Alan Barber: champion of the people's parks
Alan Barber has spent his life in parks: working in them, campaigning for them, and latterly playing in them with his grandchildren. They are, he says ‘one of this country's greatest cultural achievements', but they have been betrayed.
With a combination of practical expertise and reforming zeal, Alan has fought unceasingly for better public understanding of the value of parks, together with dedicated funds for their upkeep. His work has helped to secure the millions of pounds spent on restoring public parks in the past decade.
Born on 11 June 1942 in Southport, Lancashire, Alan began work at the age of 16 as an indentured apprentice with Southport Parks Department. His love of wide open spaces was engendered by a childhood playing in the sandhills around Birkdale and Southport, and was reinforced by an awareness of his father's hatred of nine-to-five office life.
‘His escape from the drudgery was to grow chrysanthemums. That got me interested in growing stuff, so he bought me a greenhouse that I erected myself when I was about 14 and I grew plants to sell to the local florist,' recalls Alan.
Early on, Alan showed signs of the dissenting nature that has led him always to question the system and those in authority.
‘The local council's idea of day release was to shove us in the back of classes at the local technical college for anything they could find that was even remotely relevant. We rebelled because we'd heard that in Liverpool their apprentices went to a proper class where they got taught botany and horticulture, and we insisted we be part of that!' he laughs.
Leaving Southport at the age of 21, Alan went to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in 1963, where he completed two years before deciding that he'd had enough of being a student and needed to earn some money in order to get married.
He got a job with the Lancashire playing fields service, where his boss was delighted to recruit a technical officer with Kew training. ‘He wanted school grounds to be much more horticultural. It's common now, but it wasn't then,' explains Alan, ‘so I was designing schemes for the front gardens of schools as well as doing the basic work.'
While there, Alan learned the ancient art of dowsing, which was used to detect old drains beneath playing fields. Each area manager would travel with a pair of copper welding rods bent at right angles in the back of the car. ‘We got accused in the profession of practising black magic, but we said scoff as much as you like, because it works!' he laughs.
Moving on to Middleton Borough Council (now part of Rochdale, Manchester) in 1968, Alan's third job had the grand title of Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation and Deputy Registrar of Cemeteries and Crematoria. ‘But the grade was AP3 and the salary was only about £1200 per annum,' he grins.