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  • Writer's pictureOur Green Warrington

Friends of St Elphin's Park

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Our Green Warrington recently had a chat with Jean Flaherty of the inspirational “Friends of St Elphin’s Park” - a community group dedicated to providing friendship, support, creativity, activity and of course, all things green in the Fairfield and Howley area of Warrington. From developing beautiful park space to ideas for a back alley outdoor cinema; from “greening up” neglected areas to providing essential food supplies and organising quirky outdoor events, Friends of St Elphin’s Park has proved an invaluable source of compassion, solidarity and originality – for many years. Here, Jean, a local councillor, talks about its history and the important role it has played through the pandemic.

"The Friends of St. Elphin’s Park was established in 2008 when some funding was available to the community, as a large part of the park had been given over to build a new school to replace the existing Victorian school in Fairfield Street - which was no longer fit for purpose. In order for Warrington Borough Council to provide this funding there had to be an active “Friends” group. I was not involved at that time; I was still in full-time employment as Managing Director of a UK subsidiary of a European software development company.

My involvement began in 2010 when new play equipment was being installed and the Friends group had very little money to support any activities in the park. By spending time in the park, talking to residents and park users; explaining the need for local people to be involved, we soon had more volunteers on board and were able to put on low key events in the park. Whilst organising one of these events, a chat between two of our volunteers about tea and toilets led us to ask for help in refurbishing and opening the derelict bowling pavilion as The Pavilion Tea Rooms. Our local councillors, Tony Higgins & Peter Carey gave their backing to the project and persuaded Warrington Borough Council to invest £65,000.00 in the refurbishment. The Friends Group provided an Architect and project manager to help with the costs and a few months later The Pavilion Tea Rooms was opened.

Staffed totally by Volunteers, The Tea Rooms became a focal point for our community and very quickly outgrew itself. Currently, the buildings are in renovation, with extensions to the kitchen area and café room, a fully refurbished 2nd pavilion with facilities for our bowling teams and our community to use. My councillor colleague, Tony Higgins (Cabinet Member for Communities), took up the cause and secured just over £100000 in capital funding for this project to go ahead.

Over the years, the Friends of St. Elphin’s Park has gone from strength to strength, organising large events in the park, such as the very popular ‘Spooky Park’ at Halloween - which welcomes over a thousand visitors, Summer Fetes and Santa’s Arrival. Of course, The Pavilion Tea Rooms is open, usually three days each week in the winter months and five days in the summer, providing a very pleasant experience and light snacks and refreshments. Child-minding grandparents have spent full days in the park enjoying a cuppa whilst the children play happily on the state of the art play equipment or the numerous “ride on2 toys which have been recycled via our CLEAN 17 & 19 campaigns or donated by park users as their children outgrow them.

The Friends of St. Elphin’s Park have also built very strong relationships with other organisations; namely MacIntyre – sharing equipment and selling produce from their allotment, St. Helens College – horticultural students work throughout the year in the park covering some of the heavier maintenance jobs that might be too much for our volunteers and make a fantastic contribution to the high standard of presentation achieved. Their members have also become friends over the years and even after leaving the college course they continue to visit, support and volunteer in St. Elphin’s Park.

The HapiHub Foodshare had been established in our small local community centre and The Pavilion in St. Elphin’s Park. This type of foodshare addresses food waste by sharing food that would otherwise be dumped by the supermarkets. It could be short dated or have damaged packaging but essentially if used quickly is perfectly edible. Throughout the pandemic this additional source of food without having to visit a supermarket has provided a life-line to many; not only those receiving to food but also those who have volunteered to run a Door Step foodshare at their own homes. Some of these volunteers are older and somewhat isolated themselves so there is a double benefit. Providing a Door Step foodshare in our community has strengthened existing relationships and built many new ones. Without crossing any of the guidelines relative to COVID-19 or food hygiene regulatory standards, we have been able to provide food to members of our community who are in need at this time, make the appropriate referrals to the official Food Bank and other agencies as well as building up our volunteer network.

Together with Cllr. Higgins and one or two very dedicated volunteers, we developed the Friends of Friends network across Warrington, bringing together the various Friends and Community Groups. A very popular Annual BBQ has been organised for the last three years with over 80 representatives from these groups enjoying meeting up to share ideas. These events have also been used to celebrate the Green Flag achievement of so many of Warrington’s Parks, with the new flags being issued at the BBQ.

The benefit of all this background work has paid off big-time throughout the pandemic. The first, really touching thing was the comments from the younger members of our community, offering help to my husband and me (as we were in the shielding category). We were told, “You have always looked after us; it’s our turn now”. Our community has risen to the challenge of looking after each other and protecting our streets and green spaces. Another spin off has been the recent planning of a Park Watch Group as there has sadly been some considerable vandalism whilst the parks have not been under the watchful eye of the Friends Groups.

Throughout the pandemic, our volunteers have continued to work in the park, socially distancing, wearing masks etc., the park has been maintained to a very high standard; all the community have been able to enjoy taking their limited exercise or meet friends in a safe, outside environment which is a pleasure to be in. Another benefit is that some of our members are older and live alone - one has early stage dementia; so activity in the park has provided them with a focus and purpose whilst giving the carer of the dementia sufferer an opportunity for some much needed respite.

In Warrington we have now successfully brought the Central 6 Inner Wards together to work on projects which will benefit Warrington as a whole and particularly the Inner Wards which are rated in some parts amongst the top 10 most deprived areas of the country.

Warrington Crafters are working on several projects: they have recently completed the Knit Warrington display as park of the Warrington Heritage Day and also a commemorative "Rainbow Frieze", which was displayed outside Warrington Town Hall to mark what would have been Warrington Walking Day. This is keeping groups “together” and active whilst working at home, thereby reducing the feelings of loneliness and isolation."

Jean's advice for those interested in starting their own community group

Operating a voluntary group of this nature is not for the faint hearted, there are many obstacles and difficulties to overcome, however it can be very rewarding and satisfying, helps build communities and gives you great friends. Some tips:

- Build a strong relationship with your Local Councillor, relevant Council Officers and Parish Council if you have one.

- Don’t get carried away by your own enthusiasm, make sure you do a reality check before embarking on any project. Keep things within the possible, keep a check on the amount of time you are prepared to invest.

- Work with other groups who have done similar things, they will always be willing to share their experiences, listen for the bad things as well as the good.

- Make sure you treat volunteers with respect and avoid the “clique” trap – this one is not easy as in the early stages a few volunteers are likely to become very close.

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