VOLUNTEERS have transformed an overgrown former picnic site in an historic west Suffolk village into a much-loved country park.

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Earlier this year, as part of a restructure in the face of budget cuts, Suffok County Council handed over management of Rodbridge picnic area in Long Melford to a community interest group working with the parish council.

The eight-hectare site, which is part of the ‘Railway Walks’ Local Nature Reserve, is now being maintained by around 50 volunteers under the guidance of the group, Long Melford Open Spaces (LMOS).

On Sunday, a party was held at the site to thank volunteers for restoring the area to its former glory.

The group’s chairman, Reg McKenna, said: “About 18 months ago, the county council made it known that it wanted to divest itself of country parks and recreation areas.

“After negotiating with the council for several months, an agreement was finally signed in October. But the county made its staff redundant on March 31, so we started working at the site from that date to make sure it didn’t fall into rack and ruin. If we hadn’t have come forward, it could have been a case of ‘gates closed’.”

The county council staff have maintained the grassed areas in recent years, but as the site was once an old gravel works, there were several areas of water that had become obscured by undergrowth.

Mr McKenna added: “We started to work on opening up various access points so people could see the site more clearly.

“The area behind us here was completely overgrown, so you couldn’t see there was a pond.

“You can see that the volunteers have done a fabulous job.” One of them, Rob Simpson, whose entire family gave up time to help with the project, said: “It’s a great way to encourage people to get outdoors and do something worthwhile.

“In one of the ponds, we found a Second World War water tank which we persuaded a 4x4 enthusiast to help us pull out. It’s great that so many people in the village have got on board with the project.”

LMOS group member and parish council vice chairman John Nunn said the efforts shown by the community were a great example of the “Big Society” in action.

He added: “Since we have cleared the site, the number of visitors has increased dramatically and they are enjoying being able to explore an area that they haven’t been able to see before.”

The East of England Co-Op has donated nearly £2,500 to LMOS to enable the group to purchase a ride-on lawn mower. Group director, David Gevaux said more volunteers were welcome, adding: “We have a core of around 15 people who work here regularly but we like to support them through the week and once a month on Sundays.

“Anyone local who would be able to give up a few hours to help maintain the site can call me on 01787 371158.”

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