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Discover the greener side to a bustling South Yorkshire village. Chris Titley reports Photographs by Elilizabeth Savage
They love the open air in Wickersley. If theyre not walking in the woods, theyre strolling in the park. That may not be obvious on first arriving at this busy village just east of Rotherham, as youre most like to find yourself on the dual carriageway that runs through it. But spend any time here and youll find an abundance of open spaces just waiting to be explored.
Perhaps the most remarkable of these is Winthrop Park. A few years back this was a disused sewage works, home to little more than a run-down shack, waist-high grass and weeds galore.
But David and Carol Bowser saw something here that no one else could. David had previously suffered a stroke and spent a lot of time recuperating in his garden. It struck him that access to a tranquil outdoors setting had been crucial to his recovery, and the couple set about creating a community therapy park.
It took a lot of work. More than 18 tons of dumped scrap metal and fly-tipped rubbish had to be removed from the site, along with 26 tons of contaminated soil and rubble.
In their place were planted more than 15,000 plants, shrubs and trees, with disable access pathways created so Winthrop Park could be enjoyed by all. David and Carol have achieved their aim: the gardens fill the senses and boost positivity, while the Chataways tea room is a light-filled caf perfect for friends to catch up over a cake.
If youre looking for a slightly wilder walk, then nearby Wickersley Woods the place to go. This has been woodland for at least 400 years, being the preserve of the Earl of Shrewsbury in the 17th century. Today its looked after by the parish council and open to all. Many creatures can be spotted among the oak and birch trees, including grey squirrels, brown hare, foxes and if youre lucky, a pygmy shrew. The spotted flycatcher, nuthatch, treecreeper and sparrowhawk also make their home in the woods.
Timber from the site had previously been used to fuel the steel and leather industries, but now the 13 acre site is carefully conserved for future generations to enjoy.
There must have some green-fingered parish councillors in Wickersley because theyre also responsible for many of the Wickersley Gorse acres as well. With its stream and bluebells, this may once have been woodland too but now its been described as the secret valley of the village. Add to that both the Doorstep Green and Bob Mason recreation grounds, the cricket club, the bowling club and the allotments, and you have an abundance of green spaces.
Its a surprise discovery, because Wickersley seems resolutely urban, having shrugged off its heritage as an agricultural village in the post-war years. Today it has a cosmopolitan vibe. The 1960s-built Tanyard shopping centre, named after the farm that stood here two generations ago, has been joined by the two-level Hastings Court development. Across the road is The Courtyard, a square with independent shops, businesses, a wine bar and bistro.
Although most of the properties date from after the war, there is history here, notably St Albans Church, with its medieval tower, and Wickersley Hall. But the more modern additions are just as striking: impressive new buildings at Wickersley School & Sports College, and Wickersley Community Centre and Library.
The community centre has become a hub for all sorts of activities. Among its many uses is as the rehearsal venue for one of the villages most enduring institutions, Wickersley Musical Theatre Company. Since its inception in 1966, this has gone from being a group of enthusiasts staging shows at the school to a 75-strong company mounting productions at Rotherham Civic Theatre with a budget of 25,000 overseen by a professional director.
Bob Brown, a retired civil servant who lives just outside Wickersley, has been associated with amateur theatre since the 1960s. When he returned to his South Yorkshire roots following retirement, he was invited to help out at the theatre company. By help out, I thought that meant maybe help with direction or some acting training. However it was to play the lead role of Henry Higgins! I did that, and thoroughly enjoyed it and became a member, he said.
Today hes the business manager of a very active organisation which also includes the Wickersley Young Stars junior company. While the youngsters rehearse in summer and stage an autumn show this year its Annie Jr their seniors begin rehearsals in September with a production the following spring.
Come March 3rd next year, the Wickersley Musical Theatre Company will be staging one of the all-time favourites: the Sound of Music. You can imagine the interest that auditioning children for the Sound of Music has, said Bob. We anticipate therell be a hundred or more children coming along to get noticed, from a 20-mile area.
Its a sign of the creativity in this neck of the woods that Wickersley can sustain such an ambitious theatre when you consider that Maltby is three or four miles up the road and theyve got a very active company as well, added Bob.
Then theyve got a couple of musical companies in Rotherham. So theres fierce but friendly competition between the companies over what shows everyone doing, how well its going to do, whos playing the lead roles.
And its the friendliness, rather than the rivalry, that makes Wickersley special, said Bob. I lived in Wickersley until three years ago. I love the place. Its handily placed for going into Rotherham or Sheffield. Its a friendly little place. South Yorkshire is very much that way.
Getting there: Wickersley couldnt be better connected its close to Rotherham, a short distance from where the M1 meets the M18
Where to park: Try Tanyard car park on Bawtry Road
What to do: Walk in the woods or round Winthrop Park. Visit nearby Roche Abbey, the ruins of an English Cistercian monastery now maintained by English Heritage. Browse and buy in the villages many independent shops