By New Worker correspondent
JUST over a year ago the people of Charlton in south east London noticed council workers installing a variety of exercise machines in a corner of Charlton Park, close to the path where hundreds of people every day cut through from various estates to the village shops and bus stops, on their way to work, shopping or whatever.
The council workers also erected a couple of basket ball nets and a five-a-side football sized goal with a small kick-about area and a long wall with irregular hand and footholds for would-be climbers to make their way along.
The equipment was checked and then just left. For anyone and everyone to use, as and when they wanted to. No formalities, no joining a club, no commitments to turn up regularly. Just use as you want to, as the mood takes you.
And it has been a roaring success. It is almost continually in use at all times of day and late into the night. It has its busy times, mostly in the evenings but it is rare to pass it at any time of day and not find at least one or two people using it.
It is used by schoolchildren coming home from school, by young men and women, by early morning joggers, by the middle aged and occasionally the elderly. It is used by all shades and colours of Londoners as well as new arrivals from the Third World and eastern Europe. Women’s fitness clubs turn up to use it regularly, as do budding sports enthusiasts. Small children who cannot reach to use the equipment as intended find ingenious different ways to use it. People who have heard about it come from miles around to use it.
So far there are no reports of anyone being hurt using it, nor any serious arguments developing over it. And it has never been vandalised in any way.
Earlier this year two solid table-tennis tables were added. We thought that the wind would make outdoor ping-pong impossible. We were proved wrong. At first the tables were used mainly by young immigrants from the Far East but their enthusiasm has spread and now locals are taking up ping-pong.
The young men who used to meet regularly at a certain park bench at dusk to talk and trade in small paper packages have moved on – or given up and joined the free gym users. The spot is now much too public for that sort of trade. And the free gym undermines that trade in another way – it needs customers who are truly bored with their lives and there are now fewer of those.
The free gym was put up after a couple of Greenwich councillors who, in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, went out to Beijing just before the 2008 Olympics to study the way the Chinese authorities prepared there. Apparently they noticed these small free gyms erected in parks throughout the Chinese capital and thought they were a good idea.
Free access to sport for all was a way to get local people interested in the games. But did those councillors realise they were importing dangerous communist ideas?
They decided to try a couple in the London Borough of Greenwich to see how they worked out; they would then roll out the scheme to every park in the borough – and other boroughs might take it up.
Greenwich also pioneered the free swimming for over-60s scheme that the new Con-Dem government has just axed – even though it can hardly have cost the borough anything – a few extra people in the pool at off-peak times cannot have added to the running costs.
Likewise the free gym, once erected it cannot cost the borough much to maintain it.
But there are some in the new government who abhor in principle the idea that anything should ever be free. It is part of their ideology; they will claim it is unfair on the commercial gyms in the area that charge people a fortune so only the well off can afford to use them.
Will the borough continue with the free gym and expand it as planned? Or will the Government squash the whole idea as far too communist? We shall wait and see.