Founders of Friends of Alexandra Park

Jane and Gordon Hutchinson, with the help of a small group of local people, founded the Friends of Alexandra Park in 2006 with the aim of ensuring that this wonderful green space remains as a true ‘People’s Park’—which has been the Park’s guiding ethos since the first day it opened its gates. According to the Act of Parliament in 1900 which created the Alexandra Palace and Park Trust noted, the trustees were required to maintain the Palace and Park and make them ‘available for the free use and recreation of the public forever’.

We thought that, in this year of the Park’s 150th birthday, it was the perfect time to interview Jane and Gordon about their decision to commit so much of their time and effort to protect the Park that is such an important part of our lives here in north London.

Q. When did you set up the Friends of Alexandra Park?

Jane: There is a lot of history to this, but, briefly, it began when I was very involved with an organisation called Save the Environment of the Palace and Park (STEPP) which had been formed after the fire in 1980 when different sorts of development were being discussed. STEPP represented local views on plans for the future of the Palace but began to wind down after the Park was awarded a heritage Lottery bid at the end of the 1990s.

Q. What came next?

Jane: We still saw a need for an over-arching organisation responsible for the Park. There were lots of interest groups such as the sports club, the allotments and even the fishermen, but there wasn’t one for the Park as a whole which was represented on any of the Park and Palace committees. So, through networking (dog-walking in the Park), I got together with others who were interested and in February 2006 we met to decide if there would be enough interest to hold a public meeting. We then had a big leafleting campaign, with support from the Muswell Hill and Fortis Green Association, which had been looking after a small amount of money left over when STEPP ended.

Q: Why did you feel this was so important that you were prepared to devote so much energy to getting it going?

Jane: It was really to protect the Park, particularly in terms of all the commercial events being held at the Palace and the impact large numbers of people attending them could have. Also, when it came to the management, the Park tended to be somewhat of a poor relation in terms of attention until the Heritage Lottery Fund bid was successful.

Gordon: There had been changes to the Act which governed the Alexandra Park and Palace Trust which had made more commercial activities possible and so there was a concern that commercial pressures from Palace management might affect the Park. And then, when the proposal emerged to lease the Palace in its entirety to the Firoka Group, with the huge implications for its development, we were ready to take action.

Q: Was there a lot of interest in creating the Friends’ group at the first public meeting In March 2006?

Gordon: There were roughly 140 people there. In part it was probably because it was during the latter stages of the Heritage Lottery Fund work in the Park and there was concern about things like tree clearance. Jane’s initiating the Friends as a way to protect the Park coincided with that more particular worry. So we got a lot of members right from the start.

Jane: During that first winter we really weren’t very active as the Friends but, in 2007, when Mark Evison arrived as Park Manager, it was evident that he was happy for us to be involved. He had been trying to open what was then the Information Centre himself but just didn’t have the time. So we said we would do it at weekends and it all built from there. More importantly, Jenny and Nick Bryant, along with Stephen Middleton and Harry Kornhauser on the committee. It is a really active committee and the support of Mark Evison has really galvanised things and they helped make the Friends what it is today.

As well as opening the Information Centre, we began our series of walks with the first bird and history walks in 2008.By 2009/10, however, we began to have a much fuller programme, adding bat and tree walks, and could open the Information Centre on a much more regular basis.

Gordon: I would say that the full programme, as it is now, has been going for the last two-to-three years and has been expanded to include events such as the insect hunt and moth evening. Plus we now have the new Information Centre, which is making a lot of difference in terms of being able to hold events. We can also open more frequently, thanks to the increasing number of volunteers.

Q: Would you say that the group is now taken much more seriously by the Palace management?

Jane: Definitely. And Gordon contributes a lot to the various meetings being held, including some of those with the commercial organisations which want to hold events in the Park like Red Bull, and what he says is listened to. It has helped that Mark Evison is keen to maintain a good dialogue with the Friends and when Duncan Wilson came on board as chief executive of the Alexandra Park and Palace Trust, he was very keen to look at the Park and Palace as a whole.

Gordon: When you apply for a Heritage Lottery bid, it’s important to show strong links to the community and the Trust recognises that we are one of the active community groups (in May it was announced that Alexandra Palace has been successful in securing Heritage Lottery Funding for the development phase of the £16.8m regeneration of the building).

Q: How would you like the group to evolve?

Jane: I would like to see more walks and talks and be able to invite speakers such as David Lindo, the Urban Birder, whose talk this past March was so inspiring. I would also like to see the Friends as a hub for things going on in the Park. Finally, I see us as a sort of protection group increasingly speaking up for the Park to make sure that commercial events in the Park, which we recognise as attractive to visitors and valuable for income generation for the Trust, don’t start causing lasting damage to the Park.

Gordon: As more entertainment activity takes place in the Park it’s important that we protect its natural assets because pressures on the Park in terms of finding ways to bring in money will undoubtedly increase. There are some areas where even if it gets trodden to a mush the landscape is easily repairable. But other parts could be seriously harmed and take a long time to recover— if at all.

Mainly, we have to ensure that public access to the Park ,as originally intended in the 1900 Act, is honoured. In addition, we would like to get to the point where we could get funding from grant-giving bodies for more significant projects such as improving the conservation area pond

Jane: And doing more in terms of children’s activities because it is such a wonderful natural resource here in the middle of the borough—and there aren’t that many around.

Q: Preserving what’s best about the Park is obviously something you both feel very strongly about.

Jane: I feel passionate about the Park and always have, and feel very lucky to live close to it.

Gordon: One of the ironies is that when the Park first opened it had been farmland, and lots of commercial entertainments were brought in such as animal zoos and hot-air ballooning. It was very much about entertainment for the people. Now that so much of the borough is covered in concrete and tarmac it’s even more important that the Park stays as a natural asset and green space full of the rich biodiversity it has—whether because of neglect or planning! So while it is great to celebrate its 150th, we have to make sure we keep it as a green space for insects and birds and plants to thrive.