This year, nine of Islington’s parks and greenspaces received Green Flag Awards – an international quality standard awarded by Keep Britain Tidy. The awards recognise parks that are welcoming, healthy, safe, well maintained and clean; that are central to the community and have a positive impact on the environment. One of the 2021 winners was Gillespie Park, Islington’s largest nature reserve, which was awarded a Green Flag for the third year running. We spoke to Stella who, alongside other volunteers and staff, has played a key role in its success
How are you involved with Gillespie Park?
I volunteer with Islington Council’s nature conservation team. We meet on Thursdays and do all kinds of jobs in the park to improve biodiversity and make it more accessible for local people. For example, we prune hedges and brambles, cut the meadow using a scythe – a traditional tool used to cut grass – and maintain the pond.
How did you first become involved?
Seven years ago, I was walking along the Parkland Walk when I came across Louisa, one of the nature conservation officers, who was leading a walk there. That’s how I found out about Gillespie Park and the opportunity to volunteer there – although I had already been living in the area for many years!
I was off work with a stress-related illness at the time and found being outdoors and in nature incredibly beneficial. Volunteering at Gillespie Park, I made lots of connections with other people and learnt a lot about nature. I now even have an allotment and a wildlife garden at home.
Why do you think it’s important to care for our parks and greenspaces?
We don’t have much greenspace in Islington, so any that exist are a really precious resource. It feels like nature is under threat at the moment and it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of big global challenges such as deforestation. I believe that we can help nature thrive in our own borough, though. In Gillespie Park, for example, there is an area near the pond that is fenced off so it can be kept wild. That’s what makes it a really good habitat for animals like butterflies and toads.
Having access to well-maintained greenspaces is also important for us as human beings. There’s been lots of research that shows that being outdoors in green space is beneficial for your mental and physical health. I find Gillespie Park to be such a peaceful environment – it’s a real haven. I’m pleased that many other local people feel the same way. One time a young woman with a baby came up to me and told me she was living in flats nearby, with no access to a garden. She said that the park was a “godsend” and that it meant a lot to her that we were keeping it in shape. That made me really happy.
What did it mean to you and the other volunteers and staff members to win a Green Flag again this year?
Everyone is chuffed that we won another Green Flag Award. I think the most important thing is that local people appreciate the nature reserve and enjoy using it, but it’s nice to have that extra bit of recognition. The team has kept going through a very tough 18 months, so I think the award is especially valuable this year. We’ve had lots of new people sign up to volunteer. I think this shows how much people value Gillespie Park, especially during the pandemic.
How can people make the most of their local park?
Try to spend as much time in your local park as you can and to use it as a place of peace and calm. Our lives are often frantic these days, so it’s important to take the time to appreciate and notice what’s going on around you. Whether you can spot water birds near a pond, blackbirds, or just urban pigeons – watching an animal or insect go about its day can help you to form a connection with nature.
You could also get involved by volunteering and helping to improve your local nature reserve or park. Apart from all the benefits for nature and the environment, it’s also a great workout! I’ve stopped going to the gym as I find working in the fresh air is much better for me. It’s important to say, though, that not all of it is hard physical work. The nature conservation team are brilliant at adapting the work to people’s levels of physical fitness so that everyone, of all ages and abilities, can get involved. The team are also really welcoming and great at sharing their knowledge and skills – you don’t need any experience at all.
There’s also the social side to it, which I really enjoy. After volunteering, we have a cup of tea together and we also go out for lunch. I’ve formed great friendships through volunteering – so I really recommend it.
Find out more about Gillespie Park and how to join the volunteer group, or get involved at another one of Islington’s parks.