You don’t have to look hard to find signs of Hackney Downs Park’s disrepair. Lengthy weeds cover a bowling green that hasn’t seen a rolling ball for decades. The old keeper’s lodge is somehow both shuttered and squatted, and its back garden filled with detritus and hundreds of shelled plugs, presumably harvested for copper, strewn across the ground.
But Hackney Community Gardeners – an offshoot of Hackney Downs User Group (HUG) – has come up with an idea that could ring the changes in this green part of the borough. Things are already afoot, as I saw firsthand when I met de facto project leader Myra Heller and fellow HUG-ers Kym Robinson and Jayne Garner at their busy plant sale in late April.
“That is a half-done drawing, and if anyone wants to draw on it they can,” said Heller, gesturing towards the lovely collage she created off the back of hours of steering group meetings (see picture below).
Prominent in the image is a café, something present and correct in pretty much every other Hackney park of this size, but not here – indicative of a certain “lack of focus” in Heller’s eyes.
She explained how HUG got to this point with the project: “We affiliated ourselves with a charity called ecoACTIVE – they raise money – and we started doing workshops here, just as volunteers.”
Heller pauses to bag up a customer’s plant before continuing: “We did that for a year – propagation, willow weaving, bug hotels, all kinds of ecology stuff. Now we’re getting more serious.
“We’ve got architects involved, we want everyone possible that could have a skill or a talent that’s needed. Finally the council, after dragging their feet for a year and a half, has said ‘Okay, you can do six months of pop-ups’.”
The plans will see the bowling green replaced with a smaller bit of terrain for boules or pétanque – a melancholy sign of the slow death of crown green perhaps, but Heller pointed out that “it doesn’t take any maintenance and you certainly don’t have to pour Roundup [weedkiller] and glyphosate on it”.
“We would surround it with growing beds, and have a central meeting point,” she added.
As the drawing suggests, these growing beds would soon become verdant areas for relaxing and general frolicking – to be enjoyed by all, but especially local dementia groups and students with special educational needs from neighbouring Stormont House School, as the area is surrounded by an unimposing but sturdy protective fence.
The last major tranche of work carried out on Hackney Downs is the Big Lottery-funded pavilion, built on the back of the Olympics, ostensibly for local school groups to use. Nowadays, the main room is used by Hackney Mosaic Project for two days a week, but mostly sits empty.
As the gardening trio and I moved towards the back of the building, I noticed that the changing rooms looked and smelt fresher than any of the muddy hovels I undressed in as a lad – so it was no surprise to learn that these are also hardly ever used. The nearby Mossbourne Community Academy, like many other schools, requires students to get changed on its own premises anyway. Whoops!
The council is now on board with Heller and co., who also have the backing of Hackney Downs councillor Michael Desmond.
“I’m supporting it,” Cllr Desmond confirmed. “I had a meeting with the group at the Town Hall, and we’re going to take a deputation to the council [on 26 July] recommending that these improvements be made.
“The nice thing is, it’s coming from the community. It’s not the council saying ‘We want to do this, we want to do that’, it’s the people there saying ‘We want these things’. There are lovely cafés in Springfield Park and Clissold Park – why not Hackney Downs?”
It’s hard to disagree. There’s a long way to go on all fronts – it’s not clear, for example, what plans are in place for the old park keeper’s lodge, which Hackney Community Gardeners think could be made into “the most wonderful community shop… without asking for a penny from the council”.
In the meantime, you may well spot the group the next time you go to Hackney Downs Park – a place now full of possibility.
Can you help? Any questions? To get in touch with Hackney Community Gardeners, email firstname.lastname@example.org