This time of the year gifts us with a number of Bank Holidays which, rather like proverbial buses, often come in fairly rapid succession, dependent upon the falling of the lunar Feast of Easter. This weekend there is a heightened enthusiasm for a break from routine as we are promised an improvement in the weather, and for our youngsters there is a half-term holiday, not to mention the recent lifting of some of the restrictions limiting our ability to socialize as freely as we may have wished to do. However we choose to spend this time we will inevitably encounter other people. For some a disappointment, as they seek sanctuary in the Dales or by the coast after a prolonged period of simply not being able to get there, and once there discovering that half the county has had the same idea. And for others the opportunity of gathering with family and friends fulfilling the sole purpose of the building of their fire-pit and purchase of the varying designs of overhead coverings and shelter manufactured specifically for outdoors allowing people to shelter safely and comfortably in a garden surrounding.
Whether we lament having to share an open space with others or have simply lived for the moment to arrive over the last year when visitors could be welcomed back into familiar surroundings, it is doubtful that any of us will avoid the presence of others over the holiday weekend. Random or purposeful encounters with others provide many of us with the very stuff that feeds a hobby that we rarely admit to but find quietly gratifying and which, in its own way, often satisfies the basic hunger and thirst that we have as human beings to connect to others. It is best described as people-watching ! It can be carried out in the queue at the checkout in the supermarket, at the stop for public transport or as we simply enjoy a quick ‘breather’ taking advantage of one of the seats in our public spaces, mentioning just a few of the vantage points I admit to using in this pursuit. There are endless opportunities to indulge ourselves in this pastime. Standing sentinel at our church doors during the week gives me plenty of opportunity to watch my fellow human beings going about their business. From the doorways of both I, often unobserved, witness the finest and worst elements of our shared humanity. The impatience of speeding drivers on Bath Road; the reassurance of parents encouraging their children to take their first hesitant steps into the brand new world of school and education; the discarding of litter; and the joyous, unrestrained laughter of youngsters sharing the hilarity of an on-screen image.
At St. Paul’s I am able to look across the road and watch the comings and goings in the King Edward VII Memorial Park but not before observing numerous drivers waiting for the lights to change who, thinking no one will see them, begin composing a text, and when the lights change find that there is a long gap between themselves and the car that was once in front of them, not to mention a horn-blowing driver behind. One of the most noticeable habits amongst my fellow townspeople in the recreational space of the park is their willingness to cut corners, appearing to be programmed at finding the quickest route, taking a short cut regardless of the state of their footwear as they cross grass and flowerbed alike without respect for either. With its horizontal and vertical pathways disregarded by walkers, runners and those taking strides and steps in between, in order to get to their destination as quickly as possible, I often wonder if those hastening to the bus station are able to embark immediately, or find themselves stood waiting in a queue, rendering their decision to corner-cut and take a shortened route somewhat invalid.
The two central parks in the towns of Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton hold a special place in my heart as these are the places where the majority of the Fallen from our worshipping communities are commemorated on beautiful memorials. Not that either was envisaged with that purpose. Both Green Park and its related space in Cleckheaton, also called Green Park on maps pre-dating its current layout, were created from the benevolence of local people, some incredibly wealthy, others just ordinary, everyday folk who wanted somewhere pleasant to enjoy fresh air and the opportunity of taking advantage of a formal open space in which they could sit, alone or with family or friends, and make the most of the simple pleasures that life offers, not least amongst them those without gardens of their own, living in terraces and in busy yard areas. In their heyday musical entertainment would also have been available, offered by local musicians and bands. Pathways laid in them were intended to maximise the potential for exercise whilst in these none-too-large leisure spaces. In Cleckheaton the park was created to commemorate the reign of a man dubbed the Playboy King, Edward VII (1901 – 1910), who was renowned for enjoying the outdoor life, and blew a freshness into the public face of the English monarchy, after the rather dour latter decades of his mother’s reign. Heckmondwike’s Green Park was formalised to acknowledge the Coronation of his son, King George V, and Queen Mary in 1911, having previously been a site on which travelling shows and fairs pitched, and for most of the year a piece of, generally speaking, waste land used by the youth of the day for play. It was in light of this latter use that some objections were made to its conversion into a more formal area. Eventually members of the Firth family came to the rescue by offering to provide a two acre field for the youngsters of the town to play on and furnish it with fittings for enjoyment such as swings and roundabouts. The land at the top of Beauregard (a name which means “beautiful gaze” or “easy on the eye”) Street near to Flush Mills was to be named the George V Playground.
Contemporary newspaper reports from the time of the Great War tell of the use of the perimeter of the Cleckheaton park by the Catholic community. It was at this time that the indigenous population of the town, mainly worshippers at the Non-Conformist cathedral-like places of worship which dominated the spiritual landscape of the Spen Valley, enjoying their Sabbath promenade along the pathways of the park caught their first sight of Continental Catholicism in the initial May Procession organized by Fr. Paul Van de Pitte in 1915. After a Service in the Mission Chapel handed to the Belgian Guests (as they were referred to in the press; a totally disarming collective, devoid of any form of judgmental or political labelling) of the district which included readings, a sermon, the recitation of the rosary, and the blessing of the statue of Our Lady that was to be carried in procession, the pageant began. The route was hardly long, from the Marsh area of the town, around the four sides of the park and back again to the church in Dewsbury Road. The leading children, wearing costumes made for the occasion, such as those of the May Queen, her retinue, banner-carriers and those holding streamers attached to them, altar servers, together with others, all attired in their Sunday best, must have delighted in being the object of admiration from those stood within the park, craning from its various walkways in order to catch glimpses of their finery and to delight in the spectacle of the occasion. It is possible that, radiant in their moment of glory and as the focus of attention, the processional route will not have been long enough for the children of both Belgian and English families taking part in it ! Within the confines of the park no doubt other children will have separated themselves from their parents to follow the procession around its borders, captivated by the colourful drama. A year later it was reported that the chief object of the procession was to show the devotion of the worshippers towards the Virgin Mary and to her intercession, through prayer and witness, for the Allied Nations and the distressed people of Belgium. How proud too the parents of the processing children must have been watching their off-spring enjoying a moment of glory, being admired by neighbours and fellow townspeople. With the reality of the Great War taking its toll on families, such an innocent distraction, featuring a rising generation whose parents all hoped and prayed would grow up in a world of peace, must have been a most welcome sight.
It was an event that grew over its four year lifespan with Belgian refugees joining it from further afield as Fr. Paul Van de Pitte’s ministry widened. Not only were local people content with the distraction from a vantage point within the park, where vertical and horizontal pathways cut across trimmed lawns highlighting neatly laid out seasonal flowerbeds and maximised the ability and capacity of those promenading to pause but, growing in confidence, they took to gathering in the vicinity of the Chapel to share in the entirety of the event. It was an early expression of Christian Unity.
Far from being a short cut used in haste, I find our centrally located parks to be havens of peace and an opportunity for brief distraction. In them I speak with people not encountered elsewhere, acknowledging, when present, the work that those employed by Kirklees do to maintain them for our use, at the same time never failing to cast my eyes in the direction of the war memorials remembering and praying for those who gave so much, allowing those who so wish to take the short-cut or conversely for others to walk the extra mile with their fellow pilgrims on life’s journey. Choices made in freedom. The original intention of the creators of both Green Park and the King Edward VII Memorial Park is not lost a century and more on from their openings. With such a rich seam of our local population passing through them they also provide a time for reflective prayer. Perhaps not in the quiet surrounds that we would normally use for our conversations with the Almighty, but somewhere in which we are gently prompted by others – in the casual chatter of passers-by, the distant excited voices of playing children, those about to start a journey, or make their way to school or a health centre – that the community of which we are apart constantly stands in need of a remembrance before God.
Prayer for the Local Community.
Father God, we pray for all in our community.
For those who live here, we ask that they may thrive and prosper.
For those who work here, we ask that they may strive to improve the lives of residents.
For those who use our healthcare facilities and educational establishments: may their needs be met.
For those who come for recreation, my they find enjoyment in their activities.
For ourselves, that we may serve You in our community in ways that truly matter.
May your Bank Holiday weekend be kind to you, and in it may you find recreational pleasure for body, mind and soul … and perhaps a walk in one of our parks !
Be assured of my prayerful remembrance of yourselves and those you love the most and know best, together with assurances of affection.