The Friends of Greenwich Park is a charity dedicated to the conservation, improvement and enjoyment of Greenwich Park. Originally one of eight Royal Parks in London, Greenwich was used by royalty for over 500 years for hunting, riding and pleasure. It is the oldest - enclosed in 1433 and the smallest - just 183 acres. The other Royal Parks are Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St James’ Park, Green Park, Richmond Park, Bushey Park and Kensington Gardens. The Royal Parks were first opened to the public by George IV in about 1830 and maintained at public expense. This required significant funds, staff and even a Royal Parks Constabulary. In 1990 it was proposed that these responsibilities should be devolved from central government to local, private bodies. This caused much concern throughout London by all Royal Park users and in Greenwich led to the founding of the Friends of Greenwich Park in 1992. In the event, none of the parks were privatised as had originally been feared. Instead they continue to be managed as a single estate by the Royal Parks Agency and funded by Government through the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Maintenance and garden staff were replaced by private contractors whilst the Royal Parks Constabulary was abolished and its functions absorbed into the Metropolitan Police in 2004.
The early days
In the early days of 1992, the Friends of Greenwich Park comprised a few local enthusiasts under the chairmanship of Clifford Wallington. The first priorities were to raise local concern over the future of the Park, to fight for the money needed to maintain it and to increase Friends membership. Membership rose to 500 in its first year, to over 1000 by 1996 and now stands at around 1500 today. Following the setting up the Royal Parks Agency, the Government appointed Dame Jennifer Jenkins to undertake a review of the Royal Parks. Her report, published in 1995, contained many recommendations some of which remain unachieved due to lack of finance. One recommendation that was finally achieved - after a 15 year campaign by the Friends and others - was the return to the Park of the land now known as the Queen’s Orchard from the borough council, and the beginnings of its development as a community garden. Another strategic Jenkins recommendation at least partially fulfilled was the closure of the Park to through traffic outside weekday rush hours. During the 90s the Friends continued pressing for improvements and joined with others in a number of campaigns. To this day it scrutinises any planning applications for development that would affect the surrounds of the Park, including its strategic views and, where necessary, makes representations to the planning authorities. The Friends committee invites the Park Manager to attend meetings to ensure good communications. A newsletter was launched in 1992 with city journalist Bill Clarke as its first editor. This continues to issue three times a year and has been supplemented by a website www.friendsofgreenwichpark.org.uk since 2000. In 1995 Friends of all eight parks established the Friends Forum to discuss and coordinate common issues. The Forum invites representatives from the Department of Culture to attend and in 1996 discussed budget cuts with the responsible Minister.
Function and culture
One theme which began during the Jenkins Review and re-emerged at Friends Forum meetings is the question of what, exactly, the Royal Parks are for. Some welcomed a ‘think big’ approach which inspires major events such as pop concerts, the London Marathon at Greenwich Park and the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. These certainly generate useful revenue and provide entertainment to a wide audience. Yet others preferred the quiet contemplation of park landscape as an important refuge from the increasingly vibrant metropolis. In Greenwich Park it is getting this balance right which has dominated discussion about our future. The Greenwich Friends organise a full calendar of events in and around the Park each year. The Wildlife Group plans a busy schedule of walks, surveys, talks and Open Days to present the unusual richness of plant and animal species in the Park. It opened a Wildlife Centre in 2002 and a Nature Trail in 2008. An annual Jazz Concert has been held every year since 2005 and the Friends have experimented with events such as Garden Opera and Gardeners’ Question Time. From 2013 the Friends took over the funding and management of a series of Sunday Bandstand concerts, a traditional event previously managed by the Royal Parks Agency but discontinued under austerity cuts. The Friends have been concerned to conserve aspects of local history associated with Greenwich and Greenwich Park. Examples include Queen Caroline’s Bath, the open air facility used by the estranged wife of George IV, the plaque commemorating anti-slavery campaigner Ignatius Sancho and the imposing bronze sculpture Knife Edge by Henry Moore. This last was restored to its site in the Park, chosen by the artist himself, after a four year campaign by the Friends. The Friends have established a popular Annual Lecture and organised a series of talks and presentations on local history. Topics have ranged across architecture, horticulture, naval history and astronomy.
The Olympics controversy
In 2008 the delicate balance between major public events and the Park’s intrinsic quietude was shattered. The Government had announced that Greenwich Park would become the venue for the Olympic and Paralympic Games equestrian events. This proposal split Friends’ members, many of whom wished to campaign against the plan. This led to a fierce debate at the Friends AGM that year, followed by a packed Special General Meeting which had to be held in the University of Greenwich. During the next three years the Friends' committee members attended many meetings with the Olympic Organising Committee, with the Borough Council and with others to ensure that the Park was protected from long-term damage and remained open for as long as possible up to and during the 2012 Games. These discussions bore fruit. As it transpired, and despite initial misgivings, the Greenwich Olympic events were a great success enjoyed by all who attended or who watched from around the world. Equally important, the site was rapidly cleared, the grass restored and the Park re-opened. With new grass, new tarmac and new Blackheath Gates, by the Summer of 2013 the Park had probably not looked as good for many years.