Friends for life
Chair Miriam Ashwell on how the Caledonian Park Friends Group looks after not just the park, but their community
Tell us a bit about yourself and the work you do.
I’m the chair of Caledonian Park Friends Group. I organise activities and events, and lead the group committee. I also represent the group in borough and London forums where I attend regular meetings with other Friends groups and we campaign to get protection for parks, improve natural habitats, and promote the benefits of parks. We also look at issues like littering and dog mess and work together to change behaviour through posters and social media campaigns, for example. I’m retired, though I might have to get a proper job so I can have a day off!
What kinds of activities can people get involved in?
Currently we garden twice a week in the park, on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. That might include weeding and pruning and planting, litter picking, or wildlife habitat maintenance. We also manage larger projects such as our amphitheatre, woodland walks, raised herb beds and bike mounds, often with the help of students or corporate volunteers.
We work jointly with Octopus Community Network on a community herbs project. We’ve run several workshops and some of our group plant, weed, water and tend herbs for the local community to pick for their home cooking. The herbs can help both with delicious, healthy eating and with reducing food waste by revitalising leftovers. We also support junior Parkrun on Sunday mornings, a knit and natter group on Thursday evenings, and a community choir which will start again soon. Everyone is welcome and we don’t do auditions.
As well as the regular activities, we organise events such as our orchard Wassail in January. The orchard wassail is based on an old English tradition from the 1700s. This is our fourth year and it’s good fun. We bang pots and pans to scare away pests and demons, sing and dance to the orchard trees, and toast them for a good harvest. The whole community is welcome, and children love to join in. We dress up with ivy crowns and wellies are usually essential! Afterwards we have hot mulled apple juice and snacks.
What do you enjoy most about being part of the Friends?
I like the social aspects and the feel-good factor – the health benefits from the exercise and being outdoors, plus the self-respect from making a difference in my community. It’s so nice to chat to new people, or when people tell the group how our work has improved their lives.
How does the group support people?
Covid was very difficult, and the friends group offered social support and exercise for a lot of people during the lockdowns. In our case, the new park cafe and some good staff also supported the creation of new support networks and friendships. As a result of these, a disabled person was helped with visits, errands, and cat-feeding while in hospital for several months, and a young family were supported through a crisis and narrowly avoided homelessness and having their children taken into care.
We’ve had people lend heaters when boilers have broken down, we’ve helped with laundry, food or money for electricity when people are struggling. I don’t know if we’ve improved others’ mental health, but I think helping others helps ours.
What steps do you take if one of your colleagues or volunteers is having difficulties with their mental health or wellbeing?
We chat with them and ask how we can help, offering practical and emotional support. We also try to remind them they are not alone; that people do care and many of us experience similar things.
How do you look after your own mental health and wellbeing?
Gardening, creative crafts, remembering to socialise, attending the choir and the knit and natter, as well as supporting my community. Remember, if you or someone you know feels in need of mental health support, there are various organisations that can offer help. There are also free training and courses available to anyone who lives, works, volunteers or studies in Islington or Camden.
London is marking London’s Great Mental Health Day on Friday 27 January, which aims to get us talking about mental health, highlights local support and events, and reflects on celebrating kindness. To celebrate we have a lot of events happening in Islington: find out what’s on.
To join Caledonian Park Friends Group, simply come along to an activity or meeting, or sign up to the mailing list via email@example.com or visit the Caledonian Park Friends Group website.