Blackberry Alley

1st November 2022

Over the years, we have litter picked many times in the alleyway parallel to, and between, Savernake Street and Hythe Road. For those who don't know it, it's several hundred metres long with a bank running all the way along. It is locally renowned for its abundance of delicious blackberries. Home to a variety of wildlife; sparrows, bees, wasps, rats, foxes, crawling with woodlice and spiders, snails, slugs, so many cats, and toads!

Sadly over the years, it has become a dumping ground. We returned to this alleyway in 2021 because it was in an awful state. All kinds of flytipping and rubbish had been left here. A tree that had clearly not been tended was hanging over the alleyway and residents gardens; potentially a deadly hazard. In areas that are treated so badly, I feel my soul sink, sad that humans seem to have become so lost from what's important, from that which sustains us, from that which is truly beautiful and magical.

We returned to the alleyway in 2022. It was again in an awful state. Looking more deeply into the soil, we realised the extent of the problems here. The soil was full of rubble and litter, so we decided to make this a dedicated project, to clean it deeply. Our aims, as with other projects, are to clean up the area and consolidate changes through various means. This is an ambitious project! We proceeded to pull out years of dumped rubbish, much of it thrown over residents' back garden fences. A bike, bed frame, mattresses, concrete bird bath, carpet, all kinds of building rubble...

We already knew a few of the local residents, from living close by and from community work over the years. We met local resident, Amelia, in 2021. She cares for the alleyway and wants it to be a nice space. She managed to get the borough council to cut back the overhanging tree and then cut it back further herself. This made the area safer and opened up the space around the steps.

We delivered letters to all residences close to the alleyway informing them of who we are, our work and intentions.

There is a lot of dead foliage that needs to be cut away, mostly brambles. This is difficult to handle and slow work. Over time we developed a way to deep clean the banks. Once the foliage is cut back, we then pick out the surface rubbish. The next step is to rake down the banks. This is because years of dumped rubbish has overgrown with soil. Once we've raked down the banks, we then filter into 3 piles: rubble, litter, wood. This is done by hand and is a slow process.

To compliment and consolidate our cleaning efforts, we wanted to provide something visual. One of our litter pickers, Phyllida, suggested that we rename the alley, Blackberry Alley, as it is locally renowned for its abundance of excellent blackberries. This seemed a good idea to help change perception and treatment of the space. So, how to do that?

Tony Hillier, Swindon's community poet, lives close by the alleyway. I have come to know and love Tony from work with community organisations over the years, most notably the formidable Swindon People's Assembly. I explained to Tony our work and aspirations in the alleyway, and asked if he would write a poem to be painted on the fence at the bottom of the steps. He very kindly agreed! When he sent the first draft, it took me a while to get my head around it, due to the unique style of writing. The more I read it, the more I liked it, the more it grew on me.

The fence at the bottom of the steps seemed like the perfect place to paint the poem. Local muralist Peter Cowdy painted a mural on the canal path for us last year which was greatly received and has helped reduce littering and fly-tipping in the area. Peter kindly agreed to paint a mural at Blackberry Alley which would contain the poem.

The day of the mural painting was magic! So many local people use and cherish this alleyway. As Peter painted and the creativity flowed, so too did the energies of people, community, universe... So many people expressed gratitude for Peter's art and Tony's poem. I think it looks amazing and has definitely achieved the aim of changing how the space is perceived and treated. Huge thanks to both Tony and Peter for giving freely of their time and resources!

Since the mural was painted, littering reduced to almost nothing and there was no fly-tipping. That's telling isn't it? There is respect for spaces that are respected. Conversely there is disrespect for places that are disrespected. A couple of months pass without any fly-tipping at all....

South Swindon Parish Council had been collecting the rubbish, which included rubble and fly-tipping. However they are not paid by the borough council to collect the larger items. They eventually explained the situation to me, that they were already going above and beyond and not being paid to fill in for the borough council's failings, and that they couldn't continue doing so. I understand the difficult position that they're in.

The borough council did not pick up the litter for weeks. A large pile of rubbish was allowed to build up. For the first time in months, we had fly-tipping again. How sad when those who are supposed to represent us are generally unreachable and unsupportive of the communities they are supposed to serve. How did we get here? Swindon People's Assembly would tell you, if they were still around. Lies, austerity, cuts...

The positive work continues to transform Blackberry Alley, currently several days a week to make inroads. We're still cleaning but also starting to put in some little touches. For example, there were trees that had caught on fire one night. From conversations with locals, there is uncertainty as to how the fire started. Some time later the trees were cut down and left in the banks. We collected some of these, cut them down to size, and removed the smaller branches and leaves. Karen then made a border fence with them; her first! We made another on the other side of the steps. Phyllida has made a little picket ledge next to the steps that she has planted in.

The local community have been great, supporting us with cups of tea, apples, conversation, plants, encouragement, ideas, participation, a variety of dogs to pet...

I think that this work can help transform our town and the people within it. To quote Tony, Swindon's community poet, it can be like this!

Thanks, as always, to our brilliant litter pickers!