Stripping for the community in White Horse Park

By - Friday 23rd December, 2016

Croydon’s newest park group gets off to a purposeful start

Photo author’s own.

For a place celebrated (or otherwise) for its urban grit, Croydon’s always been surprisingly green. We have 127 parks in our borough and in 2009 won the Royal Horticultural Society’s title of the UK’s greenest large city, along with first prize in Britain in Bloom. These awards were greeted with surprise (some polite, plenty not) and are probably news to a good many readers even now.

There are two reasons why green Croydon has never been widely acknowledged: firstly, like too many other pleasant things, a lot of the greenery is located in the wealthier south of the borough and therefore described, even by those who live there, as being in Surrey. (It’s been part of Greater London since 1965). Secondly, the town centre with its exciting but not always sympathetically developed future-scape, and its monuments to humanity’s first ventures into space whose architecture then fell out of fashion for thirty years, is what outsiders think of when they picture ‘Croydon’. It’s what you see from the train: concrete canyons, not leafy glades.

But we’re fortunate enough to have not just beautiful parks, including of course Wandle Park with its re-surfaced river, but also active and engaged ‘Friends’ groups to care for them. As Croydon Council perforce cuts deeper and deeper into its budget, it increasingly seeks to hand over responsibility for green spaces to such volunteers. This is a tricky issue: whilst opposing the cuts and wishing to see paid employees take responsibility for public amenities such as parks, it must be acknowledged that in the present political landscape, money to pay them simply is not there.

Ivy stripping.
Photo author’s own.

There’s also a great deal that’s positive in such activism: it’s worth reading this, written eighteen months ago by a leading member of the Friends of Park Hill Park, to get a sense of the purpose and achievements of Croydon’s gardeners. The work is often enjoyable for those involved and a great community spirit is fostered. It ends up feeling like a good thing, which it both is, and is not. Its outcomes, however, are good beyond a doubt: it allows Croydon to thrive.

The newest such group is the Friends of White Horse Park, (also known as Whitehorse Road Recreation Ground: sources vary) which has been founded by local environmental activist, Charles Barber. On moving to the White Horse Road area (triangulated between Thornton Heath, Broad Green and Addiscombe, just north of the town centre) he discovered it by chance, a (roughly) trapezoid patch of grass and trees behind railings alongside the A212. Three big raised flowerbeds and a few benches attest to the park’s past as a valued green space for an area that’s short of them: in colourful bloom, those beds must have transformed the stretch of rather featureless road which runs alongside.

It doesn’t look like that any more. What Charles saw did more than just depress him. As he wrote with real passion in the Croydon Citizen:

‘It was on my second visit that my anger at negligence reached such a level that I was inspired to act. The council contractors had… butchered all the shrubs, pruning them as if cutting them into exactly the same box shape was all that was needed. [They had] swiftly tidied up these unfortunate shrubs, before moving on to their next victims…pruning with no consideration… and leaving ivy to continue its strangling operation. As someone who tries to garden with a certain respect for the plants within my domain, such brusque, cruel treatment seemed almost sacrilegious’.

In response, he reached out through social media, community networks and this news magazine to make contact with as many of his neighbours as possible. There’s now a Friends group with a constitution which is seeking recognition from the council (with whose representative it has met) and which has the usual channels (Twitter, Facebook, ) operating to publicise its activities. And as of Sunday 18th December, there’s also a band of community gardeners (of greatly varying degrees of skill) who arrived at 10am bearing rakes, trowels, pitchforks, bulbs, flasks of tea and homemade mince pies.

Right now, White Horse Park is pretty much invisible

The next three hours were chilly, at times strenuous, and in the end very rewarding. Firstly, that ivy-stripping: the strangling plant was cleared from bushes, an intricate and time-consuming job with secateurs which involves little movement other than of the hands and arms – chilly on a December day. Then leaves were swept up and bagged (a much warmer task for beginners) and prepared to be turned into leaf mould (a compost which can be used as soil conditioner). Bulbs were planted in some of the flowerbeds alongside the paths. And there was, perhaps inevitably, quite a lot of litter-picking.

The saddest part of the morning’s work, at which I was a volunteer, was how few people came into the park in the time we spent there. There was scarcely a dog-walker, no children playing football, and no play equipment to attract littler ones. Just a few people using its paths as a shortcut. A winter walk can be so enjoyable and part of drawing people into becoming more active is to give them a pleasant environment in which to do so. Right now, White Horse Park is pretty much invisible.

The next step is to complete full official registration with the council (which has been supportive and with whom discussions about next steps are already underway), then to increase membership and to consult with local people. No-one involved imagines that these things will happen overnight. But the energy of the project makes it likely that real progress will be made. White Horse Park must feel a bit more loved now. I hope that we can make that lonely trapezoid a place to be proud of.

Want to get involved with the Friends of White Horse Park? Click on the links above for the group’s Facebook and Twitter, or email . Future meetings will be publicised as widely as possible and everyone is welcome.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    And to think that I used to live near there, yet have no recollection of that park!