With two toddlers under two and a miniature schnauzer, Leah Aldridge spends a fair amount of time in parks. Add a pandemic into the mix, and this time grows a little more.
It was these increased park trips, coupled with the autumnal turn and fall of the leaves, that inspired her latest project. We lost our human contact in 2020, and this was her way of helping piece it back.
Aldridge is an illustrator and lives in Bromley with her husband Sam, son Sonny, daughter Lola, and Stitch the miniature schnauzer. She illustrated a leaf each day of the second lockdown, leaving them in local parks for others to enjoy.
What began as a creative way to keep occupied while walking with her children has turned into a community-lifting project that is creating a real buzz around Bromley.
She said: “It started as a way of making park visits more entertaining for myself and reaching out to other adults as well as trying to conquer any loneliness that people might be feeling during this time.
“I just wanted to reach out and let the community know that I still wanted to be a part of it.”
Pre-Covid, Aldridge was wardrobe mistress at The Criterion Theatre in the West End, but the show was forced to close early. She decided to make her on-the-side illustration venture a full-time job. Now, when she isn’t illustrating leaves, she is creating everything from murals in nurseries to wedding books.
Leah was inspired by the stone-painting phenomenon of the first lockdown, and wanted to do something similar but use materials found in the park.
At first her designs were park-related – a fox, a squirrel, a child on a scooter. She soon began making the most of having free reign over the designs, a change from commissions. Now there’s even a leaf David Bowie, who lived in Bromley as a child. Leaf Bowie inspired her to start varnishing the leaves, after seeing the effect of a rainy day on his makeup…
The leaves are mostly in Whitehall Recreation Ground in Bromley common, with some in Norman Park in Bromley and Kelsey Park in Beckenham.
It was in Whitehall Recreation Ground that 11-year-old Isla Morris and her friends found three. Isla was thrilled to find one illustrated with a fox, her favourite animal.
She said: “It made me feel inspired and really warm inside to see that someone had done that.
“I thought that the type of leaf that she chose was very good. There are so many different leaves and this particular leaf was very large and had a lot of room to paint on.”
Isla lives with her parents and sister in Farnborough Village. She has been inspired to start her own leaf-painting project and her mum Marina has been sourcing leaves for her in the garden. She thinks she’ll start with an acorn design.
Emma Pritchard, 30, was also delighted to find a leaf. She hasn’t found lockdown too lonely, but as a self-employed writer missed working with other people.
She said: “I was genuinely so happy to see the leaf – it was the cutest and most joyful thing. It definitely brightened up a very average working day and was such a nice reminder that everyone is going through the same thing.”
A report by The Campaign to End Loneliness published in July revealed that millions of people say loneliness is affecting their wellbeing as a result of lockdown. At Bromley Council, tackling loneliness was on the agenda even before the pandemic.
Aisha Cuthbert, councillor for Shortlands Ward and executive support assistant to the leader of the council, spearheaded an initiative to tackle loneliness which began last year. It focuses on three groups the council felt most needed support: older people (65+), new mothers, and children leaving care.
Bromley has the largest population of older people of any London Borough, but Cuthbert is keen to support all ages. She said: “Loneliness can affect anyone at any stage in their life – it doesn’t discriminate.”
Cuthbert, 33, struggled with loneliness after having her son Ethan, who is now one. During lockdown she organised a virtual loneliness conference and is putting together a comprehensive calendar of relevant events for residents. For her, the challenge is getting the message out about what is available.
She urged anyone feeling lonely or wanting to start a project in their area to contact their councillor or local resident’s association.