Blossoming friendships

Could gardens where friendships grow prove key in the fight against lonliness? Sarah Freeman reports on the work of one organisation trying to reclaim treasured spaces.

Rod Mellor, part of the committee helping to transform Beech Road recreation ground in Sowerby Bridge.

Five years ago, there was a park in Sowerby Bridge which was best described as ‘unloved’.

Used occasionally by dog walkers, much of the area was overgrown and no one had given it much of a second thought for number of years. With council budgets already tight, significant investment from the local authority was unlikely. However, a group of determined residents set their sights on transforming the area and Beech Road Recreation Ground now stands as testament of what can be achieved with a little imagination and a lot of hard work.

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“It was in a pretty sorry state,” says 72-year-old Rod Mellor, one of the park’s committee members. “We knew we had two options. We could either sit back and let it become even more overgrown or we could try and do something about it ourselves. We chose the latter.”

Since the committee, backed by Calderdal Council, held its first meeting back in 2009, they’ve successfully raised £205,000 – enough money to build a new children’s play area, install metal gates at the entrance and commission new artwork designed by local youngsters. However, the next project could be the most important of all.

“I guess I’m what you’d class as elderly, but I have a lot of outside interests and I’m always on the go,” says Rod. “However, we know that there are a lot of elderly people around here who struggle to get out. The park should be for them as well and we know that it could make a real difference to their lives. When you spend most hours of the day sitting in the same chair, staring at the same four walls, it’s incredibly isolating and just spending half an hour outdoors can make people feel so much better.”

The residents are now working with the environmental charity, Groundwork, to create a sensory garden in the park specifically targeted at increasing the number of older visitors.

“One thing which is really important is that the elderly are not segregated. While the sensory garden is really for them, we hope that by coming to the park, it will mean they meet people of different generations. The garden is just the start, really it’s about building relationships. We want the older people who come here to find a place where they can relax, but also a place where they can meet like-minded individuals and where they can make friends who they feel they can call on in times of need.”

The project at Sowerby Bridge is part of Groundwork’s X Marks the Spot campaign which is encouraging people to celebrate treasured spaces in their local community, which may have until now been overlooked.

In Leeds alone there are more than 4,000 hectares of green space, made up of more than 800 parks, recreation grounds, playgrounds, sports facilities and allotments. Under the X Marks the Spot scheme, for every £9,000 raised by the public, Groundwork will matchfund, taking the total to £18,000, all of which will be spent transforming public spaces.

“We had the ideas and we had the drive, but we couldn’t have achieved what we have without a little help,” says Rod. “The team at Groundwork have been instrumental in helping us access funds and it’s directly because of X Marks the Spot that we will be able to make our dream of a garden for older people a reality.”

No one involved in the Sowerby Bridge project is kidding themselves that one sensory garden alone will solve the problem of isolation among the elderly. However, with new research showing that the number of older people feeling lonely will rise by 40 per cent by 2030, every little can and does help. The report, published by the Friends of the Elderly charity, concluded that around seven million over-60s would be reporting loneliness in 2030, compared to 5.25 million today. The predicted rise was in part blamed on a steep growth in the size of the elderly population, together with a decline in marriage, which will leave more people over 60 living alone.

According to Groundwork, which was set up 30 years ago, access to green space is vital for public health, but according to its figures it’s not just the elderly who struggle to reap the benefits.

“There are 20 million people in the UK who are missing out on the benefits of open spaces and this lack of stimulation is detrimental to both health and general wellbeing,” says Adrian Curtis, executive director of Groundwork Leeds. “We’re supporting these regeneration projects because we know that whether it’s a garden for quiet reflection, a place to get closer to nature or simply somewhere to kick a ball about, green spaces play a vital role in our communities.

“They’re places to treasure and we want to mobilise the public, private businesses and politicians to protect and improve them.

“When you have less money, you need more ideas. We now think it’s urgent that everyone with an interest and passion in our parks and green spaces collaborate and develop new ways of working and funding this vital service. We urge everyone to get behind this appeal by making a donation via our website.”

The organisation is currently working on a second project in Norma Hutchinson Park in the Chapletown area of Leeds. Figures show the suburb has much higher levels of obesity and diabetes than elsewhere in the city and Groundwork hopes to tackle it head-on with the introduction of a fitness trail around the main park in a bid to encourage nearby residents outdoors and stem the impact of a sedentary lifestyle.

“We hope the fitness trail will allow more people to use the space, meet one another and foster community spirit,” says Adam. “There will be new seating and we will also be planting five large native trees. The idea is to create a welcoming setting, which is not only free to use, but open every day of the year.”

While 34 million people in Britain make regular visits to parks and 68 per cent of those considering the time spent their as important or essential to their quality of life, many are under threat. According to Groundwork, 86 per cent of park managers have reported cuts to revenue budgets since 2010, a trend they expect to continue over the next three years – potentially leading to park facilities being closed, grass left uncut, play areas less regularly cleaned and more anti-social behaviour due to less staff.

“Committees like the ones at Sowerby Bridge provide almost a million volunteer days and raise and estimated £30m each year to support their upkeep,” says Drew Bennelick, head of landscapes and natural heritage at the Heritage Lottery Fund “But more must be done to give them support and expand upon their work.”

• For more details about the X Marks the Spot scheme or to make a donation go to