Each week we will showcase a park in the country that we really think is quite special. It may have historical value, cultural heritage, or strong community involvement. It really does not matter but we will pick one a week that we think should be showcased.
Forbury Gardens, Reading
Forbury Gardens is a small public park in the Berkshire town of Reading. The park is on the site of the outer court of Reading, which was in front of the Abbey Church. Despite its peace and tranquillity of today, it has a bloody and grim past.
Reading Abbey was founded in 1121, by Henry I, and for the next four centuries it dominated the town, becoming one of the most influential establishments in England. Like other such monasteries, Reading had a forbury, or ‘borough in front’, an area of open land which provided a meeting place between the abbey and the town. The forbury in Reading was part of the outer court of the abbey, and provided a market place as well as a meeting place.In 1150, what is now Forbury Hill was constructed to help fortify the abbey during the civil war between King Henry I’s daughter, Matilda and his nephew, Stephen. The abbey was largely destroyed in 1538 during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The last abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon, was subsequently tried and convicted of high treason and hung, drawn and quartered in front of the abbey church. After this, the buildings of the abbey were extensively robbed, with lead, glass and facing stones removed for reuse elsewhere, and the focus of the town moved away from the forbury.
Reading suffered badly during the English Civil War, being occupied at different time by both sides. During the siege of Reading (1642-3), the royalist garrison built defences that further damaged the remains of the abbey, and Forbury Hill was used as a gun emplacement. As a result of the concerns sparked in England by the French Revolution, and throughout the ensuing Napoleonic Wars, the forbury was used for military drills and parades, in addition to its well-established use for fairs and circuses. Three annual fairs were generally held on the forbury, but the most significant was the Michaelmas Fair, held in September. This fair became known as the Reading Cheese Fair, although cattle, horses and hops were also sold, and it served as the principal local hiring fair.
By the first years of the nineteenth century, the western part of the forbury was in use as a playground or sports ground for Reading School, which at this time was housed in the former Hospitium of St John. However, the whole of the forbury was in private ownership, and disputes were common as to the common rights of the town and the rights of the school.In 1854, Forbury Hill and the eastern section of the present gardens were sold to Reading Corporation at the cost of £1200, of which £400 was donated by the previous owner, a Mr Wheble. The resulting gardens were planned with a ‘botanical character’, a fountain and a summer house, and became known as the ‘Pleasure Gardens’. Work started in 1855 and the ‘Pleasure Gardens’ opened on Easter Sunday in 1856. A tunnel was built on the eastern side in 1859 to link the gardens and the abbey ruins.
The success of the pleasure gardens contrasted with the situation in the western part of the forbury, which was still used for fairs. After one fair, the area was described as being covered ‘with heaps of oyster shells, manure and other refuse’. In 1860, this section of the forbury was purchased by the town for £6,010 from Colonel Blagrave. It was decided that fairs should no longer be held there, but the emphasis remained on recreational use rather than botanical display, with the area grassed except for the outside walks and a gravelled parade ground.The common ownership notwithstanding, the two halves of the forbury remained very different in character, and separated by a wall. However, in 1869 the town purchased 12 acres of King’s Meadow, the abbey’s former water meadow by the River Thames, as a recreation ground. This paved the way for the incorporation, in 1873, of the western part of the forbury into the gardens, which then became known as Forbury Gardens.Various features were introduced to the gardens. The Maiwand lion statue was erected in 1886 to commemorate the loss of 286 soldiers (though the exact number varies by account) from the 66th Royal Berkshire Regiment at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan on the 27 July 1880.The sculptor of this 31-foot statue was George Blackall Simonds and was unveiled in December 1886. It is often known locally as the Forbury Lion.A cross in memory of Henry I was also erected, at about the same time as the Maiwand lion, on the north-west corner of the footings of the abbey church. The Victoria gates on the southern side of the gardens commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. The shields on the gates are those of the borough and the abbey.
The gardens today are now simply exquisite after a grand re-opening event took place on 14 May, 2005, to mark the completion of a one-year restoration project. The National Lottery awarded Reading Borough Council £2.25 million to restore the historic features of the Forbury Gardens and improve safety and access for visitors. Work in the gardens themselves has included the restoration of the Maiwand lion, the bandstand, water feature and the garden’s walls, fencing and gateways. A new keeper’s lodge also includes a refreshment kiosk, public toilets and facilities for a resident gardener. Managed by landscape architects, LDA Design, Forbury Gardens won a principal award in the BALI National Landscape Awards in 2005. The council now organises regular summer concerts in the bandstand on Sunday afternoons during July and August with the Green Flag Award winning gardens very much today, well maintained and managed, and no longer the haunt of vandals, drug users and other miscreants.
Cassiobury Park, Watford
Cassiobury Park is the most significant and most popular green space in the Hertfordshire town of Watford, forming part of a wide network of green spaces stretching from the town centre west towards the wider countryside. It is a landscape with significant historical interest comprising part of the former Cassiobury Estate, which is recognised with its inclusion on the Historic England Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. Twice the size of Hyde Park, the central part of the park is a designated Local Nature Reserve and has important woodland and wetland habitats, whilst Whippendell Wood is the largest area of woodland in Watford and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). At present, the park provides many recreational opportunities for the people of Watford and well beyond, ranging from formal sports such as croquet, cricket, bowls, tennis and football to informal recreation activities such as walking the dog, having a picnic or relaxing on one of the many benches and reading a book; to enjoying a quiet cup of coffee at the Cha tea pavilion or enjoying the fun and frolics of the popular Cassiobury Pools. The park also provides a venue for a wide variety of popular events, from sponsored walks to the annual fireworks display, which attracts over 40,000 visitors annually. With such a wide catchment area, it is estimated that there are well over two million visits per year to the park alone with many visitors who simply ‘holiday’ in the park every summer. Yet despite its popularity, the history of this parkland is truly fascinating and in a word, immense.
The manor of Cassio, in the ownership of the Abbey of St Albans, was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 and is understood to have been a heavily wooded area. Following the dissolution of the Abbey of St Albans, Henry VIII granted Cassio to Richard Morison in 1546. Soon after Richard Morison gained possession, he began building ‘a fair and large house, situated upon a dry hill, not far from a pleasant river in a fair park . . .’, however, the house was not completed in his lifetime, but was later achieved by his son Charles Morison. The male line of Morisons ended in 1628 and Elizabeth Morison married Arthur, Lord Capel of Hadham. Their son, Arthur was created Viscount Malden and Earl of Essex in 1661. The estate was to remain in the Capel family until the sale of the estate in 1922. The first Earl of Essex employed the gardener Moses Cooke to set out formal gardens, and Britton comments these were laid out ‘strictly in the French style’. The gardens contained fountains and statues, flights of stairs and terraces, summer houses, green houses, hot houses and rock work. There was an abundance of trees and woodland areas which included oak, silver birch, Spanish chestnut, beech, elm and fir. Later additions are thought to have included a pleasure garden with lawns paths and dells, and a Chinese style garden with buildings and structures. The original garden plan shows geometric shapes, artificial clumps of trees and avenues and is attributed to Moses Cooke and the First Earl of Essex.
“One Night (me thoughts) walking up one of my Lords line-walks, I heard the grateful Trees thus Paying the Tribute of their thanks to his Lordship:
Like Pyramids our Stately Tops wee’l Raise,
To Sing Our Noble Benefactor’s Praise
Freshly we will to After-ages show
What Noble Essex did on us bestow;
For we our very Bieng owe to him,
Or else we had long since entombed been
In Crop of Bird, or un Beasts Belly found,
Or meet our Death neglected on the ground;
By him we cherish’d were with Dung and Spade,
For which wee’l recompence him with our Shade;
And since his kindness saw us prun’d so well,
We will Requite him with our Fragrant smell;
In Winter (as in Gratitude is meet)
Wee’l strew our humble Leaves beneath his Feet.
Nay, in each Tree, Root, Trunck, Branch, all will be
Proud to Serve him and his Posterity.”
Moses Cook 1676
In the eighteenth century, the gardeners Charles Bridgman (later chief gardener for the royal gardens) and Thomas Wright both worked on the Cassiobury estate. Humphry Repton is also associated with the Cassiobury estate, having been commissioned to landscape the grounds in the late eighteenth century. As part of these works a number of lodges and other buildings for the estate were constructed. A number of these lodge houses still survive today. In 1793 the Grand Junction Canal (now Grand Union) was opened, running through the estate parallel with and in places in conjunction with the River Gade. This now forms the western boundary of Cassiobury Park. The Earls of Essex occupied Cassiobury for more than 250 years. With the death of the sixth Earl in 1892 it was reputed that Cassiobury House had received little maintenance in the previous 50 years. Upkeep of the house and estate was expensive and family paintings and other valuables were sold to provide the funds for maintenance. By 1900 the house was not permanently used as a residence and offered for short and long term let. In 1908 parts of the estate were sold off, some being bought to create a public park. A poll of Watford residents was ultimately to decide whether there was public support for the Urban District Council purchasing land to create a ‘People’s Park and Pleasure Ground’. By this time Cassiobury House had gone, demolished in 1927. The construction of the residential Cassiobury Estate had already been underway by the time the house was demolished. Only the stable block and cellars now remain.
The town of Watford is situated along a ridge which slopes southwards towards the River Colne. During the 1820s and 1830s Watford had been described by some as a well built, quiet and handsome little country town if not a little ‘dull’ while others had described it as ‘a populous and busy town’ by the middle of the nineteenth century. Still like most towns in the early Victorian period, it had to grapple with insanitary conditions. It was not until 1849, when the Board of Health’s report drew attention to the town’s ‘open cesspools and manure heaps’ and the ‘infected atmosphere’, that the streets and drainage were improved. Pipes were laid down which provided the town with a constant supply of fresh water. Pigot’s directory of 1839 describes Watford as having a main street nearly one and a half miles in length. The bulk of the population lived in small tenements in the courtyards and alleys which ran off the main street. The parliamentary population returns for 1841 indicate that there were 3,697 people living in the town of Watford in 698 tenements and houses. Some thirty-five per cent of the population were employed in agriculture, whilst others found employment in the silk mills, straw plait and paper making, and the malting business. Rookery Mills were the largest of the silk mills, employing at one time 500 hands where the hours were long, conditions hard and accidents frequent.
Developments in transport were crucial to the growth of Watford. It was some 7 miles south-west of St Albans and 3 miles east of Rickmansworth, and only 15 miles by road from London. Several major roads passed through the town, in particular those from London to Aylesbury and from Uxbridge to St Albans. By the 1840s Watford’s transport facilities had developed and were beginning to bring increased interest in the town and a growth in population. Coaches from London passed through Watford twice a day. The Grand Junction Canal had been opened in 1796, increasing facilities for trade. But the most important development contributing to Watford’s growth was the arrival of the railway. The London and Birmingham Railway Company opened a station in Watford in 1837, and by 1838 the line was complete and ready to carry passengers between London and Birmingham. George, the 5th Earl of Essex, used his influence in parliament to ensure that the railway did not follow the line of the canal through his land. It was diverted over a viaduct to the south of Watford and through fields and a tunnel to the north-east of the town.
Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth century parts of Watford suffered appalling housing conditions. Dwellings without any form of sanitation or amenities had been built after the arrival of the railway to house those workers coming into Watford in the wake of the industrialisation of the town. By the end of the nineteenth-century, Watford was becoming much more varied in the make-up of its industry. Modern industry was making its mark. There were breweries, a steam laundry, and a cold storage company. The population growth that accompanied such industrialisation was phenomenal. In 1841, it was 1,940 but by 1891, the population was 9,775. Yet only ten years later in 1901, it had risen to 20,382.
In Watford, the conditions were certainly a concern. Between 1850 and 1894, Watford was governed by a Board of Health, which was then replaced by an Urban District Council under the aegis of the Local Government Board. On 18 October 1922 Watford was granted borough status. It was something for which Watford had long campaigned, but the outbreak of the First World War had further delayed the arrival of Charter Day. Watford now had the right to make bye-laws and gain freedom from the Local Government Board. It also now had the right to purchase land for public recreation.
With the availability of land from the sale of the Cassiobury Estate, the council were forward thinking having purchased land from 1908 up to 1935 when they purchased Whippendell Wood. The poll held in September 1908 to find out what Watford people thought of the idea of buying such land was significant. The Urban District Council had debated this over a considerable period of time with opposition even before the poll was held. Developers, Ashby and Brightman who were offering the land were keen to progress but were becoming impatient. Writing to the council in July 1908; ‘As four months have now elapsed since the question of the purchase by the Council of a portion of the Park was first mooted, and our plans for the development of the Estate cannot be completed until that question is disposed of, we think we must ask the Council to arrange that a final decision, subject to the approval of the Local Government Board be arrived at without delay. If the Council determine not to purchase, we must at once proceed with the construction of a portion of the new road from the Lodge to the River and with the sites abutting upon and adjacent to that Road’. The results of the poll were announced at the council meeting of 5 Sept 1908 with a total of 3,644 against purchasing the land and only 679 for the proposal. Thankfully, the council ignored the majority of nearly 3,000 who rejected the plan and bought 65 acres at £24,500, and took up the option on a further 25½ acres, which they purchased for £7,000 in December 1913. It is thanks to their vision and foresight that Cassiobury Park exists for the two million plus visitors to enjoy today.
From the council minutes of the time, the council were certainly taking their role as landowner of their new public park seriously. In 1910, they were debating Sunday band playing in Cassiobury Park by the Watford Artizan Band and Watford Military Band and permissions to take collections whilst playing ‘sacred and classical music.’ Permission was granted despite objections from the Revd. J.S.W. Wicksteed, who had written to the council ‘protesting against the action of the Council in permitting Sunday band playing.’ In 1913, further objections were received in relation to the timing of music being played in the park with concerns ‘such music is not provided by the rates during the hours of public worship on Sundays’, but was however permitted by the council. Dancing in Cassiobury Park though, was one step too far with a letter received on 22 July 1913 from the Watford Artizan Band asking the Estates Committee to consider. It was ‘decided to defer consideration until next season’. A letter from Capt. H.W. Downs was also presented to the council requesting permission for his son to cycle in Cassiobury Park, but permission was denied. Yet requests by the first Troop B. P. Boy Scouts to drill in the park were granted as were requests by D Company of the Herts Regiment Territorials in June 1909.
However as described, the estate was finally sold off in 1922 and the house demolished in 1927 and it was during inter and post war years that Cassiobury was further developed into a town park. Introductions had already included a bandstand, but new features included a tea pavilion (c. 1926), the laying out of a paddling pool near the River Gade in the 1930s and the laying out of a model railway in 1959. The long northern drive visible on the first edition ordnance survey was straightened and planted with a double row of trees and further plantings took place in the park, changing many aspects of its open parkland character. This occurred most notably in the old High Park around the golf course fairways, absorbing the Mile Walk within the woodland. By 1933, along with the new tea pavilion, the park had shelters, a drinking fountain, a bowling green, hard and grass tennis courts, football dressing rooms, a convenience near the entrance lodge near Rickmansworth Road, new paths and significant planting along the western end of the new tree-lined avenue.
In 1970 the entrance-lodge to the park at the Rickmansworth Road entrance was demolished for a significant road widening scheme. Wyatt’s ‘gothic’ double lodge of 1802 was on the site of an earlier lodge of similar footprint visible on Dury and Andrew’s 1766 map. The lodge, although popular and loved by local people, was of little architectural value, but was important as it formed the terminal point of the grand carriage drive of 1802 and was the principal entrance to the estate from the town and did survive the break-up of the estate of 1908-22. Its loss was also significant as it had the effect of disconnecting residents of Watford from the parks distant history and Watford’s heritage in general. Its outline and remains are now mostly under Rickmansworth Road as indicated by an archaeological excavation in 2014 but have been re-interpreted in the restoration of the park in 2016, highlighting the importance of these gates locally.
The other significant removal from the park at this time was the bandstand. Central to the new park had been the introduction of an impressive bandstand within an enclosure. Tenders were being invited in September 1911 ‘for a bandstand to be erected in Cassiobury Park’. A number of tenders were received including one from the Scottish foundry of McDowall Steven and Co. for a No.5 bandstand. It was a tender from Messrs. Ensor and Ward that was accepted for the erection of a Hill & Smith of Brierley Hill bandstand in October 1911. The West Herts Post on 20 September 1912 reported ‘Cassiobury Park Bandstand – this structure now appears to be shaping up under the supervision of Messrs. Ensor and Ward, builders and contractors, Watford, who have got the work in hand [and] will shortly complete the whole structure. It is to be hoped the fine weather will prevail… The opening of the new addition to the Park takes place on Wednesday afternoon at 4.30pm when the Artizan Staff Band will render a nice selection of music’. It was formally opened on the 27 September 1912 with screens later added in 1914, and there were proposals to extend the bandstand area between 1920 and 1923. Concerts were immensely popular, the West Herts and Watford Observer reported on 15 September 1923, ‘The season’s band performances in Cassiobury Park concluded on Sunday with two programmes by the combined bands of the Coldstream Guards and the Welsh Guards. In the afternoon the enclosure was full, but at the evening performance the accommodation was taxed to overflowing, and thousands congregated around the bandstand’. In 1930, sales brochures for local estate developments describe Cassiobury Park’s natural amenities ‘with a band enclosure with seating for 1,500 people. First class military bands give performances every Sunday’.
By the 1970s the bandstand was a shadow of its former self and in 1975 was in pieces in the council depot. Attempts to reach a decision to re-erect it caused consternation locally with one councillor complaining about its proposed new position next to the library, ‘I never thought this was a suitable place for a bandstand but having got a stupid concrete base we have got to do something with it’. It was subsequently reassembled but was never intended ‘to be used by a band or for musical entertainment’ but as ‘an architectural feature’. Its condition in 2015 is poor, missing its soundboard and it has an unsympathetic felt roof. Its restoration and return to Cassiobury Park is long overdue and is to be funded by the significant National Lottery grant of 2015.
By the late 1970s, the tennis pavilions had been lost as well as the last trees from the avenue comprising the Mile Walk in High Park. However, one of the most popular introductions to the park during the twentieth century was the new paddling pools and kiosks, introduced in 1983 at a cost of £250,000, replacing the original paddling pool by the River Gade. The Watford Observer reported, ‘The new-look complex has three separate pools all at different depths to suit all ages of children… In keeping with the circular design, plans show a handful of hut-like buildings at the entrance end of the complex. These will house a kiosk, shelters, stores and lavatories. Council designers have also put forward attractive extras to decorate the pool area. Fibreglass animals at the pool’s edges and other features within the water are just some of the decorations that could be added.’ The pools were and continue to be immensely popular with families from across Watford, Hertfordshire and North London enjoying them every summer. Another introduction, no longer present, was a pitch and putt course, laid out behind the bowling club pavilion. As in many public parks, they were initially popular but soon fell out of vogue, and most have been removed.
Two significant events occurred in 1987. Firstly, Cassiobury Park was registered in Historic England’s Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest at Grade II. The entry is important as it recognised the historic importance of the Cassiobury landscape through three centuries and not just of the current parkland, but also of the former High Park, Jacotts Hill and Whippendell Wood. The second event occurred in October 1987, which was the Great Storm that decimated historic landscapes across the south-east of England. Cassiobury Park and Whippendell Wood lost significant specimen trees as did many other parks in the region. By the early nineties, active management of the last working watercress beds had ceased and they fell into disuse. The parks popularity with local filmmakers remained and sections of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, released in 1999 were filmed in Whippendell Wood.
Today, the park remains popular with local people, with over 2.1 million visits a year (2014 figures) and is now well maintained by the council’s partner, Veolia. Despite the decline and loss of many features, the historic importance of Cassiobury Park is recognised through its registered status with Historic England. It is also important because of its ecological value, with the area between the River Gade and the Grand Union Canal designated a Local Nature Reserve and Whippendell Wood designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Cassiobury Park has also been awarded a Green Flag Award every year since 2007 and continues to be well-used and valued by its many users to this day. In 2014, it was awarded a grant of £5 million from the National Lottery that will ensure its long term future with a new landmark park centre and importantly, the return of the bandstand to its rightful place in the centre of Cassiobury Park. Under the joint management of Watford Borough Council and Veolia, the future of this important landscape is once again secure.
The Arboretum, Walsall
The land on which Walsall Arboretum now stands was many centuries ago at the southern boundary of the Cannock Forest – a great medieval royal hunting ground. The history of the Arboretum starts more than 400 years ago. In the 1600s the land belonged to the Reynolds family. Their home, Reynolds Hall, was passed down through a series of marriages. By 1768, John Persehouse had inherited the estate. The ‘Survey of Bye Roads for the Township and Borough of Walsall’ refers to Mr Persehouse’s Pool at the bottom of Rushall Street. On Richard Persehouse’s death in 1771, the estate passed to his godson, John Walhouse who exploited the land for limestone. Eventually it was Edward Walhouse who inherited the estate and in 1835 became the first Lord Hatherton. Limestone mining eventually stopped due to the need and cost of continuous pumping to keep the mine workings free of water. The pits flooded and were used locally for fishing, with the lake becoming an area for informal boating, bathing and, in winter months, skating. With such recreational additions, however, came two local tragedies. In 1845 the Mayor of Walsall, John Harvey, drowned whilst taking an evening swim in the lake. Another man also drowned during the search for his body.
Lord Hatherton’s estates of 870 acres were estimated to be worth £160,000 by John Eglington, a local surveyor. By the 1860s, E. A. Foden, Lord Hatherton’s agent, was among those who were inspired by the idea of turning the site into a park. In 1871 the Walsall Arboretum and Lake Company was formed and issued a prospectus for shareholders describing the principal features. A lease was drawn up between Lord Hatherton and the Walsall Arboretum and Lake Company for ‘14-acres and 24-perches’, of which ‘7-acres and 18-perches were covered with water’. Lady Hatherton officially opened the Arboretum on Saturday, 4 May 1874. The park was laid out around two lakes, had two lodges, a boathouse, bandstand, several summerhouses, a tree lined promenade, space for dancing, a flagpole, croquet lawns and a cricket ground. Only a year later, there was criticism for the lack of activities for children, up-to-date sports facilities and refreshments, and for the poor condition of the planting, much of which had died. Unfortunately, in 1877 the company went into liquidation, the lease was surrendered to Lord Hatherton and a management committee of local businessmen took over. An ‘Article of Agreement’ between Lord Hatherton and the businessmen, dated 4 September 1877, stipulated that the site was not to be used for any purpose other than an arboretum or pleasure ground. Bowing to public pressure, in 1881 the council took over the Arboretum on a 3-year lease and admission became free. Eventually however, following lengthy negotiations, Lord Hatherton made over the site to the council, paying him £4,000 for costs he’d incurred. The opening on the 21 July 1884, celebrated the corporation’s first ‘people’s park’. The council took their obligations seriously. Only a year later, due to safety concerns, they banned bathing, boating, fishing and skating, but later allowed fishing by permit and use of the cycling track. Only a year later skating was once again permitted, along with curling, for sixpence and only up until 10pm. Entertainment was provided in the park with Messrs Croswells’ Brewery Band who were allowed to play one night per week on condition that there was no product advertising. In May, over 2 inches of heavy rain fell in 24 hours causing heavy flooding. The steam boat ‘Lady of the Lake’ sank and in August, a drinking fountain, design no. 7 in Walter MacFarlane’s catalogue, was installed between the two wings of the main lodge. Such was the popularity of the Arboretum, that on Whit Monday, 1888, it attracted over 10,000 visitors.
Further land was requested to extend the park and in 1890 the Town Clerk was asked to speak to Lord Hatherton’s agent and Mr Mellish’s trustees regarding the council’s request to buy another 13 acres of land to extend the Arboretum. By 1891 the borough surveyor’s layout for the park extension was approved with the exception of some swimming baths. A greenhouse was built close to the small lake and the bandstand was painted. Opened in 1892, the extension included an outdoor gym for young people and boating was reinstated on Hatherton Lake.
In 1893 for the first time, Walsall Florists Society Show was held in the park. It included performances by the Coldstream Guards, fireworks and illuminations. The park continued to be developed with new introductions including in May 1902, a new pavilion. Tennis courts and bowling greens were built on the northern side of the brook in the extension. The park became a venue for sports days, school fêtes and hot air balloon events. In 1911 the Arboretum was illuminated in the evening of Coronation Day and remained open until 11pm. A year later construction of a new outdoor swimming baths began in the extension beside the brook. By 1914 the borough surveyor submitted designs for a shell bandstand from Walter MacFarlane’s Saracen Foundry of Glasgow. Advertised as a ‘speciality’, in truth, only one was ever erected and this was in the Arboretum. During World War One, there was dancing near the bandstand, the Women’s Volunteer Reserve now helping with park maintenance.
Post World War One, the park continued to thrive. In 1919 The Victory Show and Gala was held in the park and the new swimming baths were opened. The parks superintendent commented that there was ‘no accommodation at present for cricket or football in the Arboretum’. The scheme for a bandstand enclosure on the hill facing the present bandstand was approved, along with the removal of poplars and plans to ‘inspect modern bandstands at Birmingham and Leamington Spa’. By the early 1920s the park was extended by 20 acres with much of the land donated by Mr Featherstone-Dilke, on condition that its development should provide work for the unemployed. The open-air baths were upgraded and Sunday evening services were given the go-ahead. A further 5 acres were bought from Mr Mellish’s trustees for informal recreation and additional playing fields. In 1930 Mr Featherstone-Dilke made another donation of 20 acres of Calderfields Farm which the parks Ssuperintendent, Mr W. V. Wall, developed with a more naturalistic landscape style. The Ministry of Health provided a loan of £8,000 as the new works provided work for the unemployed. A further 50 acres were bought in 1935 from Mr Fred Smith to extend the Arboretum along the valley. Celebrations for the Jubilee of George V and Queen Mary included lighting the trees, amplified music and dancing. Illuminations became a significant feature in the life of the Arboretum. In 1951, the Festival Committee organised the first Walsall Illuminations as part of the Festival of Britain.
With changes afoot, in 1956 the open-air baths were closed, filled in, and the changing rooms converted to an aviary. A small café and tea garden now occupied a new concrete terrace. Local development pressures were a threat with proposals for a new roundabout and flyover scheme that would have demolished the clock tower and lodge rejected due to public pressure in 1967. Likewise, Mr Featherstone-Dilke’s proposal to develop housing on the northern boundary was refused after a public enquiry in 1972.
The centenary of the Arboretum was celebrated in 1974 with ten days of festivities with the illuminations remaining popular, despite the national energy crisis the following year. By the late 1980s, concerns for the Arboretum were becoming apparent a review was carried out. Maintaining its popularity, Walsall Council eventually submitted its application to the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2007. The Arboretum today is one of the most fascinating parks in the West Midlands and its restoration signifies its importance both locally, regionally and nationally. One of many reviews, ‘right in the middle of industrial town of Walsall lies a gem of peaceful, green tranquility. Recently revamped and brought back up to scratch with lots for everyone, go visit’… and thankfully, many do.
Heaton Park, Manchester
Of all the parks featured here, Heaton Park has one of the most diverse, rich and fascinating histories of all. Between the middle of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century just two families owned the Heaton estate. It passed down through the generations of the Holland family until Elizabeth Holland, the last member of the family line, married Sir John Egerton in 1684. In 1772 Sir Thomas Egerton (later 1st Earl of Wilton) built a new home in the park for himself and his new wife.
The house that had stood on the site of the present Heaton Hall since the late seventeenth century would have been very old fashioned when its 21 years old owner Sir Thomas Egerton married Eleanor Assheton of Middleton in 1769. Three years later Sir Thomas commissioned a fashionable architect named James Wyatt to design a new home for his young family. Earlier in 1772 Wyatt had attracted the attention of the aristocracy with his design for the Pantheon in Oxford Street, a rendezvous for assemblies, balls and masquerades described by Gibbon as ‘the wonder of the eighteenth century and of the British Empire’. Sir Thomas’ account books of the time show that Wyatt’s neo-classical masterpiece was built in phases and is of a traditional palladian design and reflects a greater degree of harmony with its landscape setting than almost any other building of its date.
The Earl of Wilton brought in John Webb, a pupil of William Eames to rework the landscape and Lewis Wyatt to alter the house and create the lodges. One of the first improvements to be carried out was the enclosure of the park by a 10 feet high boundary wall, followed by the building of Grand Lodge at the southernmost tip of the park. The lodge is built of ashlar sandstone as a large triumphal arch with west and east wings of two floors of accommodation, cellars under the west wing and an attic over the arch. It was created as an impressive main entrance from Manchester and stands at the start of one of the longest and most important carriage drives to the house. Sir Thomas Egerton was a man of fashion and taste and the design of Smithy Lodge shows that he embraced the change towards the romantic landscape. It is the earliest gatehouse into the park and built in an unusual octagonal shape. It is thought that this too was designed by Lewis Wyatt in 1806 as a cottage to be viewed from the house in a romantic, rural setting. Its name derives from a group of blacksmith’s shops set close by on Middleton Road, but now demolished.
Sir Thomas had been created 1st Earl of Wilton in 1801, becoming the first peer in the family. Throughout his life Sir Thomas seems to have been an almost perfect example of an eighteenth century country gentleman. He was conscientious in his role as a local and county official, a man of taste and fashion and devoted to his family. For 12 years he was MP for Lancashire, tirelessly supporting the interests of Manchester in the House of Commons. He was fiercely loyal to George III, raising the Royal Lancashire Volunteer Regiment, which held a number of prestigious duties. His loyalty earned him elevation to the peerage first as Baron Grey de Wilton in 1784 and then to 1st Earl of Wilton in 1801. Lord Wilton had a passion for music, was an accomplished cellist and judging by the contents of his library, fascinated by science, astronomy, travel and architecture. He engaged in country pursuits, particularly archery, founding the Lancashire Bowmen and donated sums to the local poor. The great tragedy of his life was that five of his six children died in his lifetime. His eldest daughter Eleanor was the exception, and married Richard Grosvenor of Eaton, who later became first Marquess of Westminster. It was her second son, Thomas who in a special arrangement, inherited the Wilton titles and took the name Egerton when he came of age.
The 2nd Earl was a very different character from his maternal grandfather. He married Lady Mary Stanley, daughter of the 12th Earl of Derby and to their contemporaries they seem to have been an unattractive couple. Their sister-in-law said in 1831 that, ‘the Wiltons take no pains to make themselves agreeable in public. I do not think that Lady Wilton has as much sensitivity as a deal board, by which those that live with her may also be a deal bored’. Not everyone disliked them however. They had a stylish lifestyle and entertained at Heaton on a grand scale. Some of the more colourful celebrities of the day were guests at their lavish parties. The Duke of Wellington, General Tom Thumb, the young Disraeli and the actress Fanny Kemble were frequent visitors. The celebrated actress recorded her reminiscences of Heaton in her book ‘Record of a Childhood’. Lord Wilton was also considered to be one of the leading sportsmen of his age being an expert horseman and keen yacht owner. In 1827 he established the Heaton Park Races that were run on a course on the site of the present lake. After his wife died in 1858 Lord Wilton spent less time at Heaton in favour of his houses in Melton Mowbray and London. His attempt to sell the park in 1866 was unsuccessful and he died in 1882.
In 1902 Heaton Park was bought by the then Manchester Corporation for £230,000. It was very quickly transformed into a popular venue for relaxation and enjoyment with the addition of a range of facilities. By 1913 there was a 12 acre boating lake with the Grade II listed Town Hall Colonnade rebuilt at its southern end, a magnificent bandstand, children’s playgrounds, sports pitches, a stylish Edwardian tea room at the west end of the hall and a tram terminus. In the intervening century millions of people have come to know and love Heaton Park. For most it has been a place for fresh air and enjoyment, but for others the park has played a more significant part in their lives. During the First World War, four of the Manchester Pals Battalions signed up and did their initial training in the park. In the inter war years, thousands of children from the inner city slums enjoyed holidays in the fresh air at the White Heather camps – and some of those children saw their first tree in Heaton Park. During the Second World War 133,000 RAF cadets were billeted in and around the park when the RAF turned it into a camp for trainee aircrew. In the late 1940s the park became a more permanent home for some for almost 20 years when two prefab estates were built on the southern edge; in 1982 Pope John II celebrated mass for over 100,000 people; in 2002 the commonwealth games bowls competition was held in the park. In the 1980’s and 1990’s the park became a popular venue for large open-air concerts, continuing the tradition started in 1909 when 40,000 people gathered to hear a gramophone recording of a concert given by the tenor Caruso. These major events – many attended by thousands of people – and the constant use by thousands more for general relaxation and enjoyment over the years took their toll on the park. So in the late 1990’s following a substantial grant from the National Lottery, Manchester City Council was able to embark on a major project to regenerate what by that time had become a much used, worn out park. The first two phases of the work, involving the recreation of the eighteenth century landscape and restoration of four out of Heaton’s nine listed buildings were finished in 2004. A controversial project from the outset, over 20,000 trees were felled as part of the overall proposals to reinstate the original landscape design and reopening long lost views from the house as well as making the park much more usable. Despite such difficulties, today, the parkland landscape is now restored to its former glory and a worthy recipient of the Green Flag Award.
The Park Today
Managed by Manchester City Council, Heaton Park details are now found below: https://www.manchester.gov.uk/heatonpark
Greenhead Park, Huddersfield
Greenhead Park was formally opened with great pomp and ceremony on 27 September 1884, although there had been many efforts to provide a public park in the area for more than 15 years before that. From 1870, it was thanks to the efforts of Alderman Thomas Denham, that the people of Huddersfield were able to enjoy access to approximately 15 acres of the parkland of Greenhead Hall which he had personally leased from the owners, the Ramsden estate. This early park hosted a number of popular band concerts, flower shows and galas, although animals continued to graze alongside the new and available recreational uses. Alderman Denham’s aim was always to secure a decent public park for Huddersfield and its growing population, and negotiations to purchase the necessary land started between the Council and the Ramsden Estate as early as 1869. But it was many years later before these discussions came to any kind of fruition and not until January 1881, that the Huddersfield Corporation finally sealed the deal to purchase 30 acres of land from the Ramsden estate.
In this instance, like many of the new and local municipal parks, the planning of the park was placed in the hands of the borough surveyor, Richard Dugdale, who took responsibility for every aspect of the design – the lay-out, the buildings and even the park benches. Most of the main features were ready for the official opening and many of these survive to this day, including the entrance lodge, Italian Gardens and fountain, the main lake (filled in in 1954 but restored in 2010) and the prominent octagonal bandstand.
Important later additions to the park were the Boer War Memorial, unveiled in 1905, and the wonderful yet imposing Great War Memorial in 1924. The inter-war period saw the park extended to its present size with the addition of two bowling greens, fourteen tennis courts, two putting greens and a pavilion housing a cafe and changing rooms. The elegant conservatory was another striking new feature, opened in August 1930 by the Chairman of Parks, Alderman Albert Woolven. Originally the park had five lakes or ponds, of which only two survive – the recently restored main lake and next largest, now a children’s paddling pool. The other three, on sites now occupied by the conservatory and the rose garden, were all filled in by 1930. There were no more major changes to the park, apart from the removal of the gates and railings in 1940 to be melted down for the war effort (though it is not clear whether any good use was made of them). The park has always been a focus for events for the people of Huddersfield as it is today and its facilities are exceptional – from the miniature railway, skatepark and sports facilities. With restoration commencing in 2010, the park is now surrounded by railings once again – though of a plainer design than the originals – and exact replicas of the two main gates have been re-installed too as part of the major restoration project completed in 2012. One of the more popular aspects of the park today is the miniature railway. Like many public parks, these were often later introductions by model engineering societies, still seen today in parks such as Hammond’s Pond in Carlisle and Cassiobury Park, Watford. Greenhead Park’s railway was laid out in 1942 by Mr Crowther of Crowther’s Mills, Longwood when members of the society built a 120 feet track often referred to as ‘the up and down track’. In 1964 Miss J. Dean of Marsh became the 250,000th passenger on 18 July which was in fact her ninth birthday. She was presented with an inscribed trophy by the mayor and a box of chocolates almost too large for her to carry. She was heard to say that ‘nothing like this has ever happened on my birthday before’.
By the time of the completion of its restoration, the park was previously already very popular, attracting an estimated 250,000 visitors each year, but early estimates would suggest that visitor figures, since the main restoration project was completed, have increased. It is certainly true that feedback from visitors has demonstrated that the improvements have been very well received, with a general feeling of pleasure that the park has been restored to its former glory. This is not to say that the park is finished, as this is never the case, but the underlying fabric of the park’s infrastructure, buildings and landscapes have been brought up to a condition where it is far more simple, and realistic, to manage. 2012 was the first full year since the park was ‘reopened’ to the public following restoration, and whilst the weather was far from perfect – suffering from the wettest weather in many, many years – the park was still a very busy place when the weather was fair. It was also the first time that major events returned to the park, with a stopover of ‘Mumford and Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road’ tour, the Council’s Concerts in the Park, Huddersfield’s Pink Picnic, and also an event to celebrate 50 years of Jamaican Independence – all of which were attended by many thousands of visitors. 2013 and 2014 continued this trend, with the park continuing to be a popular hosting a full range of events, both large and small, as well as providing somewhere for people from across the district to spend time with their friends and families.
The Park today
Greenhead Park is managed by Kirklees Council and is one of the finest parks in the North of England and has a very active Friends Group too. For more information, please see below.