History of the Friends of Rowntree Park

The Friends of Rowntree Park was formed in 1993. This group was a voluntary group of local people who’s original aim was to commemorate the park as a war memorial, preserve the character of the park, promote it’s sympathetic use by the people of york, support long term maintenance and development. All this was to be done by liaising with the council and sharing the views of local people.

The first chair was Alison Sinclair. Followed by Mike Heyworth through the 2000s, Hugo Bentley Circa 2013-2019. The Friends became an official charity in 2019 and Cath Mortimer is the Chair of Trustees (and long time member of the group). The Friends of Rowntree Park were heavily involved in the park’s restoration in 2000. This restoration of the park was enabled by a Heritage Lottery Grant.

In addition to welcoming volunteers who could actively attend meetings or help with conservation projects in the park, a membership scheme was set up. People could support the group by buying an annual membership to Friends of Rowntree Park. By 2010, 240 households were members. This number stayed around the same until 2018 when we ‘went online’ and now have around 650 households as members. Membership remains just £5 a year and the money supports the volunteers’ work which has grown massively – as the needs of the park, and council funding, have changed.


The Park Active Programme

The Park Active Programme established and run by the Friends in the 2000s. This was an ongoing project that involved volunteers in environmental activities that encouraged biodiversity – tree planting, balsam bashing and anything that encouraged biodiversity. The group were involved in tree planting and establishing the beck area – walkways, bridge and wildlife pond (on Butcher Terrace Field). The pond was created in November 2011 helped by Rachel Simpson, YCC Park Ranger. The Park Active group met weekly to focus on conservation issues in the park. There were plans to redo and improve the pond and improve the area in summer 2020 as we won support for York Big Community Challenge. This work is currently postponed but will hopefully happen in the future!

Ark in the Park

The Friends had some grand plans around 2006. These included a plan to replace the pavilion (built in the 1970s) with an ‘Ark in the Park’. Due to frequent floods, the Pavillion became unusable for groups including the Friends and the Young Friends, as well as the tennis club and bowls club. The Ark was a new flood-proof idea for a community space in the park, designed by Phil Bixby. The ark had an amphibious structure that would rise when flooding occurred and lower itself when flooding receded. The Friends set out to try and get funding for the ‘Ark in the Park’. This was to be an environmental centre that could be used by groups. The aim of the ark was for it to be built on a potion which would be set below the ground recess. When the river rose the recess would fill and the pontoon would lift the ark. Integral piles would keep the building in place. When the flood receded then it would lower back down.
This technology had been successfully used in the Netherlands.

The Friends got planning permission and got backing of the Council’s Advisory Panel for Leisure and Culture and Social Inclusion. The Environmental Agency Flood Levy Fund said they’d give £50,000, but a 2006 lottery fund bid was unsuccessful. The Friends continued to try and fundraise but they never reached their target and the dream ended.

Children’s Activities

Part of the Friends community work has included the groups run for children. The Young Friends (5-11) and the Very Young Friends (0-5) groups. In the early 2000s, the groups helped create the footprint maze (mentioned in a previous post). The groups were led in the earlier days by members of the local community including Kate Lock and Lara McLure. Activities included art, storytelling and nature-based fun.

In 2010 the Young friends tiled a mosaic depicting the park – it was part of a community art project run by Dawn Starkey based on people’s memories of Rowntree Park. Two sessions were run in the cafe to make this and then it was mounted on the wall near the carpark/compound. Sadly it was removed in 2017 as it was falling apart. However, as mosaics have always been a part of children’s involvement in the park since the original children’s mosaics in the bandstand, we would like to have children involved in making some form of mosaic as part of the centenary celebrations next year. We feel this would be befitting.

For a while, the children’s groups were able to base themselves in the old tennis pavilion and this was a community space. However, years of flood damage meant the council deemed it unfit for the purpose. Many groups suffered when the pavilion was closed. Bowlers stopped using the park because they needed changing rooms and storage. Sadly the Friend’s vision for a community space in the form of the Ark in the Park never came to fruition.


Children’s Events

For the last 20 years, we have run many events for children! All group leaders have been volunteers with a passion to get children involved in loving their local park, appreciating nature, the environment and local community. The Young Friends of Rowntree Park was set up in 2002 for children 5-14 to get involved in the park. The group used the pavilion as their meeting place. The early group included leaders such as Kate Lock, Sara North and Naomi Whittaker. The Very Young Friends (aimed at 0-5 year olds) was started by Lara McClure who described them as a group of local lively children who meet in the park “to picnic and sing, tell stories, play instruments, dress up, make dens and generally have a wonderful time”. This led to monthly themed sessions for under 5s with parents/carers involved. The group was later led by Francesca King and Chera Joy.

Christine Banham took over the Very Young Friends in 2013 and it is still going strong today! The group meet each month at the Story Circle in the woods for nature based fun and activities. After a few quiet years, the Young Friends of Rowntree Park returned in late 2017 and usually run monthly events for older children that have included art and craft sessions, recycled boat making, butterfly and bee events, Earth Day events, bird events, den making, history project, The Lost Words Project, rock hunts, story sessions, Christmas sessions and more! There has also been an after school group – The Nature Ninja’s. Joint events with the VYF have included Halloween events, Enchanted Woodland Events and the Easter Egg hunt. The Young Friends of Rowntree Park are currently led by Abigail Gaines, Christine Banham and Ruth Phillips. All who are working mums with children aged 5-12 themselves.

In 2019 we set up Forest School in Rowntree Park following Christine completing her training. Forest School is more than just outdoor sessions, it is a specialised approach that is learner centred and aims to promote the holistic development of the child. Run in block sessions for 2-5 year olds, the sessions provide hands-on practical learning that fosters things like resilience, confidence and creativity and more. We also offer monthly Forest School sessions for 6-12 year olds which have also proved popular.

Our Young Friends groups have also worked with local schools and created educational sessions that enhance the school curriculum. We have had nursery and primary school groups in the park doing activities such as Pond Dipping, Stone Age Days, Tree and Plant identification and Forest School Sessions. There are plans to expand this provision as well as projects with a local secondary school.

As well as having lots of fun and loving seeing children engage with nature, the events we run as Friends of Rowntree Park are vital to our income as a charity. It has always been important to the Friends that our events are well priced so more people can access them. All events have discount for Friends of Rowntree Park members, the VYF meetups are free to members. Any profits made from events go back into improving Rowntree Park for the community- paying for plants, tools, benches, railings, projects and more.

There is a lot happening, and we would love to hear from other people interested in running or helping with children’s events. We love seeing all ages enjoying the events we run, and we thank everyone who supports our events. All money raised goes back into the park we all love!


In the early days of the park, there was the park keeper and 12 gardeners. Showcase areas included the rose pergola and the lupin gardens. What was planted in the park changed over the years and there is no one ‘historical look’ to the gardens. By the 2000s there were no longer a host of gardeners based in Rowntree Park and the responsibility of maintaining and caring for the park fell to the park keeper. Sadly, the last Park Keeper was made redundant in 2017. Dave Brown had been working in the park since around 1973, and for a number of years, he and his family lived in the Park Keepers Lodge in the cafe. Council budget cuts to Parks and Open Spaces were leading to harsh and unwelcome changes for Rowntree Park. It was said that no new planting would take place in the park. Roaming council teams would continue to do basic maintenance such as cut grass, hedges, fell trees etc but not add colour to the park or replace plants that died.

Although the Friends of Rowntree Park would definitely have preferred the park keepers role to have stayed, a small group of volunteers took on the responsibility for gardening in *some* areas of the park. A difficult balance between not wanting to see the park become unloved but also showing the difference between funding and none funding. The Friends of Rowntree Park have responsibility for the Long Borders (through the middle of the park), and the two railed gardens – now known as the Sensory Garden and the Friends picnic Garden. There has been some planting near the lychgate, and wild bulb planting in other areas. We have done some tree planting, planting around the cascade, and tend to the rose pergola/arbour. However, as a rule, the Friends tend to focus on these areas leaving the other areas as council responsibility.

In order to fund the areas the Friends look after, we rely on using some of the money from annual memberships people pay (just £5 a year per household) and also look for funding from grants. Our gardening started with help from a Growing Green Spaces grant and we have since secured funding from Betty’s for further work on the sensory garden, and a benefactor has allocated some funding to help us propagate our own plants. The latter two were meant to start this year, but things are on hold. To be able to plant in the park and buy tools and resources needed we rely on voluntary donations and seeking grants.

The Longborders have been full of colour the last couple of years – poppies, alliums, iris and much more. Flowers that encourage bees and butterflies. Sadly the floods and Covid lockdown have meant that our volunteer gardeners have not been able to rescue and tend to flooded plants and re plant this year.

The Friends Picnic Garden is to be a child-friendly area. The Friends helped arrange the railings so to keep geese out and funded picnic benches. The aim to fill this area with ornamental grasses and the like so it is safe to play in but also pleasing to the eye. The Sensory Garden work began last year and is to be a garden to awaken your senses – encourage birds, butterflies, bees – to touch and smell plants and flowers. Both the Friends and Sensory Garden also have raised beds filled with herbs and plants, it is hoped the raised beds will enable more groups to be able to help with gardening.

The Friends and York Bike Belles also created a labyrinth last year on an old bowling green. Lots of twists and turns and full of herbs. Based on Tudor ideas. Work started last year on setting up our own propagating area in the lodge garden. The aim is to try and grow our own plants for the park, and maybe additional ones to sell and raise funds.

There can be some confusion in York with regard to Rowntree Park and Homestead Park as both have the Rowntree name attached. Rowntree Park has been council owned since 1921, Homestead Park is not. Homestead is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and has paid gardeners. Therefore comparisons between the look of the two parks should not be made. (We’d really recommend checking out Homestead Park as part of your daily exercise, it’s looking particularly stunning at the moment!)

We are grateful for our small dedicated team of volunteer gardeners who usually meet on a Tuesday morning ( also some weekends and evenings in summer months). When lockdown is over, we’d love to have more people willing to join us gardening – whether a one-off or a more regular thing. Due to not being able to replant after the flood, we will need volunteers now more than ever. If you want to find out more about how you can help in the future, drop us a line!

An extra huge thanks to Rosemary Bentley our chief volunteer gardener. Rosemary is passionate about the park and is in there nearly every single day. She cannot wait to get back gardening! Also thank you to Stu ‘Spruce’ Small who is leading on our new propagation plan and helping plan our area. An extra thanks to The GoodGym who help every now and again and to each and everyone who has helped garden in the park over the last couple of years.

Art and Music

The last few years have been amazing for ‘art in the park’. In 2018 we had our own ‘Artist in Residence’, Nick Booth who worked on a project to show the history of the park over the years and his work was displayed at the cafe. That year, we also had artwork by St John’s University displayed in the park. In 2017 we also had Gerard Hobson design a fantastic ‘King of the Birds’ Trail that leads people around the park looking for painted wooden birds as they follow a story. Gerard also ran some amazing lino cutting workshops for adults and art sessions for children. Local artist, Mister Dills, has regularly run art workshops for the Young Friends of Rowntree Park – these are always a sell-out!

The Friends of Rowntree Park also coordinate the art displays for the Reading Cafe. We encourage submissions from artists whose work has a local, park-related or nature theme. Some highlights have included Mister Dills, Elliott Harrison and Ingrid Brown.

Regular art has also come in the form of Yarn bombing! Yarnbombing is a type of street art that uses colourful displays of knitted or crocheted yarn or fibre, rather than paint or chalk, to decorate an area in an unexpected, often humorous way. Hippystitch have done many fantastic installations in Rowntree Park over the last few years, later selling the designs to raise money for charities. The Friends of Rowntree Park now also have their own craft group who created knitted and crocheted poppies that were displayed in the park to mark 100 years since the end of WW1 in 2018. They also created sunflowers to be displayed in support of St Leonards ‘Lights of the Lake’ evenings. Our craft groups next installation will be rainbows to celebrate hard-working keywords and celebrate the end of lockdown. The group welcomes any crafters to get involved (see previous posts or message for details).

The Rowntree Park Photography has been popular over the years after a few years break it returned in 2019 with some amazing images submitted. The images were displayed in the cafe and prints have been on sale to raise money for our volunteer work. There will be another competition in 2020, so get snapping on your daily exercise!

Words from the bench was a written word project led by Karen Hill Green. QR codes were on benches in the park and each linked to a piece of writing inspired by Rowntree Park and nature. Initially, the project involved Karen’s MA students but went onto include local writers submissions. There were also pieces from Iceland (where the project originated).

Performances have also been a welcome addition to Rowntree Park. In the 2000s, Scout ‘gang shows’ took place in the bandstand/amphitheatre area of the park. Over the last few years, there have also been performances from ‘The Lord of Misrule’ (York University) and other theatre groups.

Music has always been key to Rowntree Park. In the early days, the brass band would play on weekends. In the last few years, York College held its ‘showcase’ each June in the park. In 2018 the Friends of Rowntree Park managed to convince music lover, Caroline Lewis, to be our ‘music volunteer’. Through 2018 and 2019, we had free music in the park most weekends through the summer. Although all things are on hold for now, if interested in playing in the park in the future, get in touch.

Community Events

As well as lots of children’s activities we run family events like Wildlife days, bat and bird watching, Crafts, Well being sessions, our Scarecrow Trail and much more!

The Rowntree Park Birthday Party was a key event for a number of years. When the restoration was celebrated in 2003 it was a grand affair and coincided with the 82nd birthday of the park. There was live music, crafts, stalls,a model boat regatta and fairground rides. There was also a rickshaw taxi to take people about! The party continued to be held each year on the park’s birthday (16th July) and has been a success over the years. In 2016 over 5000 people attended! The party has since had to go on hold as the size of attendees versus the lack of volunteers has meant the party was not manageable. However, as 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the park, there will be some form of celebration!

A community space in the future?

For a number of years, the Friends groups have had no base. In 2018 we managed to create a small space under the cafe – The Clubhouse’ with thanks to volunteers from Aviva. It’s a good space for storage but in reality too small for events to be held for more than 5 people. A community space of our own to run events would be the dream and allow us to continue our work hosting a range of events for all ages. Since the council was refused permission to turn the old park keepers lodge isn’t a holiday let, the Friends have been working with a team (including Phil Bixby from the Ark project mentioned yesterday and Johnny Hayes) to create a proposal for a community space to be used by the Friends and others. However, this would require vast funding and plans are on hold for the time being due to the current situation.

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