Steve Thompson, 66, is a trustee of the Hreod Burna Urban Forest, and recently appealed successfully in the Swindon Advertiser for equipment needed to tackle tough undergrowth. He lives in Gorse Hill and is married to well-known Swindon musical figure Janice Thompson. He serves on the board of the Janice Thompson Performance Trust. The couple have three children and three grandchildren
ASKED his advice to communities trying to prevent green spaces from being built on, Steve Thompson’s reply is instant.
“Come up with an alternative plan.
“If you say, ‘I don’t want this here,’ you’re a Nimby. If you say, ‘I want something else here,’ you’re not a Nimby – you’ve got an alternative plan.
“We’re Trimbys – we want trees in our back yard.”
He knows what he’s talking about; Hreod Burna Urban Forest only exists because of Steve and fellow campaigers. The first attempted incursion by developers came in about 2006, when there was a bid to build on allotments at the site, but the bid ended up crashing with the housing market.
“Having worked in parks all my life I thought, ‘I’m not prepared to let somebody build houses on parks.’ So there was a public meeting and I talked to the local councillor, John Ballman. He said somebody ought to come up with an alternative proposal, and I came up with the urban forest proposal.”
In the face of the protests, and also a hitherto uncharted gas main that would have restricted the number of houses built, the developer backed down.
“I thought it was going to be a rearguard action we were fighting, and that eventually the developer would win, but they pulled out.
“It would have taken up one third of the open space in Gorse Hill. You’ve got to have buildings but you’ve got to have areas like this.”
Steve is from Kentish Town. His mother was a housewife and his father a garage manager who later worked for Rolls Royce.
“I had no ambitions at all when I was at school, and I sort of drifted into gardening.
“My parents gardened, of course, and mum used to point out birds, plants and things, and what you could eat and what you couldn’t eat. That was when we were in the country on holiday.”
The career he ‘drifted’ into turned out to be his vocation. Steve rose to the rank of head gardener, working at locations such as Waterlow Park in Highgate, North London, Kenwood, Battersea Park, and Finsbury Park. In his mid-30s he and his wife moved with their children to her home town of Swindon. There he worked for 15 years, again as a gardener.
At 50 Steve was forced to give up work. “People say you should garden for your health, but it ruined my back. By the time I was 50 my back was ruined and I retired.”
His career success had left him with a useful pension and he was a happy househusband until the children grew up.
His interest in parks and public land has never left him.
“When you work in a park you’re tending the land for people. You can see the actual pleasure you’re giving people.
“You can see families picnicking on the grass, and you get older people coming up to you and asking, ‘What plant’s this? What plant’s that?’ “It’s not purely the gardening because there are also various facilities, like playparks for kids, rowing boats on the lakes, fountains.
“I’m a bit of a heretic now because I think parks are too tidy and open areas should be more natural – although it’s probably not heresy. Probably everyone is starting to think like that now. I see Hreod Burna Urban Forest as semi-natural woodland rather than a park.”
Steve’s other interests include politics. “I joined the Labour Party at 15 in Camden, and I did a lot of delivery for them and running around. But the Labour Party gradually moved away from my feelings, because I’m a socialist and they moved away from socialism.
“I don’t say I left the Labour Party, I say they left me. That was 30 years ago.”
He is now a member of the Green Party, and secured 266 votes when he stood in the Gorse Hill ward last year.
Since winning the planning battle, Steve, his fellow volunteers and offenders in the Community Payback scheme have planted some 1,500 trees and created about a mile and a half of paths.
The ideal eventual outcome?
“It’s to have a large area of woodland, glades and meadows in Gorse Hill.
“If we get our 25-year lease – and if I’m still alive I’ll be pushed around in my wheelchair – the trees will be 30 or 40 feet high by then and it will never be threatened with development again. It will be as important as, say, Highgate Woods is in London.”