HAVING emerged from a grove of oak trees, Christine Thomas squeals in delight.

She has spotted some brightly-coloured fungus.

A few minutes later a large plant on her left catches her eye.

Its name is on the tip of her tongue – she says it has a psychoactive ingredient and was used by flagging travellers in days gone as they moved along the country’s byways.

We are walking around Coed Bach Park and Ms Thomas admits she finds it hard to stop “rabbiting on” about this 13-hectare chunk of land in Pontarddulais.

She is the secretary of the park’s “friends of” group – one of more than 20 such groups which help nurture and enhance Swansea’s many green spaces.

With councils everywhere cutting park budgets, these groups have an ever-increasing role in protecting the lungs of our towns and cities.

Ms Thomas’s attachment to Coed Bach Park grew when she was looking after sick relatives.

“It used to come here and walk around – it was very therapeutic,” she says.

The 65-year-old was one of the founders of Friends Of Coed Bach Park when it was set up in 2011.

An ongoing blog reflects the group’s many successes since – the removal of areas of Japanese knotweed and a grant to resurface and re-fence three tennis courts among them.

There have been ecological surveys, planting, coppicing, new trails and a boardwalk, and a zipwire for youngsters is imminent.

Football, rugby and bowls is played at Coed Bach Park, there is a skate ramp and BMX track, and dog walkers are ever-present.

The numerous oak trees with their crooked limbs give the woodland area a timeless feel, bluebells burst forth in spring and much of the park is as nature intended.

One survey revealed nearly 80 tree and bird species.

“Parks are incredibly important,” says Ms Thomas. “They were created originally by industrialists who knew their poor old workers where being worked to damn death and needed somewhere to rest and relax.”

Would Pontarddulais be the same without Coed Bach Park, I ask?

“Ych-a-fi,” replies Ms Thomas in Welsh, succinctly expressing her disgust at such a thought.

The friends of group has around 30 active members and a larger following on Facebook.

It liaises with Swansea Council, sports clubs and a private sector unit called Our Place, which provides outdoor opportunities for people with disabilities.

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Suzan Jones, joined the friends of group a couple of months ago.

“I suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and agoraphobia, and this has helped me tremendously,” says Ms Jones, 53.

“I absolutely love the park, even in the rain. I get withdrawal if I’m not here!”

She and Ms Thomas crack gags and point out various areas and their nicknames – Area 51 and Ayers Rock among them.

Fellow members Maureen Jancziak and Margaret Evans, who lives just up the road, describe themselves as “weeders”.

Mrs Jancziak joined four years ago. “I could see people working here, and thought I would like to give something back,” says the 72-year-old.

“It’s the enjoyment of coming over and meeting new people.”

The social aspect is a common thread in my conversations with friends of park members.

A few miles away in a built-up area of Swansea, Roger Bale explains how Friends of Ravenhill Park has given his life new meaning.

“It’s mainly for the company,” he says. “I’d lost my wife, and I hit the bottle.”

Surrounded by busy roads and houses, Mr Bale says he didn’t even know Ravenhill Park existed. He does now.

Grinning at fellow members Marianne Guppy and Corrine Crane, he says: “I’ve met up with these lovely women.

“I come here three times a day in the summer and twice a day in the winter.”

The 75-year-old, who served in the Royal Navy, describes himself as a “dogsbody” – and a very handy one at that, says the group’s secretary Mrs Guppy.

She says her husband, Alan, along with Mr Bale and others were instrumental in renovating the former bowls hut into a cafe and meeting place.

Public events are organised on the green outside.

The pavilion transformation was thanks to a £7,000 grant.

“People don’t realise how hard it is to get grant funding,” says Mrs Guppy. “But we have been very lucky.”

The recently retired 65-year-old reckons she puts in around 30 hours a week in the summer with her secretary role.

The group was started by dog walkers around four years ago.

“It was noticeable that the park had become run-down,” recalls Mrs Guppy, of Gendros. “There was fly-tipping, drug use and vandalism.

“We have cleaned up these issues with the help of the council, and gone from strength to strength.

“We try and cater for all age groups and all abilities.

“Here you can let children run around in safety. It’s free – and there are a lot of lower income families.”

The group has some 150 members and a 25-strong volunteering core.

Dylan Thomas School pupils created outdoor artwork in the park during the summer term.

“They absolutely loved it – being out in the open,” says cafe volunteer Miss Crane.

The 69-year-old lives alone nearby.

“I go home and shut the door, and that’s it,” she says. “You’re meeting up with people here.”

She describes parks as invaluable. “We need them,” she says.

Ravenhill Park is larger than you might expect and has a refurbished children’s play area, basket ball court, lots of trees and stunning views west across the Loughor Estuary.

Mrs Guppy got talking to an elderly man there earlier this summer.

“He’d been an American GI and was stationed at the old house at Penllergare (Valley Woods),” she says.

“He said he used to come here courting!”

Mrs Guppy’s latest grant application is for all-inclusive play facilities aimed at seven to 14-year-olds.

She hopes that nurturing a fondness for the park among younger people will help it thrive in the future.

“We have got a wonderfully supportive community,” she says.

Ward councillor Mike Durke is the group’s new vice-chairman.

“I am delighted to be involved,” he says.

“We’ve got parks staff cutting the grass and doing maintenance.

“The volunteers have worked so hard in recent years. All four of us Cockett councillors are fully supportive of what they are doing.

“For me the park is vibrant. There are so many activities. We had an outdoor church service on Ascension Day.”

Cllr Durke and his father before him grew up near the park.

“There used to be a cricket pitch here – it had to be the steepest outfield in the county!” he says.

One of Swansea’s more manicured green spaces is the Botanical Gardens, Singleton Park.

There, in a large polytunnel, I find a bustling Jane Terrett and fellow volunteers.

They are tending plants which Friends of the City of Swansea Botanical Complex sells on Saturdays between April and September to raise money to enhance the gardens, and also Clyne Gardens a couple of miles west.

“We have a plant buyer, and she tells us what we need to do,” says chairwoman Miss Terrett.

“Everyone has their own table to look after.

“The council are very supportive. We are here on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and they keep our plants alive the rest of the week.

“We are literally running a business.”

The admin and form-filling is time-consuming, like for all friends of groups, but grants are a lifeblood.

The group plans to go halves with the council to paint the wall running at the rear of the glasshouses.

“We also want to renew the signs, have more educational material and new seating,” says Miss Terrett, of Dunvant.

“We get about 60,000 visitors here each year.”

I am introduced to several polytunnel volunteers – from self-confessed “plant-aholics” to people who had felt isolated through bereavement or being new to the area.

One of the group’s founder members, Jen Nuzum, of Pennard, has a horticulture background.

“I always wanted to work here,” she says. “But I used to get told I needed a degree.”

Last autumn she had an enforced absence due to a stroke, but fortunately her recovery went well.

“I didn’t know how long I was going to be away or if I could come back,” she says. “I was very lucky.”

Just over 30 volunteers beaver away on Wednesdays, with a few more on Saturdays. There is a five-week break in December and January.

Sonja Olsen knew nothing about Swansea when she moved to the city from Suffolk in 2016 with her dog.

“I was desolate after retiring,” she says.

“Then I had a mini-stroke after the dog died.

“I felt myself falling into a rut. One Friday I was walking through the gardens and I got talking to one of the members.

She said, ‘Why don’t you volunteer?’ I thought, ‘Why not?’ I have always loved the outdoors.

“Through coming here I have learned an awful lot about Swansea, Gower, Wales and the Welsh.

“I have met a fabulous group of people. There is so much advice. And the gossip is brilliant!

“I don’t know what I would have done without it.”

Ms Olsen, of Morriston, adds: “If all the volunteers in the country downed their tools for one day, it would come to a standstill.”

Bernice Cardy, of Uplands, joined the group in 2008 and found it particularly supportive when she had to focus all her efforts on her ailing husband prior to his death the following January.

“I got messages and notes from people in the group, which were greatly appreciated,” she says.

Recalling her return, she says: “I found myself beginning to relax for the first time in six months.”

Tricia Hannington is a newcomer, having moved to Mumbles from Dorset. She was keen to meet new friends and learn new skills.

“I love it,” she says.

The volunteers are aged 55 to 90, morale seems high – and I suspect Gardeners’ World’s Monty Don would receive a warm welcome.

Outside, in the gardens themselves, horticulture volunteers have started working directly with park staff.

They include Sue Davies, of Sketty, Sue Kingston, of Bishopston, and Alex Sutherland. More are needed.

Mr Sutherland worked in Cambodia for 17 years before moving to Mumbles with his partner, who is from Swansea, this year. The couple have a new baby.

Although he still has business interests in Cambodia, he says he will have to look for paid work in Swansea.

“I can’t do this forever,” he says. “But I love being outdoors, and I’ve done a bit of garden maintenance before.

“And this is a beautiful place.”


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