A West Midlands historic landscape is gaining national recognition as a community trust reaching out to secure vital funding, including the help of a national treasure, as Greg Rhodes discovers when he meets Trust Manager Viv Cole and Golf Course and Park Manager Alan Merricks.
After sixteen years of successful community management, Warley Woods, Smethwick, has turned to national treasure Dame Julie Walters to appeal for public support to help fund a sustainable future.
The actor is known globally for her masterful performances in the films Educating Rita and Billy Elliot, and for her classic comic timing in the BBC sitcom Dinner Ladies.
Raised a stone's-throw away from Warley Woods, she harbours fond memories of her time enjoying its peaceful setting, the promotional video reveals.
Response was instant, reports Warley Woods Community Trust Manager Viv Cole - so too was reaction to her own media appeal on BBC Radio 4's Open Country and BBC Midlands Today in July.
Since Sandwell District Council passed the 100-acre Grade II Listed site to Warley Woods Community Trust in 2004, a passionate management team has raised £4.5m in Heritage grants, funding and public donations.
A startling achievement given the climate of financial austerity in the intervening years. But Covid-19 lockdown has presented further challenges to the viability of this historic green patch of Black Country.
Celebrated landscape architect Humphry Repton made fine use of the lie of the land with its spectacular scenery and panoramic views, which he incorporated into his 1794 masterplan for the Warley family estate.
Birmingham Council demolished Warley Abbey some years ago, leaving only cellars, the ice house and the stable block (which later burnt down) - an archaeological dig thirteen years ago revealing the extent of what lay underneath.
Woods Community Trust Manager Viv Cole / Dame Julie Walters
The site's grandeur faded over the centuries however and, like many a magnificently manicured English landscape, was in danger of being consigned to history's forgotten pages.
Since operating as a Trust, the Woods have blossomed into a firm leisure and amenity favourite with a strong local and regional catchment. Under the fourteen-strong board of trustees' strategy, Viv and her dedicated management team are spearheading a vigorous volunteer force numbering more than 400 to maintain and improve the Woods public appeal.
"Starved of investment for many years," Viv explains, "the site had no paths, fencing, gates, bins or play area - just two benches and a drinking fountain reduced to a lump of concrete sitting among the nettles."
"We now run a safe, thriving, warm and welcoming community space providing top-class facilities, events for everyone and an opportunity for anyone to get involved at any level."
Bolstering Warley Woods' reliance on grants and donations is an increasingly important revenue stream from the 9-hole golf course standing within its boundaries.
The first home of Edgbaston Golf Club from inception in 1890 until it moved away early next century, Warley Woods reopened as Birmingham's first public golf course in 1921.
The golf club is run separately from the Trust and enjoys a small, steady private membership income. The course also attracts some 6,000 pay and play Trust golfing customers, tempted by the playing quality and competitive green fees.
"We live continually on a financial knife-edge and 2020 is a year like no other," states Viv. "Good years on the golf course have given Warley Woods the cash to fall back on in hard times."
"The exposure and reaction from those who remember Warley Woods have far exceeded anything that's happened in our history," Viv declares, a charity fundraising specialist.
"People as far afield as Canada and America wanted to help. Others recall happy times playing in the Woods as children and were only too pleased to pledge support after hearing the broadcasts. Three brothers, who had picked up the Radio 4 programme, remembered sledging here as a family years ago."
"There's nothing like a financial hardship story to rouse people's concern about a much-loved local amenity. For as little as £2 a month, supporters can help protect us against disasters."
Viv runs a team of twelve to help her manage Warley Woods day to day from the Pavilion - a "temporary" structure erected seventy years ago and scheduled for replacement under a proposed redevelopment plan.
Warley Woods is run as a public park, whose financial sustainability largely depends on a £70,000 Sandwell Council annual grant - "our bedrock", public donations and Landfill Tax grants for capital improvement projects. "We have to earn our own keep. Nothing's ever assured." A loyal member base now numbering 1,300 helps too.
A new lifeline entered the equation earlier this year - a £100,000 National Lottery Heritage grant, which covers the salary of environmentalist Doug Barber for the next two and a half years.
In bidding for the grant, the Trust commissioned a six-month site survey from Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust.
"His brief is to understand the wildlife here and to engage with staff, volunteers and visitors, Viv explains. "We're here to get on and move forward, and Doug's aim is to leave Warley Woods in a sustainable state - educating and training staff and volunteers so that, when he leaves, they can continue the strategy he has put in place."
Within that gameplan is planned a move towards re-establishing former features and creating new habitats. A wildflower meadow is a key priority, as is creating a body of water to replace the Repton designed pond that graced Warley Woods when Warley Abbey, built in 1820, stood as its centrepoint.
"Creating the meadow and a new pond will improve micro-level wildlife diversity," adds Viv, who is unashamedly excited about the prospects and opportunities Doug's tenure holds for a beloved environment she lives and breathes.
"The project will include surveying birdlife, butterflies, moths and bats and other fauna we attract here," Viv adds. Due to kick off in April, the programme stalled when lockdown hit but, as measures ease, it will spark into life, she predicts.
Managing volunteers is an evolving process. Charged with tasks as diverse as litter-picking, running events and monitoring site flora and fauna, they can build new layers of involvement over time, she adds.
"Often, a volunteer may come to us with a wish to help with a single activity but, as they learn more about Warley Woods, they develop skills and broaden their interest base. We do try to let them engage with the activities they love as much as we can, because that encourages them to remain committed to us."
Grounds management of the site presents an unusual picture. "Unlike most local councils, who usually run split teams for parks and golf courses, we manage Warley Woods with a single team," says Viv.
Heading it is Golf Course and Park Manager Alan Merricks, whose career before he arrived here in 2015 had been steeped in golf. Viv sat on the recruitment panel that appointed Alan.
"He has a real passion for the site and brought with him a meticulous approach to grounds management learnt at private golf clubs and is applying it across the course and the park, whilst also adapting to the requirements and practices of a public park environment.
As Viv states: "We don't know what we don't know and that applies to us all. The greenkeepers are learning the other side of land management. Alan was unaware of the bird nesting season at first, but his experience since has broadened his knowledge base."
In turn, the Trust appointed Viv Charity Manager in 2006, drawing on her experience in marketing, community engagement and environmental management.
After introducing a host of improvements, Warley Woods started vying for honours under the then-new Green Flag national initiative.
"We learnt what was required to be eligible for entry," Viv explains, "growing our skills base." Accolades for innovation brought a requirement for a new skills set, she recalls. "In winning a Green Flag Award, volunteers had to learn about the whole range of parks management, marketing and environmental knowledge - even extending to being able to fold and hoist a flag, like the green one we are proud to display so that visitors know the quality of the environment they enjoy."
"Every other year we are mystery shopped by a Green Flag judge and that keeps us on our toes to continue to excel," she adds.
People's Choice national ratings for park popularity also testify to the strength of public backing Warley Woods commands. "We can mobilise a big vote when we need to, thanks to a catchment that includes many long-term residents as well as short-term renters - our 5,000 Facebook following helps too."
Community parks differ markedly from traditional ones, Viv stresses, and to keep her hand in with her peers, who run them elsewhere in the region, she meets the Midlands Parks Forum online to share knowledge and "aid my personal development".
Delivering that mix of specialties for its sport and leisure facilities is one of the factors that sets Warley Woods apart from other community parks, Viv believes.
Such interdisciplinary know-how helps the park plan and execute the long-term improvement programme that is securing its future. In a parallel with private golf club committees, the board of trustees, all local residents, includes members from a spread of professions. "One is a town planner, another a retired social worker, and a third an engineer," notes Viv.
A strong communications network fosters unity of purpose. Viv is in constant contact with her staff - the two full-time cleaners, a part-time administrator, the five Pavilion shop staff and three full-time grounds professionals.
"Parks are on the frontline of the pandemic and the public is realising how valuable they are as community spaces. But easing lockdown landed Warley Woods with an unwanted aftermath. Volunteers had to remove mountains of rubbish and also had to deal with some antisocial behaviour," Viv reports. Cannon Hill Park in Moseley was forced to call the fire brigade to help clear litter.
Covid-19 has touched lives at Warley Woods, as it has everywhere. "Golf club president and trustee John McBride died of the disease on the day Boris sent us into lockdown. Another trustee caught the virus in the run-up to lockdown, but is fine now."
Throughout the park, vigilance is vital. "We've introduced the measures necessary to safeguard staff, volunteers and the public as far as we can. Toilets are sanitised daily and we caution visitors to keep themselves safe. Everything is clean when we leave at the end of the day, ready for tomorrow."
Bemused by the Trust's need to keep the children's play area closed under the Government's lockdown, Viv is delighted it's accessible once more. "This is a low risk area for kids and I couldn't understand the ruling," she states.
Golf Course and Park Manager Alan Merricks
Move in a million
When Alan Merricks joined the Warley Woods team in 2015, he knew he had his work cut out on the golf course.
After stints at The Chase and then North Worcestershire, both private, he sensed his time had come to manage. "I jumped ship from North Worcestershire after ten months - before it closed - saw this post advertised and seized the opportunity."
"Viv and three trustees interviewed me for the job. I always thought I'd make a decent head greenkeeper and saw how I could bring greater efficiency to Warley Woods' course management."
Now thirty-two, Alan is running a tight team with diverse duties across the 100-acre Trust site, constantly learning and applying fresh skills. Hard work and dedication have borne fruit out on course. "We no longer have to use temporary greens over winter and the course is far tidier now," he says.
Topography plays a big role in draining the nine hole, 30-acre course. "We are 200m above sea level here - one of the highest points in the region: higher even than the Hawthorns [he's a diehard West Brom fan celebrating The Baggies' return to Premier League action] which I can see from one of the fairways."
"Our height means the course is pretty free draining. Water runs into a mini valley in the park to feed a small stream."
Maintenance costs are a major focus for Alan and he brings his own expertise to bear to keep overheads low. "I've had experience with car maintenance as my dad is a truck driver."
"Our Toro machinery is robust and easy to work on. Mowers are not that complicated really and don't present any issues. I do take the mowers over to The Chase for their annual sharpening as the club have a grinder."
His good housekeeping is a game-changer. "We save massively by maintaining kit in-house. The annual outlay was £10,000 to £12,000. That's fallen to around £4,000. I had to invest in some decent tools at first - jacks, proper sets of spanners and so on, as there was only a socket set when I arrived."
"The course brings in about 30% of Warley Woods' income. At £10 for 9 holes or £14 for two rounds we offer good value for money, reflected in some great Google reviews," Alan adds.
"Golf is in a very vulnerable position, so having the park maintenance side offers more security for the team, but Viv and her team know how to attract funding and support."
New boy Darryl Jones arrived in December 2019 armed with greenkeeping experience at The Chase and his NVQ Level 2, PA1, PA6 and chainsaw licences.
"He's a skilled, dedicated young man," Viv states, "but it's easy to work hard when you're passionate about what you do, and he is just that."
Alan adds: "Yes, he's very happy here and keen to advance, looking to complete his NVQ Level 3 soon."
Swelling the team temporarily is Andy Powell, here for a second year after working at Warley Woods in summer 2019, when he covered for a member of staff away with long-term sickness.
"Although Andy isn't regular summer cover, we have been able to offer him another four-month contract thanks to Lottery emergency funding," Viv explains.
Volunteers shoulder some of the grounds work and can prove a godsend, Alan enthuses. "Besides painting jobs, they recently planted 1,500 blackthorn and hawthorn whips along the 2nd and 3rd holes, saving us a load of time."
"We start the season applying a little fertiliser to get things going, but our policy is not to use it," Alan notes. "Monthly application of seaweed and liquid iron helps prevent disease and encourages a strong rootzone."
"These treatments have certainly improved the greens, whilst garlic helps stop crows and magpies pecking for leatherjackets, but its effect usually only lasts for up to a week and a half," he continues. The public encroaching on the course creates another potential irritation. "They aren't supposed to, but we don't tend to comment about it," Alan says diplomatically.
"The course suffered from a lot of disease and still sees outbreaks, usually fusarium in October, because we are a parkland course and airflow can be limited, but things have improved." Less fertiliser and more physical work on the greens is his preferred method.
Alan and the team aren't home free yet though. "The 4th and 9th greens suffer the worst from winter waterlogging, so we've have asked ALS Contractors to sand band them later this year."
The course is well-bunkered (30) for a 9-hole. The team repairs edging every three weeks, raking bunkers several times a week.
The grounds team has to be mindful of its environmental responsibilities across the nine holes, especially given Warley Woods national standing.
"For the Green Flag assessments we have a walkaround," Alan explains, "when two judges check the condition of the greens and discuss the park and its management strategy."
The environmental management plan continues apace, but it's still early days, Alan says. "There's the wildflower meadow coming up and we also want to develop open scrapes to attract a wider diversity of insects."
Open for business after lockdown lifted, Warley Woods' maintains site safety, its Covid measures still in place to protect golfers. "We turn hole cups upside down, advise against touching flags and have removed bins from the course."
To limit risk of cross-contamination amongst the grounds team, Alan and Darryl use only two of their four Toro mowers - the rotary and rough - and one of the two Workman utility vehicles, manicuring the park grass to a fairway height of 17mm.
Tackling thirty acres of grass is no mean feat and it's mowed regularly to boot. "The two of us manage it in about six and a half hours, plus another couple of hours to complete the Rose Garden with the rough mower."
Tending a further thirty acres of woodland keeps the team busy too. "I call in contractors sometimes to handle tree work high up," Alan explains. Daily play area inspections and park safety checks, replacing benches and planting trees is all in a day's work.
"This is a landscape full of trees," Viv adds, "and, under the woodland management plan, we are raising the quantity of deadwood, leaving standing stems and fallen timber for wildlife to colonise."
"We don't waste time logging and bagging. Visitors can collect logs from the car park to take home if they want to - leaving a suitable donation of course."
"Some visitors say this part of the site looks untidy, but the key is to understand woodland management and, within such a natural setting, wood anemone, red campion and bluebells thrive."
Tawny owls and sparrowhawks nest in the woods, whilst buzzards and red kites often visit, as does the goldcrest, Britain's smallest bird, which is drawn to the standing conifers populating the golf course fringes.
"Thanks to the course, we have one of the finest collections of parkland conifers in Birmingham, a tree specialist tells us," Viv notes.
The population of mixed woodland also includes beech, horse chestnut, hazel copses, Blue Atlas Cedar and a cherished corner of oak, categorised as ancient woodland.
Viv's engagement with the public extends to tree adoption. "Out of our 4,500 population, 1,500 are numbered and can be adopted - of which 100 have been taken up to date. Specimens can also be planted as a memorial or in celebration."
Fallen leaves stay where they drop, ready for next season, Viv explains. "As we don't cultivate plants for sale, there's no need for leaf mould for potting on."
Grass clippings are left to rot down and wood chippings go straight onto the site to rot. We don't run any composting and aim to keep all our waste here."
The wilderness area, a mosaic lowland scrub habitat, attracts warblers, bullfinches and chiffchaffs, Viv reveals. The park is home to at least two species of bat.
The lure for wildlife will strengthen further once the pond is re-established in the wilderness, she adds. "We expect to draw in amphibians such as newts, and a range of other pondlife and water birds. Dragonflies pass through, but once we create a suitable environment for them, we hope they will linger."
"Doug is busy developing scrapes for insects and havens for solitary bees by introducing a looser top level of earth."
When wildlife threatens to intrude in ways that threaten park management, the team will take action, but in an environmentally appropriate way. "Our commitment to green practices means we keep a constant eye on chemicals use," Viv explains, "and we try out new ideas whenever possible, like applying mustard to help control worms."
Warley Woods is on a stepped programme of change as it bids to enhance the feeling of "the outdoor room" for visitors and members, whilst offering wider wildlife diversity on the outskirts of Britain's second city.
Celebrating a century of golf provision in 2021, this historic green space is drawing in friends and supporters locally, regionally and internationally, under the expert management of a highly committed team.
Viv speaks for them all when she states: "This special place wins your heart." Dame Julie would certainly agree with that sentiment.
What's in the Shed
Toro 3250 greens mower
Jacobsen TR3 for tees, collars and approaches
Toro 4240 for fairways and the park
Toro 3500 for the rough and rose gardens
Toro Workman 3300 diesel utility vehicle. Total of 6,000 hours completed. "It's been to the moon and back". Use it for heavy duty, moving sand for topdressing or bunker renovations.
Toro Workman MDX electric for raking bunkers, moving holes
Kyoti front loader tractor and cab
Kubota compact tractor (bought from The Chase)
Tractor-mounted sprayer (300l)
Massey Ferguson, 30 years old, yellow. "Here before I took over."
Woodchipper, hauled by the Massey Ferguson
Stihl brushcutters x 2
Stihl chainsaws x 2
Knapsack sprayers to degrease machinery, plus 500ml hand-helds