As the Covid-19 pandemic inspires a greater awareness of the importance of green spaces, a survey shows that more people are using the North-East's oldest public park. PETER BARRON takes a walk in the park to find out more

ON the little wooden bridge at the far end of the pond, Sam Teasdale and his children, James and Olivia, are feeding the ducks and a family of swans.

It’s an idyllic autumn scene in Darlington’s magnificent South Park, and life has turned full circle for Sam’s dad, Paul, as he watches contentedly, while holding onto Bobby, the French bulldog.

“I used to bring Sam and his brother and sister here when they were little,” says Paul. “It’s perfect, isn’t it? You can mooch around for a couple of hours, feed the birds, collect conkers, run around the trees, and it costs nothing.”

Along with many others, Paul has found it tough during pandemic. He was made redundant from his job and turned his hand during the lockdown to making reclaimed furniture, and bird-boxes.

“Here’s one I’ve just done,” he says, showing phone pictures of a mud kitchen, made out of old pallets, for his grandkids. “That’s what keeps me sane – doing little projects. And I don’t need any persuading to come to the park – where else will I get to spend a few hours with the bairns for nothing?”

The park, a gleaming jewel of greenery, has a proud history, dating back to 1636 when Sir James Belasses left Poor Howdens Farm to the community for charitable purposes. It wasn’t until 1850 that the charity trustees suggested it “be used as a park or promenade and recreation ground for the public”.

The region’s first Victorian park, it was opened in 1853 as Belasses Park, before being renamed People’s Park and then South Park. Between 2003 and 2006, it was restored thanks to a multi-million pound Heritage Lottery grant.

Now, as a consequence of the biggest public health crisis in a generation, more people are discovering the value of not just South Park but parks all over the country.

“We’re so lucky to have such a wonderful park, and lockdown has definitely underlined how important it is to people,” says Hilary Bevan, chair of Darlington South Park Foundation. “People have just appreciated the space more: having a picnic, or walking by the river.”

That view is supported by a new survey carried out by the foundation, which was formed in 2018.

A total of 780 responses were received – twice as many as in the last survey in 2018 – and 56 per cent of people said their visits to the park had increased during lockdown, with 79 per cent saying they would continue to use the park. Other statistics include 86 per cent of people using the park at least once a month, and 14 per cent coming every day.

“As well as the survey, the park has just been noticeably busier and we’re getting different groups of people using it,” Hilary adds.

Listed among the main attractions are: a place to walk; the bowling green; café; skate-park; outdoor gym; grassy areas; showfield; lake; public toilets; and the aviary, housing mainly rescue birds.

The council-run café has attracted particularly positive feedback since it re-opened in April, and it was recently announced that it will be staying open throughout the winter.

Saturday mornings are always busy because of the popularity of the parkrun, while the junior parkrun takes place on Sundays. Proms In The Park, which makes uplifting annual use of the lakeside bandstand, is another regular event.

Those taking part in the survey were also asked what they’d like for the park in the future. The top answers were for a path around the showfield, to make it easier for elderly and disabled people, and a solution to the thorny issue of parking. The foundation is now applying for lottery funding for a feasibility study into what might be done to alleviate parking issues.

The survey wish-list also includes more outdoor seating at the café; more for teenagers, including improvements to the skate-park; and children’s changing rooms.

“What I love most is seeing the changing seasons in the park. No matter whether it’s spring, summer, autumn or winter, the park looks stunning,” says Hilary, who has lived in the town since she was four, when her father, Peter, became director of the much-missed Darlington Arts Centre.

As well as chairing the foundation, Hilary’s other voluntary roles include being on the parkrun core team, and coach for Darlington Harriers. And, as if that’s not taxing enough, she also runs her own business as a VAT consultant.

The eight members of the foundation’s committee all have day jobs and more volunteers are needed, particularly a treasurer, as well as litter-pickers and gardeners.

The council employs three full-time gardeners to cover the 93 acres – team leader Dave Coakes, Colin Chidzey and Adam Ward – and they’re busy planting the winter beds, with polyanthus and pansies. The Green Flag Award, that flies from the clock tower is testament to the excellence of their work.

“The numbers coming into the park each day are definitely up, and so many people have commented that they hadn’t realised how lovely and big it is,” says Colin.

Meanwhile, Denise and Graham Robson are playing in the trees with grandson Eli, five. They’ve brought a kite but it’s not windy enough.

Denise remembers the days when there was a roller-skating rink by the bandstand, boats on the lake, and pitch and putt: “I’ve been coming since I was a child, then we brought our kids, and now our grandchild. We feed the ducks and walk around – it’s just part of Darlington, isn’t it?” she says.

With so many other green spaces under attack, long may that be the case.

ON a personal note, I’m a big fan of South Park, but I have one bugbear: it has what must be a contender for the worst crazy golf course in the country. Featureless, and largely unused, wouldn’t it be nice if there could somehow be a replacement with a bit of imagination?

IT was a privilege on Friday and Saturday to host the graduation ceremonies for Darlington College, in partnership with Teesside University.

Held at the Mercure Darlington Kings Hotel, which everyone still calls the King’s Head, it was lovely to see the joy on so many students’ faces as they emerged from the challenges of the pandemic with their degrees.

Congratulations and good luck to them all.

AND as a Deputy Lieutenant of County Durham, it was an honour to lay a wreath at the cenotaph in Darlington on Sunday.

What I loved most was seeing the young and old, side by side, paying their respects.

Lest we forget.

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