When Paul Rabbitts took over responsibility for Watford’s parks, three had Green Flag status. The town now boasts 17. But that is only part of the legacy the man affectionately known as ‘Mr Parks’ has left as he embarks on new challenges by the Essex coast.

Paul has swapped suburban Hertfordshire for the seaside to become the new head of parks and open spaces at Southend on Sea Borough Council after more than a decade with Watford Borough Council where he also oversaw the multi-million pound transformation of Cassiobury Park, turning it into one of the top-ten parks in the country, the creation of Oxhey Activity Park and achieving that record level of recognition this year.

It is Cassiobury though, which is the favourite achievement of Watford’s former head of parks, heritage and culture who reflected on his 11-year career in the town when he spoke to the Watford Observer this week.

He said: “I remember my first day at work I parked in Cassiobury Park and walking up through it I was thinking ‘this is huge’. I’d done lottery projects before and restored parks elsewhere in my previous job and the chap who used to run the HLF [National Lottery Heritage Fun] lottery fund said ‘Watford’s never really done anything as far as HLF lottery funding money’ and that was ringing in my ears.

“So as I was walking through Cassiobury for those first two to three weeks I was thinking ‘this is huge, it’s a lovely park but it needs to be excellent’. That’s where it started from but the outcome is fabulous.

Watford Observer:

Paul with Watford museum curator Sarah Priestley and their books on Cassiobury Park

“It’s a top-ten park, it deserves to be top ten. I’m a parks geek, I’ve looked at parks all over the country and I’ve been wandering around one of my new parks this morning and Cassiobury is one of the finest, top five.

“I’m very, very pleased with it but there’s always things to do with parks. It’s not the end. You don’t just restore a park and that’s it. You’ve got to continue improving, maintaining and managing it, continue engaging with those who use it – it’s that important – and the infrastructure is there at Cassiobury now which allows Watford to do that.”

The £6.6 million project, which received £5m in lottery funding, included the refurbishment of the Cha Café, the upgrade of the paddling pools and new changing and toilet facilities in the Cassiobury Park hub. One of the first parts of the redevelopment though, was the relocation of the bandstand back into the park – part of the scheme which holds some of Paul’s fondest memories.

Watford Observer:

The redeveloped pools in Cassiobury Park

Paul, who has written more than 20 books including ones on bandstands and parks, said: “I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to bandstands and putting that back was wonderful. I remember opening it with [former mayor] Dorothy Thornhill, that was fun and I really enjoyed that day.”

Born in rural County Durham surrounded by countryside, the outdoors has always been a major part of Paul’s life. But he believes his appreciation of parks stems from attending what is now Sheffield Hallam University “living in the big bad city and using some of the parks there, particularly the Sheffield Botanical Gardens which I loved”.

“It comes from that and it’s grown and grown,” he said, before laughing: “It’s an obsession. It’s really terrible!”

Paul’s move to Southend was motivated by wanting a new challenge, explaining: “I’m 57 this year and in the latter stages of my career what else can I do? This job came up. I’ve done unitaries (unitary authories), I’ve done north-east industrial, I’ve done Cumbrian, I’ve done Watford which was fabulous and now I’m doing a seaside town that’s got a lot of challenges.”

Describing his post as in Watford as a “dream job”, Paul explained: “I like to do things, I like to make changes, I like to do projects and I like to make a difference. That’s why I work in the public sector. I want to make that difference and that was the opportunity that came up in Watford.”

That opportunity also saw him set his staff a challenge to improve on the three green flags – the award that acknowledges parks and open spaces with the highest environmental, maintenance and visitor standards – the town had at the time.

Watford Observer:

The opening of Oxhey Activity Park

That number has now increased to 17 and Paul praised Dorothy Thornhill and the current elected mayor of Watford Peter Taylor for the backing they had given to the town’s parks.

He said: “Dorothy and Peter, the political support they’ve put behind parks is incredible and it allowed us to do it. You can do all kinds of stuff if politicians are behind it and there’s some money behind it and we had that drive and enthusiasm to do it.”

Asked what he would miss about Watford, Paul replied: “Oh that’s easy. The people I worked with. Many colleagues are now friends for life and for that reason it was always going to be difficult to leave.

“I was known for wearing loud, colourful and flowery shirts and as part of my leaving present they wanted to buy me the most awful shirt they could find. What they bought me I totally loved. I am assuming it was disguised affection from them.”