We have all been talking a lot about level 2, 3 and 4 interventions of the kind that were provided to parents by GETSET. In all of this, it’s easy to forget the value of just having a friendly, affordable, well equipped playgroup available.
I want to share my experience as a new mum in Somerset during the floods of 2012. How isolating my situation was, and what a lifeline the stay and play groups at the children’s centre were for me.
I moved from BANES to Somerset when my little boy was only a few months old. I am a traveller and we were living in a caravan on a green lane in the middle of nowhere. This isn’t something I speak of lightly in public. I have come to expect harassment for the crime of living in a caravan. I ask people to place their opinions about the travelling community to one side for a minute.
I had my little boy by cesarean section and had a difficult recovery. I was already diagnosed with PTSD after losing my first baby to medical negligence. I also have a physical disability. There was one other mum and child living on the site with us but she moved off to somewhere closer to civilisation, meaning that when my husband was off working long days it was just me and my baby boy, and the dogs, for hours and hours every day. Somerset at the time was suffering extreme rainfall. My little boy never saw a sunny day for the whole first year of his life. It started the day he was born and it did not stop. When you live in a caravan in a sea of mud that is seriously limiting. The road to the site flooded and was only accessible by 4×4. We couldn’t move off if we wanted to.
I was isolated, terribly bored, in pain and becoming increasingly stressed. Everything we owned was getting ruined by the mud. We couldn’t keep our clothes nice and our buggy was always muddy. This had been a nice place to live, if a little isolated, until the rain started. Now it was a nightmare.
I joined some baby yoga and swimming classes even though they were 10 miles away. They cost a small fortune, plus fuel, and I had to bear the funny looks from the other mums. If I told them I lived in a caravan than that, combined with the mud, meant I’d generally never be spoken to again. I felt I had to hide my way of life from the other mums. I would tell half-truths, that our “place” was flooded and that’s why I was so dirty. I was embarrassed that they thought I was scruffy. We weren’t starving but I couldn’t afford those designer pushchairs or the smart, understated, Boden-catalogue clothes. The local mums were a real “yummy mummy” crowd and we simply had no shared experience. You can be more alone in a room full of people than on your own sometimes.
When my son was nearly 1, the site became so flooded we were forced to move, dragging our caravans through the flood and bumping them along the washed-away road. We were offered a pitch on a private yard on the quiet. There was no planning permission or tenant protection. When we got there, we discovered the landlord had not installed the water supply, electricity or toilet. He still wanted £100 a week but we had nowhere else to go due to the flooding. The yard was isolated and I spent most of my time going back and forth to the launderette 10 miles away. It was miserable. My physical disability began to deteriorate and I was in agony but there was no help available to me. The yard owner had said he wanted families living there, but they never materialised. He was still using it as a scrap yard and it was not safe for my little boy to play outside.
It was about this time that I discovered the children’s centre. I can’t remember how I found out about it. Maybe I saw a poster or something online. We attended our first messy play session and it was a revelation. It was clean and dry. There was space to run around indoors and out. There were all the toys and sensory activities we didn’t have room for at home. The staff were kind and full of good advice. The mums were just…..normal. Some of them were struggling too, none of them were picture-perfect, and we could open up about the problems we were having without being judged. All this, and it only cost a pound. Amazing!
We became regulars. We left the yard where we were staying soon enough as Somerset slowly dried out. Went back out on the road because it was better than where we were living. My first port of call in our new location was the children’s centre. In time we were able to buy a piece of land near Glastonbury and settle there in order for my little boy to go to school. The children’s centre has been a constant in my children’s lives.
Extreme weather came again in 2014, but this time, we had somewhere safe and warm to play. My physical disability worsened, my child began to show signs of autism, we went through hell with planning permission, and through it all I had a support network of parents and staff. Me and my children have made friends for life at the Children’s centre.
When the cuts began, we braced for the worst. Groups went down to one a week, the old centre was sold off and replaced with a new facility in the library. We were all pleasantly surprised to see how lovely the new centre was. Now barely a year later we are told it will close. It will all go. We tried to fight it, but the decision was made so quickly we were swept aside by Somerset County Council.
They’re not just closing a playgroup. They are breaking up a group of kids who have grown up together, and depriving future children and parents of having that community of support. Now if parents want to meet up somewhere indoors and play with their children the options are limited to expensive cafés or driving to Wells or Somerton for expensive soft play. There are a couple of privately-run playgroups locally but they cost £5-7 per child. Some of the GETSET parents have 4 children and are on the breadline. As I’m writing this the rain is lashing my home. A few days ago, in Street, the old Crispin shopping centre was flooded. Where will those children play if we have another year of rain?
New mums and babies turn up to stay and play almost every week. I can only imagine how lonely and isolated they will be without a children’s centre. There was nothing like the stay and play. It was affordable even if you were skint. If you didn’t have £1 nobody said anything. It was friendly. You had parents from all social classes and all walks of life. It didn’t come with a side helping of religion and it was always completely non-judgemental.
It’s not just the end of the children’s centre. It’s the end of an era. The council say a fund is being provided to set up volunteer groups, but this isn’t possible. The Glastonbury stay and play catered to hundreds of families, including many of the neediest and most troubled in our community. For a replacement to run safely there must be trained and paid staff. These children cannot be effectively safeguarded by well-meaning ladies in a church hall somewhere. They need a proper support network and children’s services oversight.
If anyone from Somerset C.C. is reading this. It’s not too late to reconsider.