The Golden Tomato

And the Magic Kingdom

Sometimes the journey to a love of parks and green spaces doesn’t start with a park. In this moving and very honest Earth Story it starts on an allotment plot many years ago. Here Nick, project advisor takes us back to his first encounter with nature.

My earliest memories of playing at home were indoors or out in the yard at the back of our shop. We lived on the edge of Sheffield city centre, in a shop on a main road. My walk to nursery led you to a side road with a railway and a steel works at the end of it. So this was all very grey, gritty and urban.

At weekends we quiet often went to our grandparents, they lived at opposite ends of town, so it always involved a long bus ride and walk. I always looked forward to staying with my mum’s parents but really didn’t like going to my dad’s parents. They were really strict and there was nowhere to play. It also meant sleeping in their attic which was completely undecorated and unfurnished, so as a young child, was really scary!

My grandad on my father’s side was a steel worker, so he worked on Saturday mornings. We always waited for him to come home as we would all enjoy lunch together. I remember this one day I would have been about 4 years old, and it was sunny outside, but we hadn’t been allowed to play outside in the morning. So after lunch my grandad suggested taking me to his allotment. I suspect because I was becoming troublesome, whilst my sisters stayed back to do things with grandma.

It wasn’t a long walk from my grandads house but we first arrived at the park, so I thought he’d changed his mind. What I didn’t know was the allotments were hidden in the park. I had never been before, so didn’t know what to expect. We entered a gate into a magical kingdom! Where everything was taller than me, real Jack in the Beanstalks! Really tall! And giant rhubarb. I didn’t know what any of this was, until my Grandpa told me. It felt like being in a maze, with narrow paths, turning this way and that, with the sun beating down from above.

Then he said we had reached his garden. There was a wooden glasshouse. I had never seen one before. When he opened the door I all my senses were completely overwhelmed! The smell was fantastic. Wow! It was really warm in there. Everything was up on benches so towering over me below. All along the benches were huge pansies. The sort with the smiley faces! Such colours and sweet, sweet scents! I still love them to this day. Each one had a different face as big as mine, so I smiled back at all of them in turn.

Then my grandpa picked a golden tomato. It was warm and glowing like the sun, but slightly rough to touch. What do I do with this Grandpa I asked, just pop it in your mouth he said. It was so sweet and totally delicious! I started to cry! Whatever’s the matter he asked? I don’t want to go home, I said, I just want to stay here, forever!

I had found my paradise. At the age of 4. A garden. Pure and simple. I fell in love with plants and gardening from that day on. When my dad retired he took up gardening just like his father. He tried to grow exotic flowers and melons. This became a real bond between us. Which was a good thing it did.

As when I was 18 I found out why I’d had to go almost every weekend to my grandparents and I didn’t have any memories of my dad in those early years. He’d spent nearly 3 years in prison! So my mum went to visit most weekends. When I found out at 18 I was really shocked and couldn’t wait to leave home to go to university. It really caused a rift between us.

But instead of taking up my place at university in Birmingham I thought I would defer my place for a year. So wrote to the council asking for a job, in the parks service. After a year I had changed my mind about uni. I’m still here, now the advisor to the FPA. I did go to uni, 3 times in fact. So now I’m Green City Manager for Birmingham and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

As the years passed my dad and I slowly connected again, through a love of gardening and nature. My dad passed away a few years ago now with cancer. But I was the closest relative so got to look after him. He ended up on a small ward in a cottage hospital where they said he was going to die. Before he passed he was able to tell me that the proudest day in his life had been at The Royal Horticultural Society in London, when their President had awarded me a Masters in Horticulture, their highest award. And embarrassingly the two available additional prizes and a travel bursary. I used the bursary to travel to Japan to do a study tour of all their historic and temple gardens.

That magical kingdom opened up to me by my grandfather when I was just 4 through a golden tomato changed my life. As it set off a quest in me to understand that magical kingdom, that is nature. I’ve spent my lifetime enjoying it, studying it and being in awe of it, as it defies science. I want that future to be a possibility for every city child. The work we are trying to do is to make that happen. Where Birmingham commits itself to a new future as a City of Nature. If you don’t believe me, watch this space. If you want to join in and support us, follow the links. If you have an ‘earth story’ you would like to share we’d love to hear it.

Stechford Recreation Ground (Yardley Fields)

The Naturally Birmingham Project works with communities and project partners to help “Bring Parks to Life”. We know that across the city Fair, Green, Healthy, Engaged and Valued green spaces are not yet available to all residents – we are working on that.

We call this “achieving environmental justice” and our aim is to achieve this for all residents. In some areas this could just be changing how a park is maintained, or putting in a noticeboard so groups and activities can be advertised. In some areas it may mean finding out how we can create more publicly accessible green space, and so we are developing a 25 year plan driven by an ambitious vision for a City of Nature.

At Stechford Recreation Ground known locally as Yardley Fields we are starting with a Community Conversation with local residents, to get the ideas flowing for this lovely open space. Is it well managed, does it need paths, or a sports pitch, more trees, bins, opportunities to volunteer or organised activities, perhaps more wildlife. We want you to tell us so we can work out what and how we can bring this park to life – with your help.

Community Conversation Stechford Recreation Ground – 11am – 1pm 31st June 2021

You can complete our survey here:

Find out more about the Children’s Pilot site for the project Dawberry Fields Park – to see what we achieved there: Children’s Pilot – Naturally Birmingham Future Parks Project

Dawberry Fields Park – Consultation and Engagement

This is third blog from Helen the BOSF Volunteer Coordinator working with the community Dawberry Fields Park as part of the Future Parks Accelerator Project.

So, Dawberry Fields is getting on the map at last. At 55 years old I’m tweeting, Instagram posting and sending messages and pictures out on Facebook. All trying to raise Dawberry Field’s and the sense of an ‘us’ profile a little, amongst other parks, groups and green activities in the area. All skills I previously didn’t really have. At time of writing (end of May), we’ve got 91 followers on Twitter and 80 on Instagram. Is this good? I’ve really
no idea, but I think from nothing at all, the fact that people are taking notice, has to be a positive step on our journey.

Time to become more visible in the park itself and attract more attention. The first of the three dates we had decided upon was now approaching and the thinking was – to cope with COVID restrictions of no more than 30 in a group outside – to have a drop by bunting session! This got laughed at in my team meeting, but I was determined that we needed to do something to engage local interest and make the park feel more of a community space. Also, to leave something behind in the park for people to see afterwards.

Of course, we all know that unfortunately there are some park users that appear in late evenings leaving behind graffiti and rubbish and they might take a shine to a string of pretty triangles blowing in the breeze – still, we decided not to let that put us off.
In addition to this, my forest school lady was keen to compliment the activity with stone painting and agreed to provide all the equipment to carry this out as an additional activity. Keeping the children, or adults occupied for a while would mean we could chat about the park and their interests and observations.

Prior to the approaching bunting day my colleague at Ward End Park, with the same volunteer coordinator role as me, popped over to see ‘my’ park. Whilst there, he helped me check my bright red coloured cord was long enough to stretch across the grey railings at the top of the field – to mount the bunting on. All good. I expected some comment or advice, but he kept quiet. Perhaps bemused by my plans. All the same, I was grateful of his

I was starting to feel that the group was coming together perhaps? I emailed round and tried to arrange a zoom meeting to discuss future plans on forming a group (as still not allowed for many to meet indoors). It was tricky, everyone had commitments. I ended up with only two attendees. A bit of a flop then. I felt deflated, I’d obviously got the vibe totally wrong. The following morning heralded emails of apology from 3 people who were so sorry to miss the meeting and wanted to be included. This buoyed me somewhat. The spark is lit…. it needs a lot of careful nurturing and not perhaps, the bull at a gate meeting approach! I think I knew that really. I should trust my gut feeling more.

The posters for the bunting day went up at the beginning of the second week of May, along with a nature poster about tree identification – keeping up the interest on the notice boards. We tweeted and were retweeted (yay!) and someone put us on the local next-door app to – which I had previously not considered. All praise to them for getting us noticed across wider Birmingham. Saturday May 29th approached…. And the weather was still rubbish….. what to do? Everyone expects May to be nice and sunny and warm, but the chance of rain was high. After a couple of calls to try and secure a Territorial Army tent, as they are based just up the road, (wouldn’t that have been fab?!), failed as they weren’t available; I found an old gazebo in my garage that would do the trick. Cut to the punchline, after a drizzly start the morning brightened and we ended up using the gazebo as a sun
shade! Bless our British weather, eh?

Prior to our big day (well, the anticipation felt big!), we had two further litter picks, one accompanied by our local Park Ranger. The Saturday attendance saw 15 pickers and we cleared one of the entrances as well as a section of the stream. Much laughter at a few ‘odd’ discoveries – I’m too polite to share with you here.

The Monday before the bunting day I was again chuffed to find that a small but keen couple of people were prepared to make the effort to come out and ‘make things nice’ (and safe), ready for the weekend. On the day, the three volunteers that agreed to support the event were organised and enthusiastic. We got set up and watched the drizzle turn to blue sky. I feel this event cemented the engagement and support of 4 individuals – one of whom wasn’t even there! She had to work and sent her husband to provide tables and help. I
see that as true commitment!

We think we had about 10 families visit during the 5 ish hours we were there. Some came back to do more. One family took bunting away and came back with it beautifully decorated an hour later (grandad and the dog needed to get home for a rest). We had a young couple, viewing houses to buy in the area, sit and paint stones whilst they took in the surroundings of what might become their local park! I reckon we sold them that house on the community spirit they felt that morning! Wish we could find out! I did get to consult more formally with 4 families and their interest and enthusiasm for the park and wanting to take part, was encouraging.

The bunting lasted a week before it was all pulled down. But, that’s not the end of the story at all – No! More bunting has been made and is planned to be made. Group members are rallying. They are buying and making pretty things to display in their park for all to see. They love the visible positivity in their park. The community feel is growing and we do have a group of interested, enthusiastic, wonderful people. We may not have formalised it yet, but the volunteering community is growing itself a ‘friends’ group’ – slowly.

Follow us on Facebook: @DawberryFields


FPA Naturally Birmingham – A Vision for a City of Nature


The FPA Naturally Birmingham project team are currently in the process of establishing a 25 Year vision for the City to become a ‘City of Nature’. At its heart, it aims to address the issues Birmingham and much of the UK faces by seizing the opportunities presented to us by Covid-19 and investing in our green and blue spaces, creating a cleaner and healthier city for all to enjoy.

We have now completed our deep dive into the evidence as to why green and blue spaces are so important for our physical and mental health. Our next steps are to synthesise this evidence which will then form the basis for the reasoning as to why Birmingham should become a City of Nature.

Throughout May we have been talking to internal stakeholders on our vision to gather the
views of our colleagues to ensure everyone has a chance to input into the City of Nature
vision. We will continue to move this forward by talking to more internal stakeholders over the next couple of months. The next steps for this vision are that we want to hear from as many as you as possible to take you through our vision and thinking and allow you to input into creating the vision for the citizens of Birmingham. We will be holding a series of webinars throughout June which you can book on using the following link: A City of Nature – 25 year Vision for Birmingham Tickets, Multiple Dates | Eventbrite

These engagement sessions will be crucial in shaping our vision and will outline the next steps of utilising our 591 parks and over 160 miles of canals within Birmingham to make these areas, as well as the whole city, the best places they can be, allowing everyone to enjoy nature together.

After these engagement sessions, the team will be reviewing the common themes which have been derived and ensuring the views are incorporated into the vision. Keep your eyes peeled for more information and to learn more on what we have found!

You can find out more about what is happening in the project by reading our newsletters: Read our Newsletters – Naturally Birmingham Future Parks Project

Part 2 – Initial Engagement

We are catching up with Helen’s work in Dawberry Fields Park developing volunteering.

Spring into Summer

After some time off over Easter, moving my mother-in-law into a home – its back to Dawberry, with plans to try and encourage some consultation. I booked two coffee chats and planned to have 2 litter picking sessions soon after.

The coffee chats needed to be covid safe, so I encouraged people to come with their own coffee and I provided cakes / pre-wrapped. We stood socially distanced, and used sanitizer before taking a cake.

Not knowing if anyone would turn up, I was pleasantly surprised when 10 people came to the first coffee chat on a Tuesday morning and left me with their contact details.

We chatted about the park, the area and people’s aspirations for the park after lockdown.  Interestingly, the second coffee chat, on a Saturday morning, was rather less successful. I tended to stop people who were passing, to chat, rather than have them turn up to chat to me.  I was unsure as to whether this was due to it being a weekend, or whether I had already engaged with anyone interested on the first chat.

Of course, once you do attract people to give an opinion, it can be difficult to meet their expectations. Many of those who attended had lovely ideas for benches, gym equipment, trees, new football ground and posts.  All valid asks. I had to find a way to acknowledge these. Not dismiss them, but lower their expectations as to what might be achieved (within my contract term of 6 months) without defined funding.

These two sessions also allowed me to understand those who itched to be out doing ‘something useful.’ We spoke of litter picking, dog muck, fly tipping, wild meadows, clearing streams and brambles – and here I could be a lot more enthusiastic and encouraging.

With the email contact details from the coffee chats, I sent out links to my questionnaire about Dawberry Fields and volunteering.  Interestingly most people lived nearby, were women and white – as previous FPA data has reported.  Yet I know this isn’t completely representative of the people I met.

These early questionnaire responses revealed that people wanted to get involved in looking after the park, not just doing things in the park.  So, it made sense to start with an easy win – my litter picking idea: easy to facilitate, satisfying to see what is collected and team building.  Also helpful to the parks and residents. 

We made the first litter pick a litter survey, to encourage the children involved to consider what was the worst ‘offender’ rubbish wise and have a discussion about it.  In case you are interested: plastic bottles, cans, cigarette butts and sweet wrappers were the worst offenders!

Two of the people who attended stood out as keen, down to earth and engaged enough to pop off and buy their own litter picking equipment. A fantastic encouragement to me.  Add onto this that they were (and are), lovely ladies who were happy to meet for a chat at either end of the park bench and talk about aspirations for the park, I felt rewarded for my efforts.

The notice boards were attracting attention: spring buds, signs of spring, take litter home, and so further litter picks were advertised. 

We found some strange litter that the police collected promptly, reminding us that our neighbourhood isn’t always as it seems, after dark. Good to know the police are keen to work with us. It was a talking point for a few days, then it calmed down again.

Engaging with the local police at Brandwood was rewarding. They seemed pleased I am in the park, engaging the community to tidy up. It’s all good.

Following a meeting with my friendly park ranger, we came up with some dates for the diary in May, June and July.  I was also encouraged by requests for regular litter picking activities and looked to set the ball rolling.

Two of the ‘group’ wanted to run particular events: GB Spring Clean and Big Toddle for Barnardo’s.  I offered to facilitate/assist.  Hoping this is encouraging them to see how easy it is to get things moving.  I felt motivated too. 

Then a third person became engaged, and she had forest school experience!

Is it time to think about calling ourselves a friend’s group yet? 

You can contact Helen to find out more about volunteering opportunities at:


Blog 3 – Planning an event to aid consultation – coming soon.

Volunteer development in Dawberry Fields Park

Helen Harvey – FPA Volunteering Development Coordinator working for Birmingham Open Spaces Forum, gives us an insight into her work at one of the FPA pilot sites – Dawberry Fields Park.

13 weeks into a 26-week contract as a Volunteering Development Coordinator and things are finally, hopefully, starting to warm up a bit – in terms of who and what we can do to get out meeting folks. Sadly, the weather has yet to reciprocate in such a positive manner. I think it’s fair to say that coming into this role I had little idea of how I might be received in a different park by the locals and, I have been reasonably positively surprised. If you turn up regularly, so that people get used to seeing you and say ‘hi’ when passing. Important to wear a smile too. It’s a start. If you wear something that makes you look safe to talk to – i.e. a labelled garment, badge, hi viz, etc., you are no longer considered the ‘random’ in the park! People start to engage. Aside – it’s a bit like when you walk the dog in the park alone: if you see a stranger, to you unknown, walking towards you, certainly as a woman, you start to consider your options – seriously. Fight, flight, bluff it out. But if a man has a dog with him, particularly one that’s cute with a waggly tail, there is nothing to worry about – he can’t possibly be an axe murderer with a black Labrador! Ha ha! Same with the hi viz.
But I digress!

So, over the last few weeks I have looked at different ways of ‘putting myself out there’ to become a known person within Dawberry Fields. Initially, whilst still in lockdown, a site visit was really frowned upon – whilst the work from home if you can suggestion was still the mantra of the government. So ways to comply meant my daily exercise could take me through the park 1 or 2 times a week. Within a couple of weeks I had a couple of posters on the notice boards about the corvids, spring tree buds and asking questions about ‘what do people want for their park?’ just putting it out there! BOOM! I got no response from the questions at all. But – I did get positive comments from the nature posters and was able
to have a few conversations. I got excited about a monthly photography competition from the positivity….. but with no budget yet determined, so no carrot to dangle as a reward; this bombed too – one response. OK. I put that idea to bed for a while.

By the end of Feb, so three weeks in, I’ve a t-shirt and Hi-Viz and people are chatting to me about the park and their daily commutes, exercise, reasons for being in the park. It’s all interesting and helps ne to formulate a cunning plan to draw out more information about the community and what people want. I start ‘building the brand’. I’ve got logos, hi-viz and my posters begin to take shape into a recognisable format – a trusted post. Similarly, I become a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Me! At 55! Who knew I could be so social media savvy!? But…now… how to move to the next step? How do you have a chat and a coffee during covid? And how do you get hold of peoples details and ask the right questions so you can engage further? That took a bit more working through….God bless the notice boards, where I shouted my ideas out to all who would stop by and read – and read they did!

In her next Blog Helen tells us how things have developed even further. Coming soon.

You can contact Helen to find out more about volunteering opportunities at:


Witton Lodge Community Association on Healthy Parks

Empowering. Invigorating. Stimulating.Powerful words, powerful emotions. And the fact is, it costs nothing to be empowered, to feel invigorated or stimulated. Just step outside.

Whether it’s time spent smelling flowers in your garden, taking a walk around your local park or just sitting among nature and wildlife, studies prove that green and open spaces is an assured way to feel better.

Research has connected parks that feature water, open spaces with significant biodiversity and broadleaf woods to be good for your health. The aesthetic beauty of nature can improve mental and emotional wellbeing.

This year has continued to be challenging for all of us. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic has caused stresses and pressures many were not prepared for. Health and wellbeing provision delivered by Witton Lodge Community Association together with Naturally Birmingham (Future Parks Accelerator – FPA) has sought to counter such distresses through a programme of activities:

Online support sessions have focused on the importance and benefits of connecting with nature while supported walks around local parks have helped older and vulnerable adults to escape their lockdown isolation and benefit from a stirring of the senses.

In addition, the Association’s affiliated walking group, the Red Hot Chilli Steppers, has grown to 20 members strong who enjoy weekly strolls around stunning Witton Lakes – a 1.8-kilometre trail which snakes around two gorgeous reservoirs and through the expansive green canvas that is Brookvale Park.

WLCA volunteer Linda Hackett, who founded the Steppers’ nearly 20 years ago, took part in a sensory walk around The Lakes, organised by colleagues from The Active Wellbeing Society to showcase and highlight how people can gain from spending time in the company of nature.

The tour emphasised the functionality of parks in making people feel happy. Open and green communal spaces are social amphitheatres, where people can meet and connect. This type of social contact and interaction builds friendships and networks and creates a real sense of wellbeing.

The secret to using nature as a mood booster is to find activities in a green space that match the outcome you are looking for. For some, going to a quiet park to escape their daily routine will bring peace of mind and a sense of freedom. Others may use their natural landscapes to challenge themselves with activities like running or cycling. Some are intoxicated by simply interacting with animals.

However you use your green spaces, studies have found that time spent outdoors can protect against mood disorders, depression, neurotic behaviour and stress-related issues, underlining the positive psychological and biological impact that parks offer. The effect is also dose-dependent, people who spend more time in their parks and are more frequent visitors to their open green spaces enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing.

This is why the Health and Wellbeing team at Witton Lodge are great advocates of social prescribing. Engaging with your natural landscape, connecting with the open and green spaces in your community, is medicinal.

Don’t underestimate the healing harmonies of nature.

If you’d like to hear more about the Future Parks Accelerator programme please contact Debbie Needle on or the work of Witton Lodge Community Association please contact Steve Sharma on

Teeny Explorers

Teeny Explorers

Teeny explorers, except not so teeny as right from the start of the session each week, every child (and adult) is filled with the hope and belief that one day they will fly! What better message to be giving our young children, and in such an enabling environment, with space as far as the eye can see and the sky knowing no limits?

I grew up in an outdoor loving family in Birmingham with the Lickey Hills providing the backdrop for many happy childhood memories. When a friend told me about Teeny Explorers, I knew it was something I wanted to try with my little boy, I am so glad we did. One sunny Tuesday morning in February, H and I put on our wellington boots and waterproofs and embarked on an adventure that was about to become something that we would look forward to every week. In that morning alone we experienced storytelling, hill rolling, searching for early signs of spring and creating artwork from beautiful resources nature had given us.

Each week we embark on a new adventure, from journeying through the Giants Land, crossing bridges without waking Trolls, searching for dragons, following animal trails and marvelling at mother nature and how she has changed over the weeks/months. Each week we explore the same park, but nature in all its glory always has something new to offer, always inspires a new story, invites a new question, sparks a new adventure, something that cannot always be as easily achieved indoors.

H has learnt that stumps are not just where a tree has been cut down, they are where a tree has provided a new challenge, “see a stump and you have to jump”. We are never allowed to cross a bridge, on foot, unless we have howled like a wolf, “we don’t want to sound like a Billy Goat!” Hills were designed to roll down, a skill that has now been practised in many of Birmingham’s parks and further afield. We very rarely follow a path as H has been filled with confidence through Teeny Explorers to explore off the beaten track, you never know what you are going to discover. Each session fills H with excitement but, when you ask him about his favourite memories of Teeny Explorers he will always talk of the sessions when we use ‘baby dragon sparks’ to make a fire and heat hot chocolate to drink with marshmallows.  

Teeny Explorers quickly became our escape from the busy working week, time to spend together in a special place, “My Lickey Hills” (H’s words) come rain or shine! I will be forever grateful to Teeny Explorers for filling H with confidence, curiosity about the world around him, and the eagerness to explore further than his eyes can see.

Parks need people, people need parks, children need opportunities to experience the magic of our parks.


For me, it was Fuji

When you sit back and take stock

At the human story and mother nature’s clock

We arrived here at half past one

And within a minute it’s nearly done!

To halt the doom

We must make room

In our minds

To be kind

To turn the tide

And prevent the slide

And how do you do this?

Step outside, right into mother nature’s bliss

For me, it was Fuji

Four friends together

Weathering the treacherous weather

Up we climbed! From station one

First a canter, then a competitive run

As it approached the time for dinner

We noticed the air become unnervingly thinner

But this was part of nature’s thrill

Each breath to be enjoyed with expert skill

At the summit

All was still

The crowds waited for the ritual crack

The crack of dawn

That luminescent yolk became apparent

It was the Earth’s single parent

It’s yellow rays

The difference between night and day

Spilled onto the skyline

Allowing me time



Recharge, and recalibrate

And analyse my internal state

Reorder and give weight

To this special moment with my dearest mates

And this is the beauty of all that is green

It gives you a warm, fuzzy and numinous feeling

You don’t need Fuji, it was just an example

To help you transcend these four walls

And as we get to a quarter to two

Hopefully we will realise that the planet is beyond me and you

Earth Story Poem Written by – Dr Jeevan Swamy – GP Registrar