Who’da thunk it? A site of natural beauty that is responsible for conservation and social projects galore in East London that I’ve passed on the train on and off for nearly six years – and I had no idea it existed.
Yes, buy I’m talking about Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, store a 33-acre woodland space that used to be a fully fledged cemetery until it was officially deconsecrated in 1966 and is now managed by a charity, pill The Friends of the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. And on Saturday afternoon, I popped along to a conservation day organised for volunteers.
As many as 2,600 volunteers maintain the park’s varied and diverse habitats every year. On Saturday there were around fifteen of them, who were busy clearing branches, twigs, loose leaves, litter and general detritus from 10am through to 3pm, including a break for lunch, of course. One of them, Mischa, in his mid-twenties and from Bethnal Green, told me that he had come along because it was a way of giving something back to the community in which he lives.
“It’s also something useful to do with my Saturday, as opposed to, say, laying about with a hangover,” he said with a smile. “After a week of work in an office, it gets you outside doing something that feels genuinely worthwhile and meeting new people.”
His friend Andy, also in his mid-twenties and from Hackney, added: “We find out about and get into these sorts of events through Go London. It’s a good initiative because it allows you to volunteer when and how you want to, rather than demanding a continual commitment. I enjoy volunteering at weekends when I can.”
And the cemetery park does need the volunteers too. Kenneth Greenway, the site’s liaison officer, who is charged with maintaining its upkeep and is its human face for the public, as well as being the only member of the charity who receives any pay, insists that it would take him an entire week to get through all the work that a group of volunteers gets through on a Saturday like this. Plus, it’s very important that the park is maintained – it plays an important role in the local area.
“No other park in Tower Hamlets offers what we can,” he said. “The borough doesn’t meet national targets for advised green spaces, so this park is crucial for the community. Not only is it nice to have a quiet, open space to be able to walk through and sit in, but studies have proved that green spaces are an important contribution to urban people’s mental wellness. Aside from the park’s main entrance, its five other ‘kissing gates’ are never closed, which means it’s always open, making for a safer – as well as more accessible – park.
“Plus, in terms of wildlife diversity it’s probably richer than a site of comparable size in the countryside, and that’s because of the volunteer work that goes into its upkeep.”
According to Kenneth, the park is home to 27 different butterfly species, UK rare species of beetles, flies and spiders, a UK rare species of bumblebee (the brown-banded carder bee) and 50 different bird species, including the green woodpecker and the greater spotted woodpecker. In terms of flora and fauna, it’s one of only nine areas in the UK where the Poplar Knight fungus is known to thrive and can claim to contain the highest number of the rare Tall Nightshade and Woolly Thistle plants in urban London.
“The park is also an educational resource for more than 7,000 schoolchildren every year,” added Kenneth. “During term time there’s a class in here twice a day – there’s always a waiting list.
“And we’re involved in local social improvement projects with Providence Row Homeless Association. Former homeless people spend a few hours of their day volunteering and doing odd-jobs here, which is especially useful to them because, as they’re addicts, the work helps fill their day with something instead of returning to drug abuse out of boredom or re-offending in order to buy drugs.”
It’s easy to be cynical about or dismiss the good work of a park like this in the hurly-burly, rat race-driven world of modern London, but when you spend just 30 minutes or an hour here, quickly you start to feel differently – the fact that this woodland hideaway exists right in the midst of the often hard urban reality of Tower Hamlets can only impress and please you. Plus, Kenneth’s enthusiasm is very infectious. It’s enough to make you want to volunteer one Saturday. Even if you have a hangover – well, maybe.
Ecologically-themed volunteering events take place all the time, throughout the week, at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park; for more details do visit the website.
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