Park Contract Supervisor

John O’Conner Grounds Maintenance

The next time you stroll through Alexandra Park and stop to admire the flower beds, or smell the newly-mown grass or feed the ducks in a litter-free pond, pause for a moment and think about the grounds staff. They are the people who are out there in every season and every sort of weather ensuring that the Park looks its best.

The Friends of Alexandra Park (FoAP) decided to find out more about it. We caught up with Alexandra Park’s Michael Conway, who is Park Contract Supervisor for the grounds maintenance operator John O’Conner, as he began planning for spring — one of the busiest times of the year for the Park.

FoAP: Tell us a bit about your background.

When I came to London from Ireland in the early 1980s I worked on a lot of prestigious contracts such as Portcullis House and the start of the Jubilee Line extension. At one point when I was in between jobs an agency sent me up to Alexandra Palace for what I thought was a construction job. When I turned up I found out it was actually a grounds maintenance job. So, having made the journey, I thought, OK, I need the work so I’ll give it a go. And 16 years later I am still here!

FoAP: How does the grounds maintenance contract work?

Contractors are given a five-year tenure and I’ve worked for five contractors now. The current contractor, John O’Conner has over 40 years’ experience and is hoping to get a three-year extension once the current contract runs out in May of this year.

John O’Conner has been instrumental in getting us to be more mechanised. For example, we’ve had a lot of problems in the past trying to clear ice and snow. Now we have a gritting machine and a snow plough which makes a big difference from having two or three guys with spades shovelling snow. Since we have started getting these harsher winters, after 10 years’ of more mild ones, it’s made all the difference.

FoAP: What does your job entail?

I report to the Park Manager Mark Evison (see Mark’s interview on the website ) and have regular meetings with my regional manager at John O’Conner, along with overseeing a team of five people in the winter and six in the summer. It’s a demanding job for all of us involved because it is such a big area to cover and you really have to like working outdoors in all weather.

Sometimes I think people imagine that the pixies come out at night and tidy up the whole park, cutting the grass and cleaning up the rubbish they leave behind and having the place looking pristine for when they turn up the next day.

FoAP: Well, that makes you chief pixie! So what are the big tasks keeping you busy at this time of year?

When it snows, we obviously have to clear it, grit the pavements and make sure there are signs around the boating lake warning about thin ice. There is also major pruning work to do as well as mulching all the beds and shrubs. Then, of course, we have to check on the deer. We feed them, break the ice in their water troughs and generally check their health. This is a major job because whatever happens, the deer —there are ten at the moment—have to be fed.

FoAP: And as the weather warms up?

Well, as spring arrives we check over the machines and start jobs like grass cutting and waking up the Pitch and Putt course after the winter by feeding the grass. During April and May our main task will be grass cutting and, inevitably, dealing with litter. I would say that litter and cutting the grass is 70% of what we do in summer, which is definitely the busiest season.

FoAP: So litter is a big problem?

Thankfully the majority of people use the bins or take their rubbish home with them. But there is a persistent minority who don’t, to the point where it becomes a full-time job for at least one person —which is why we take on an extra person at that time of year. It never ceases to amaze me what people leave behind or throw out the car window.

Even in winter you would be surprised at the amount of debris left behind after the heavy snows. We are retrieving broken sleds and toboggans, lost hats, gloves and scarves after what we with tongue in cheek called the recent winter games held at Alexandra Park!

FoAP: When you start planning for summer how do you decide on the flower schemes that bring so much colour to the Park?

We sit down around this time of year with Mark Evison and decide what theme we would like to go with each year. For example, last year we went orange for the Dutch taking over the Palace as their Olympics base. This year is the Park’s 150th anniversary so one of the things we are doing is to refresh the Rose Garden. When it was first designed it was done as a sensory garden for the blind with smells and sounds. So we will take that into account when we make our plans.

Whatever we choose it has to be hard wearing because we can never predict the weather. We get a lot of positive comments from visitors about the bedding.

FoAP: Are there any jobs you find particularly satisfying?

After the grass has been cut and I look down the South front and see hundreds of people enjoying themselves it gives me a lot of satisfaction. The Park is such a magnet for people in Haringey, especially because it is such a heavily-populated area and so many people live in flats without gardens. So they can come here with their children to a nice clean and safe environment to play in.

FoAP: Working in an environment like this must be a treat for someone who enjoys birdwatching? Yes, I have been a keen birdwatcher from an early age and I get great pleasure when out and about on my duties in the Park from seeing both our resident birds and various migrant birds. One of the highlights for me recently was the sighting of a peregrine falcon on the Palace building. An osprey flew over Alexandra Palace as well but unfortunately it didn’t land. However, it used our airspace so we can still claim it as a visitor!

FoAP: What’s your view on the Park’s state at the moment and how can it be improved?

I think it’s in good health. Seeing the Park evolve over the last few years to become a Green Flag award-winning park has been hugely rewarding. In terms of improvement, it helps enormously to have groups like the Friends and the local community be our eyes and ears because we can’t be everywhere.

FoAP: Do you ever feel even a bit jaded about the view?

Someone asked me that recently and I said no because I have watched the skyline change since I got here. I’ve watched Canary Wharf being finished off, I saw the Olympic Park take shape and seen the Millennium Wheel go up. And I know some people don’t like the Shard but one evening I saw it when the sun was glinting off it and it looked fantastic. I reckon the view is one of London’s best-kept secrets.