Friends of Alexandra Park (FoAP): What were your early experiences of Alexandra Park?
I grew up on Grove Avenue, right at the top near the Park. So my brother and I spent all our holidays, when we weren’t going to Cyprus, in Ally Pally. That was our backyard. I remember spending what feels like endless sunny days in the playground and, when I was little, in the little paddling pool. Over the years we did lots of other things like roller skating and playing by the boating lake. Basically the Park is in my blood.
When I became a councillor I was initially put on the Statutory Advisory Committee for the trust board. I was really keen to play a bigger role in the future of the Park and Palace so I asked to go on the board itself in 2013. After a year, when my colleague stood down, I applied to be chair. This is my second year.
FoAP: Why were you so interested in being involved?
Because it means something to me in a very fundamental way. When you have grown up with something that is basically our back garden there is always the danger you can take it for granted. I saw this as an opportunity to make a real difference and be at the heart of helping to make decisions and also to see how things actually work. I suppose that’s how a lot of people first become councillors. They start being involved in community activities and then take it further to become part of setting strategies. There is no point sitting on the sidelines and saying “Well, if I was on the board I would do this.”
I wanted to take the opportunity to see if I could make a difference, such as arguing the case for more money for parks in very difficult economic circumstances. I’ve always lobbied strongly for parks. That’s why the setting up of the various Friends’ groups, something the council has encouraged across the borough, has been fantastic.
FoAP: Did your initial involvement with the Trust coincide with the beginning of the regeneration plans?
That predates me slightly. I became a councillor in 2010 and, while by the time I became chair I was able to announce the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant, I was very lucky to have followed two great chairs, Pat Eganand Matt Cooke. They had put a lot of work into it with former chief executive Duncan Wilson.
FoAP: Do you find what’s going on now exciting?
Yes, and it’s quite a lot to take in, particularly if you are used to the Palace as a kind of folly on the top of the hill. That’s the point: there is something folly-ish about it, isn’t there? And that’s always been part of the challenge: transforming a huge building that was put there for pleasure which is surrounded by a beautiful park that is at the same time separate but integral to it into something that works. And to do so in these times when you have to ask: just where is the bottom line? How do we make this financially viable?
FoAP: That’s a really interesting point. Should the Park and Palace be seen as a whole rather than two separate components? How feasible is that?
I think they have to be seen as integral because whatever happens in the Palace will inevitably have an impact on the Park. They are clearly closely linked not just physically but also financially. You have to try and get the balance right between making sure the Park is accessible to all but to also be able to pay the large sums the Park costs every year.
Interestingly, if you speak to people who visit, there is quite a split between those who come for the Palace and those who come for the Park. For example, I have known people who are passionate about the Park but you could have flattened the Palace and they wouldn’t really mind. If you think about it, the Palace really doesn’t impact on the Park at all. If I was coming to the Park with my kids I wouldn’t necessarily go to the Palace, would I? On the other hand, if I were coming to the Palace for a gig I probably wouldn’t traipse through the Park at night. While we as the board can’t divide them, I do think we have to recognise that some people do.
FoAP: We have had some great events in the Park this summer. Do you think there is a tension between running commercial activities to help pay for the Park and its use as a green space?
The 1985 Alexandra Park and Palace Act stipulates how many days the Park can be closed in a year. I know some people want the Park to be open 365 days a year but that’s simply not realistic and not only for financial reasons, although they are very important. But in order to make it a living, breathing space that will be sustainable and progress we need to attract new people in, whether they are younger, older, foodies, from outside the area ― in other words, new users. I wouldn’t object to more events as long as they are agreeable to the majority of people. What I wouldn’t want to see is the Park becoming like Finsbury Park with huge outdoor gigs. But you have to keep an open mind about running events which bring in different kinds of people. After all, parks are nothing without people.
The ideal is to have people come for more than one thing. So they can have some food, maybe go to the BBC exhibition when it’s finished, go and feed the ducks, go for a walk in quieter places like The Grove. Before we started the Friends group for the Albert Road Recreation Ground 13 years ago I remember wandering around with my then-two-year-old son and the tennis courts were a mess while anti-social behaviour was rife. But as the park improved more people started to come and that stopped.
FoAP: How do you think Alexandra Park could be improved?
I think the Park Manager Mark Evison has some great ideas. And it has already changed so much for the better over the last ten years, with those lovely flower beds and the new orchards, to name just two. And, of course, there is always that fabulous view which you can’t get anywhere else.
The one area that is still a perennial problem is litter. As a country we don’t have a very good history with littering. When you go to other countries you just don’t see people doing it so freely. whereas here we seem to think it acceptable. How do we tackle it? Do we really want our parks and streets littered with signs saying don’t do this and don’t do that? That causes terrible clutter. And people know they shouldn’t litter, that they should pick up after their dogs or cycle on the pavement over a certain age.
But too many signs can be as ugly as what they are trying to prevent. It can give the wrong message to people who might think: why would we come to a park where people litter, let their dogs foul the ground and see bicyclists riding on the pavement to such an extent there are signs everywhere.
FoAP: What management challenges do you face?
The management teams I have worked with have all been excellent and I am looking forward to working with Louise Stewart, the new chief executive. There are lots of challenges. What do we want to do about the rest of the building? Do we need to refresh our vision statement? Vision is very important because it gives you direction. And we can’t allow the Park to get lost amid all these changes to the Palace because people coming to the Park are potential traffic for the Palace.
FoAP: What are your favourite parts of the park?
I have lots of favourite parts of the park. I quite like sitting on one of the benches contemplating things near the deer enclosure, where there seem to be fewer people as a rule. I work in Crouch End and when it’s light I will often walk from my house along the bottom of the Park to work. And my children have always loved the huge climbing tree near the cricket pavilion.
FoAP: Finally, how do you relax?
I do like to be busy. I have my two kids, although they are older now and doing their own things. I like cooking, cinema, music, reading, going out with friends....and I will admit to one embarrassing guilty pleasure: I love Homes Under the Hammer!