Tower Hamlets may not be known for its greenery, but people from across London are coming to the Borough to volunteer at the city’s most urban woodland.
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park lies just off the busy Mile End Road and offers more than 30 acres of trees, flowers and butterflies. It was constructed in 1841 becoming the last of the cemeteries now known as the “Magnificent Seven”.
These cemeteries were established in the then outskirts of London to bring down the number of bodies buried in the city’s centre.
The other six are Abney Park Cemetery, Brompton Cemetery, Highgate Cemetery, Kensal Green Cemetery, Nunhead Cemetery and West Norwood Cemetery.
The site has not been an active cemetery for more than 40 years, but it is now classified as a nature reserve and as a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation, which puts it under statutory protection.
Since the 1990s the park has been managed by the charity Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park.
The charity also organises events and volunteering days. These sessions see about 3,000 volunteers coming to the park to offer their time and help.
John Clarkson, the Cemetery Park Officer, said that the two full-time staff members would struggle without the help of volunteers: “There is very little work we would be able to get done. We’d be able to do the basic maintenance, maybe the odd special project, but [the volunteers] have enabled us to develop the nature reserve and make it the special place that it is now.”
The volunteers come for various reasons. Some are local residents interested in helping out in the park and spending time outside. Others are offenders who come to fulfill some of their community service time on the grounds.
While more are corporate volunteers who come to volunteer as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) scheme.
The park’s proximity to Canary Wharf and the City of London makes it attractive to people in the financial sector, and the charity sometimes sees volunteer groups with up to 100 people in a single day.
Diego Coentrao is a drop-in volunteer who works for a local cleaning company. He said his employer wants to be environmentally friendly and is encouraging staff to volunteer.
“I think [companies] really need to look into this kind place [for volunteering], because it’s for the community,” Coentrao said.
Liaison Officer Kenneth Greenway said volunteers have different reasons for coming.
Some come to get to know the local community better; some to learn new skills; others simply because it looks good on their CV.
The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park has a drop-in volunteer day every Tuesday from 10am–4pm, and they also organise various events such as this year’s Spring Festival on June 8.
For more information on how to get involved, visit the website.