Whenever images of the old Venchie playgrounds are publicised, they generate comment and stories as people remember playing there. From the early days of Wester Hailes there was a recognition that local children, particularly those living in the high rises needed access to somewhere where there was adventurous play with sand, water, building materials and climbable structures. The playgrounds were altered on a regular basis in response to children’s comments and suggestions. In 1979 in a story on support for the Venchie, the Sentinel commented
The problems of Wester Hailes children should concern all of us who live here, not just their parents. We should all share in creating a community in which they will mature happily and healthily.
As early as 1976, local people from Murrayburn were putting together plans for a playground. Land was leased from the Social Work Department and planning permission was given for an Adventure Playground. It quickly became known as The Venchie and was well known locally as reported in the Sentinel January 1981. After a couple of years of hard work fundraising, the main structures were in place. In 1980 grants from the Scottish Development Agency, Lothian Regional Council and Central Government meant that playworkers could be employed. In 1983, the Sentinel reported on developments at The Venchie. You can read the report by clicking here on Sentinel May 1983
The success of The Venchie encouraged other neighbourhoods to set up similar playgrounds. In 1977, a group from the Calders worked together to try and establish supervised play facilities. They faced similar funding issues and had to wait until 1980 when funding was secured through the Youth Opportunities Programme. The Calders playground was sited on the edge of the Calders housing development. It took longer to build as funding for the work needed to be worked out. In the end, a Y.O.P. scheme was favoured with trainees carrying out the construction. You can read about the plans for the Calders Playground by clicking here on Calders in the Sentinel.
Local residents from Hailesland, Dumbryden, Kingsknowe and Longstone formed a group to set up a playground for their children. They built the Quarrie Venchie during 1980 and 1981, next to the Cleansing Department Depot in Dumbryden. At the same time, a community base was built, creating an area for the whole community to use. You can read about the work and activities by clicking here on Hailes Park Sentinel.
Clovenstone residents were also looking for land for a playground and when a lease came up for some land on the edge of Clovenstone, they were able to have a playground built there. Work had to be put into getting planning permission as the playground was sited on land belonging to the Education Department. The team responsible for the playground also had to build strong links with the school, forming a partnership to ensure the area could be used to its full potential. You can read about the Clovenstone Venchie by clicking here on Clovenstone Venchie.
Although the playgrounds were developed separately and had their own committees, they worked together to co-ordinate activities across Wester Hailes. In April 1981, the Wester Hailes Play Forum was set up to manage all four adventure playgrounds and to co-ordinate their activities. They also prioritised involving children and young people in the decision-making about the playgrounds- what should be provided, how the areas should be developed, what activities could be organised and run. This meant that local children felt that the playgrounds belonged to them and were somewhere they could meet up safely.
Play was supervised and children were encouraged to take an active role in deciding what the playgrounds should have in them and what changes needed to be made over the years. The report, “Wester Hailes Ten Years On” makes the point that the Venchies were built and adapted over the years to reflect what children were asking for rather than being an adult’s idea of what children wanted.
The Venchies provoked a mixed response from parents, but were extremely popular with children. Unfortunately, the playgrounds’ existence were relatively short lived. In 1989, the Sentinel reported on the dismantling of the original Venchie. Lack of funds had made it impossible to maintain its upkeep and it had become unsafe. The playground had survived previous near disasters including a fire. You can read the full story here.
The Venchies were in many ways ahead of their times. There is perhaps now a greater understanding that children need to experience play with an element of risk and challenge, play that is unstructured, that makes use of natural elements, enables children of different ages to play together, with play areas that are designed in consultation with local children and the wider community. An extensive report by Play England demonstrates the value of this type of play and details examples of good practice, including several playgrounds in Stirling. Pictures of the Venchie playgrounds would not have looked out of place!
Edinburgh is currently engaged in improving its play area facilities and has produced a Play Action Plan for the next five years. The plan aims to increase the number of households that meet the Play Access Standard which recommends that every house and flat in the city should have access to a play space of good value within 800m walking distance, of very good value within 1,200m walking distance and of excellent play value within 2,000m walking distance. It also upholds the importance of natural materials, free play and the value of risk. And it states that
The views, opinions and experience of children and young people should be central to the development of play policies and especially the planning and design of the environments in which they play.
Whilst the era of the Venchies is now long gone, perhaps we’ll see more of their successors both here and in other parts of the city.