The parks of Norwich were all the product of the period between the wars, the 1920s and 30s. There were virtually none before then and, with the exception of Bowthorpe Park, there have been no new ones since. Even Bowthorpe Park is just half a dozen football pitches squeezed into a triangle of land next to the Dereham Road. Among the pre-War parks, Sloughbottom Park is a similar area of football pitches, and such sports grounds hardly count as parks. The ornamental parks are what I am talking about, and they seem to a thing of the past.
In the early nineteenth century there had been the privately owned pleasure garden for the well-to-do, the Ranelagh Gardens. This however turned into Victoria Station with the coming of the railway from Ipswich in 1849. In 1880 Chapelfield Gardens were laid out as a public open space; before then the area had been variously a plague pit and a water reservoir! Norwich had nothing to compare with Hyde Park and St James’s Park in London. It didn’t even have anything like Christchurch Park in Ipswich; there the 13 acres which form the arboretum were acquired by the Corporation in 1848. The whole 70 acres were purchased in the last years of the 19th century.
Parks with ample areas in which to walk and play sports were a very late development in Norwich. There was little space in which to play when my father (b. 1911) was growing up in the city. The parks of the early 20th century would represent an impossibly expensive use of scarce land today, when the financial return from anything and everything is paramount. Any available space has dozens of homes crammed onto it, with only a car parking space outside at most. The ‘affordable homes’ especially have no gardens at all. By contrast every equivalent council house was supplied with a spacious garden in the 1930s. As for parks, the only way the word enters the planners’ vocabulary these days is in ‘retail parks’ or ‘car parks’. How lucky we are to inherit these marvellous facilities from a more generous and expansive age. The Labour Party that was responsible for this good work of providing parks is now but a feeble shadow of its former glory.
Earlham Park was formerly the estate of Earlham House, home of the Gurney family of bankers, and it only became council property in the 20th century. It needed little doing to it when it became a public open space. Even now that the campus of UEA has taken up the part which was made into Earlham golf course, it is still a large park. Eaton Park is not far away, but that was built up from scratch, having been open farm land before the First World War. It has plenty of facilities; the rotunda, the yacht pond, football pitches and tennis courts, and even a 3½” gauge model railway, where there are regular trips for the public. Eaton Park and the others around the city were built by the unemployed during the depression that followed the Great War. What an imaginative and worthwhile thing to have done, compared to later efforts to relieve unemployment; handing out cash and making half-hearted attempts at retraining.
Another of these parks is Wensum Park. This is one of the smaller parks, without the sports grounds, but it still has a playground where my children used to play on the swings and slides. Besides flower beds it has the river Wensum flowing along the southern boundary. The main entrance stands on the road junction, and the platform beyond gives you a panoramic view of the park below. The buildings in these parks were all made of concrete, but in a neo-Georgian style which has mellowed well over the years. The post-war Brutalism style in concrete architecture came too late to Norfolk to impose itself on our parks, for which we can only be grateful.
I haven’t been to Waterloo Park for many years. I suspect that the impressive floral displays that used to be such a feature of that park have fallen by the wayside. We are now so much better off than we were in the past, but we can no longer afford to pay gardeners to weed beds of annuals. I don’t need to go to the parks to see this; all the city roundabouts used to have glorious flower beds tended by council workers. Now they have a few ground-cover shrubs that are almost obscured by huge advertising hoardings proclaiming which commercial organisation has generously planted the scrappy display. The grass which needed regular cutting has been replaced by chips of bark. There is a traffic island which is currently without a tenant, and the muddy beds are even more unkempt than normal. The sign says that for £800 p.a.(plus VAT) any firm could adopt it. I do not anticipate a rush.
Mousehold Heath is the largest but also the most disappointing of the local open spaces. It ought to be genuine heathland, but what is left, after council housing and retail warehouses have encroached on most of it, is scrub and birch trees. It should be an area of gorse and heather, or failing that of open grassland, from which you could look down on the city below. Hampstead Heath in London still retains its airy and open nature, which Mousehold Heath has entirely lost.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA