White horses wouldn’t drag us away from lovely community-owned park

Heeley Milennium Park Environment Day: Mark Swift and daughters Aimie (4) and Emma (8) look at the view from the park's 'Crow's Nest'
Heeley Milennium Park Environment Day: Mark Swift and daughters Aimie (4) and Emma (8) look at the view from the park's 'Crow's Nest'

The Heeley White Horse is not yet as famous as the centuries-old south country version at Uffington, but thanks to typical Heeley residents with their computer skills, the horse has already achieved international notoriety in googling circles.

“At one point a guy had marked up the white horse on the web so you saw it on Google Earth,” said Andy Jackson. “So as you zoomed out on Google Earth the last thing on Earth you could see from space was the Heeley White Horse, like you used to say about the Great Wall of China. I quite liked that.”

Heeley Millennium Park (where the white horse lives) hosted an environment day last Saturday, where local people like Andy and Thom White from Heeley Development Trust could celebrate the area’s achievements over the past few years.

One of the country’s only community-owned parks, for example, just coming to the end of £500,000 worth of investment including play areas, bike trails, view points and climbing boulders of all shapes and sizes.

Local businesses and estate agents now cite the resultant “beautiful views over landscaped space to open country,” said Andy.

“Who would want to come here and set up a business and bring money into our community and go to our sandwich shops if there was a crap park and it was just derelict out there?”

The white horse is traditionally painted every May (this year it went dalmatian style, with hand prints from local children) and now has a Ladybower Douglas Fir sculpture on top by local artists Handspring Design. Opinion is mixed, said Thom White. “I’ve heard it called a crown or a gallows. And that was just in one family.”

The likely title is the ‘Crow’s Nest’ however, as that’s what most locals have settled upon.

Andy Jackson’s family history in Heeley dates back to 1736. As director of Heeley Development Trust, he and his colleagues have tried to help the community come to terms with unemployment, dereliction, and economic downturns.

Across the road, Heeley City Farm, and south of the park Recycle Bikes have developed nationally recognised social enterprises in cycling and community farming.

The new Anns Grove school is an environmental and educational showpiece, and the old Victorian school buildings are on their way to becoming a landmark in turning derelict council buildings into community and business use. There are already eight tenants for 30 places, without trying, said Andy, and the building doesn’t open until next month.

“There is no money at the moment, but does that mean that those kids don’t have a right to a future, that this community doesn’t need investing in? There’s talent, skills and support here, there may be no money, but we can’t stop. It may be hard work, but it’s worth doing.”

The answer, said Andy, is to make your community beautiful and something to be proud of. Heeley is not a suburb. “People don’t just get up, get in their cars and drive off in the morning. It’s a struggle to get to work sometimes if l’m not on my bike, because there are so many people to stop and talk to.”

It’s a diverse inner city community, and such communities have to stand on their own two feet nowadays. The park doesn’t receive local authority funding, for example, and now a large lottery grant is coming to an end, it will need to generate income from sponsorship, events, sales of local products on site and local fundraising. The businesses moving into the old Anns Grove building (renamed Sum Studios) will work in new industries like arts, graphics, and computer design.

The economy that underpinned this community has gone, so we have to say what is its future?” said Andy.

“It seems to me that everywhere north of Watford Gap has been abandoned. I remember the last time that happened, so I think we have to say it’s up to us, we’re on our own.”