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Lesnes Abbey - foreign language signs

Lesnes Abbey, Belvedere
View from Lesnes Abbey

As you can see, the park rangers do a good job and how they manage against almost nightly onslaughts by revellers I have no idea. But whoever it is that struggles on, “congratulations on a job well done!”

Lesnes Abbey in Belvedere, and the surrounding woodland form an attractive oasis among the urban sprawl and industrial sites of north Bexley. It’s a nice place for a stroll or to show visitors that Belvedere can be quite a pleasant place to live.

And so it was in September 2000 that I took a family group to nearby Lesnes Abbey and one of them remarked on many of the signs being in several foreign languages, none of them instantly recognisable. I didn’t know why, had never really noticed, but it made me wonder why none of the languages were French or Dutch or German as one might expect given the close proximity of London’s International Campsite, half a mile away in Abbey Wood. I wrote to the council on 12th September to ask what justified all those foreign languages.

The reply from Mr. D.J. Coleman (Chief Works and Contracts Officer) on the 19th began by bragging about the National Green Flag Park Award for Lesnes Abbey and eventually got to the point…

There had been a survey by his park rangers to establish the need for signs. One must wonder how, if the visitors were so devoid of English skills as to need their own language signs, they could understand the questions.

Mr. Coleman went on… “The foreign languages advise the public who to contact for translation facilities and are specifically aimed at those residents in the area who are likely to need this service. These include European as well as Eastern languages but not French, German or Dutch because they have no need for a sign. Most have an excellent command of English.”

I was then reprimanded for including this comment in my enquiry. “Many people living nearby are of foreign extraction, most of them Asians, and appear to be both educated and respectable with no need for foreign language signs.”

Apparently this showed I believed that some Asians were neither educated nor respectable and ergo I was a closet racist and the matter could not be further discussed. The usual response of politically correct apparatchiks.

I replied on 30th September complaining about being labelled a racist and asking what proportion of the local population have no command of English. Also whether it was true that he believed the campers at Abbey Wood were much more likely to speak good English than the local population, Mr. Cole having referred to a council survey that supported his views surely must have the figures to hand?

On 5th October Mr. Coleman told me that the languages on the signs were “Punjabi, Cantonese, Bengali, Vietnamese, Urdu, Gujarati, Czechoslovakian and Albanian. This was on the recommendation of the council’s translation services department. The notices have been praised by the Civic Trust and English Heritage.” Mr. Coleman again refused to discuss my other complaint. On 15th October I wrote to Mr. Duffield the Chief Executive and referred to recent comments by Tony Blair and David Blunkett (Bexley was then Labour controlled) which said “the tyranny of political correctness” must be rolled back. “Their viewpoints and mine were as valid as those of Mr. Coleman, would he now apologise for his remarks?” I also drew attention to the fact that the list of languages was at first the result of a survey by park rangers and then a recommendation by the translation service.

Needless to say there was no answer. Bexley council cannot answer any difficult questions or any that expose their shortcomings or paucity of thought.

Across the river in Newham which has the highest level of Asian immigrant residents in the country, they were not then providing foreign language translations on either signs nor their monthly glossy magazine and that is still the case in 2009.

The foreign language signs around Lesnes Abbey have since 2000 disappeared. Perhaps Mr. Coleman has learned to respect the views of others a little more.

September 2009
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