gateway Group have not been allowed to meet and use the garden this year as many of them are vulnerable, but as soon as they are, we plan to work with them on  developing the adjoining  Duchy Barn area as a productive garden to include raised beds for wheelchair users.  Funding for this venture has been secured from  several sources, to include the Duchy of Lancaster Covid Benevolent Fund. We are really hoping that by next spring planting can begin.”

Volunteer gardeners at Chichele
Volunteer gardeners at Chichele Gardens, including Carol Fitzgerald from Northamptonshire Gardens Trust

To find out more about Chichele please visit


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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith