Tidying up Ulster isn’t a rubbish task when it’s a community effort

Getting ready to go litter picking
Getting ready to go litter picking

Volunteers have been arming themselves with litter pickers and bin bags and getting out to clean up their communities - Helen McGurk was one of them

Readers of a certain vintage will recall the heart-warming 1970s television show The Wombles, the conical-faced furry characters who lived in a burrow under Wimbledon Common and spent their days pottering about picking up litter.

Just some of the rubbish Helen and her neighbours collected on their mile-long stretch of road

Just some of the rubbish Helen and her neighbours collected on their mile-long stretch of road

The lyrics of the show’s jolly theme tune still come easily to mind as the Wombles sang of ‘‘making good use of the things that we find, things that the everyday folks leave behind.’’

Sadly, four decades on, folks are ‘still leaving things behind’; undoubtedly dapper Great Uncle Bulgaria and Orinoco would shake their snouts in disgust at the overground mess we have made of our environment.

The great tragedy of the Wombles, those early recycling pioneers, is that their mission to make their environment tidier is still one that is being fought today by many individuals and organisations around the world.

The selflessness and ecological awareness that the Wombles demonstrated all those years ago, the basic respect they urged for our streets, commons, one another and by extension, the planet, are still missing today.

Which is why, a couple of weekends ago, myself and about 10 of my neighbours decided to come out of our burrows for a day and tidy up our road.

The idea was sparked by the Big Spring Clean, a Province-wide event organised by the charity Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful’s Live Here Love Here programme.

I live in Belfast on a mile-long stretch of road which starts on a carriageway before snaking up into the countryside, past pretty fields with horses and cows and glorious views of the city.

It is road much used by locals, dog-walkers and tourists, as it is beside a beautiful National Trust glen. It is also an artery road for a nearby school. I love walking this road; but what spoils my enjoyment each and every time is the eyesore of litter. I am not just talking about the odd crisp bag or tin can; it’s the hub caps, the beer bottles, the unidentified objects, the detritus dropped by selfish individuals too lazy to take it home and put it in a bin. I’m sure the majority of the waste is dropped by people passing through our patch, not residents.

I’m not sure if, or when, the road has ever been tidied by our council, but it was clear something had to be done as there was years’ worth of litter accumulated along the verges.

So our little community decided to take matters into our own hands and contacted Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, who lent us gloves, bags, litter pickers and high visibility vests for the clean-up operation.

All ages came out to tidy up our little part of Northern Ireland; people who had lived on the road for decades and others new to the area, demonstrating just how deeply people care about the blight of litter on our landscape.

It was also interesting to see how the children in our group responded to the litter challenge - all were genuinely baffled as to why people would dump their rubbish on the roadside. ‘‘Why don’t they just take it home with them,’’ my six-year-old son asked.

Over two hours, the sun shone, we chatted and laughed and collected 12 bin bags of rubbish, including some curiosities - three pairs of underpants (ladies’), a pair of spectacles, two number plates and a plastic bottle of milk dating back to 2013 (with congealed milk contained therein).

Aside from the shock of the intimate apparel, there were a lot of plastic straws, beer bottles, plastic bags, tin cans, chocolate bar wrappers, discarded meal containers, broken glass, cigarette packets, and a few unmentionables for this family newspaper.

The hedgerows, bursting into bloom for spring, and home to wildlife (we spotted a couple of badger setts) hid a shameful amount of waste.

It was amazing - and dispiriting - to see how much mess was lying on our lovely road. But it was also amazing and spirit-lifting to spend time with my neighbours in this common cause, to see the transformation of our road.

Litter is offensive, depressing and incomprehensible. It falls on all of us to take responsibility for our rubbish.

After our clean-up, we were tired and sweaty, but felt a tremendous sense of civic pride.

Thanks to our ‘Wombling’ our road is now pretty as picture. I only hope that the litter louts respect it as much as we do, and our efforts haven’t been a waste of time.