Meet the woman who's brought joy to the lives of thousands of children in West Howe (From Bournemouth Echo)
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Paddy Williamson on what inspired her to start Fernheath Play scheme in West Howe
She is so gentle and so beautifully spoken it is hard to equate the words coming out of her mouth with the woman before me, setting out cups and saucers on a tray.
“When I was a toddler my mum was very ill, she had some sort of crisis, I don’t know what but someone mentioned a homicidal mania,” says Paddy.
“For some reason my grandmother came back from the shops earlier than usual one day and saw my mother about to kill me.”
So acute was the crisis that she was ‘whipped off to mental hospital’.
“They took her away because she was dangerous, my father had always told me she was always frightened she might attack us children so he would lock up sharp things before he went to work.”
She describes how her grandmother moved in to care for the family while her mother was treated with electro convulsive therapy and strong tranquilisers.
Not that Paddy was aware of much of this, indeed, she only learned the full truth as an adult after suffering a graphic nightmare, reliving the experience. Her brother explained that before he died, their father had told him what happened.
At this point it’s important to stress that I have had to prise this information from Paddy, sentence by sentence. She is no attention-seeker and has only agreed to this interview to publicise the on-going needs of Fernheath Play, an organisation which has brought joy to the lives of thousands of less advantaged children in the West Howe area. And which – although these things can never be quantified – has probably prevented violence, crime and episodes such as the one she suffered, all those years ago.
Paddy spent her childhood living on a converted wooden lifeboat in Cobbs Quay at Poole. She still has the vessel’s wheel and bell in her conservatory.
“We arrived in 1951,” she says.
“It was small and cramped and not designed for living; I was aware of the tension in my family, they were under a lot of pressure with health and money problems and always the worry that my mother would become ill again. I think I always had a subconscious fear of my mother.”
Despite the stresses there were many happy moments. “It’s a posh marina now but then it was full of old wrecks and on the shore there was an abandoned double-decker bus,” she says. Paddy and her friends colonised it and spent their days messing around and building camps.
Also in the quay was a redundant torpedo boat which belonged to a young mother who was happy to let the gangs play in and around her home. “I realise now she kept an eye on us but never appeared to,” says Paddy.
“She was a safe, calm presence and she gave me another role model to imitate, she showed me there was another way of relating to people other than with emotions or anxiety.”
It was, perhaps, the memory of this lady and of the happy play days that triggered Paddy’s desire to recreate something similar for the children of West Howe, all those years ago in 1975.
She had married and worked as a social worker in the Midlands, observing that so many of the problems she encountered could be prevented by merely doing something to take the stress off hard-pressed parents.
“It was so ridiculous that we didn’t have the time to do preventative work,” she says.
She had also read a book about the adventure playground movement, which started in Europe and, after feeling that there was little to entertain children in her immediate area, decided this was exactly what was needed.
“Looking out of my window I saw this green field opposite and felt some connection with it,” she says.
“I took my children to play there, got chatting to the warden at the local youth club and said we needed somewhere more interesting for the children to play.”
She was introduced to local stalwart Ted Taylor and they and a small band of helpers set up a pilot playscheme.
The memory of this amuses her. Yes, she’d helped get up a 500-signature petition to prove demand was there. And she couldn’t see any difficulty in raising a few thousand pounds to get things off the ground. “But I don’t think I had any idea what we were all getting into,” she smiles.
And what she was getting into was this: 38 years worth of fun, frolics and safe play for the children, including indoor and outdoor games, sports and outings for children of school age, every weekend, after school, every school holiday, all year round, with mother-and-toddler sessions.
They also have a scheme for children with disabilities and Special Educational Needs. But there were funding issues, health and safety headaches and bureaucracy for those that took on the responsibility for making this part of Bournemouth a better place.
Paddy is keen to make sure everyone knows that she has had immense support, especially from Ted Taylor. But it’s also true that she is still fighting for Fernheath behind the scenes – even while she battled cancer.
Initially funding was strong but cutbacks have ensured that applying for grants and awards is practically a full-time job for her. And, as awarding bodies tend to prefer new projects, convincing them of the sheer benefit of Fernheath is sometimes hard.
Harder still is that she can’t share with me, for reasons of confidentiality, the specific and appalling pressure some people are under.
“I hear stories that would make the front page of the Echo every week, shocking things that indicate the difficulties so many families are suffering,” she says.
What she wants more than anything is for a large company or secret millionaire to settle a sum upon Fernheath Play that would enable them to employ either an administrator or paid fundraiser to take their revenue onto a firmer footing.
I ask her why she does it, why she stays up nights and scrimps on family time to write lottery bids and contact potential sources of income.
She tells me she is inspired by the example of Mother Theresa, who she once heard preach.
“What motivates me is the thought that we all want to be loved and my way of loving people in this area and the children isn’t by hugging them but writing begging letters and filling in lottery forms,” she smiles.