Pathways > The Pathways book > Municipal parks
In the 1830s a government committee recommended the creation of public parks in every town and city. The report argued for the public park as a place where people could walk, play sport and be entertained. Tellingly, one of the objectives was to provide a venue where the classes could mix (with the implicit assumption that it was the working class that was in the greater need of improvement).
The spaces were tightly controlled. Parks were often locked at night and sometimes even on Sundays - the idea being that visiting the park should not clash with going to church. Alcohol was generally banned and sports had to be 'appropriate'. Park keepers were renowned for strict enforcement of the rules, though sometimes their advanced age was bemoaned when they couldn't keep the local youth in check.
The lofty ideals behind many parks could not be maintained. Some were initially planted out with exotic species that could not survive the polluted city air. However over time most have reached a state of sometimes slightly shabby equilibrium and the public park has become one of the best loved of British institutions.
The Bristol park walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
The forerunner of the Victorian municipal park was the ‘pleasure garden’. These enclosed spaces, accessible for the price of a ticket, flourished throughout the early and mid-18th century. They became the playgrounds of the gentry and even of royalty. For the middle and lower classes they were the place to gawp at the nobles, who were the celebrities of their day. For the upper classes the possibility of meeting someone masquerading as ‘one of them’, through the simple purchase of some fine clothes and an entrance ticket, no doubt added a certain frisson.
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, opened in 1661, offered Londoners a place to promenade on what was then the outskirts of the city, away from the stink and danger of the unlit streets of the bustling metropolis. The gardens became a model for pleasure gardens throughout Europe, their romantic ‘countryside’ layout a contrast to the more formal garden design favoured in France. In fact the generic term ‘Vauxhall’ became used for similar attractions in other British towns and cities. One of the best known, Sydney Gardens Vauxhall in Bath, was frequently visited by Jane Austen. Other ‘Vauxhall’ gardens were to be found in Bristol, Boston, Birmingham, Norwich and Great Yarmouth.
In an effort to keep the public interested, the garden owners put on concerts, fireworks displays, balloon ascents and other entertainments. As time went by the gardens must have seemed more like early amusement parks. But their popularity waned towards the end of the 18th century. Sydney Gardens (pictured right) in Bath was cut in half by Brunel’s new railway and it proved increasingly difficult to entice a paying public. The gardens in Bristol were short-lived, as penny-pinching locals found they could enjoy the fireworks and listen to the music from further up the hill, outside the garden perimeter.
By the beginning of the 19th century the pleasure gardens were either closed down or on their last legs, frequented, it is said, by prostitutes and pickpockets. Today most have been obliterated by urban development. However, some memory of these seminal public gardens must have played a part in the movement to create municipal parks, as semi-rural spaces in which the citizenry of the burgeoning cities could relax and breathe fresh air for free.
The heyday of the municipal park followed the publication of a report by the Select Committee of Public Walks (chaired by RA Slaney, MP for Shrewsbury) in 1833. The committee called for the establishment of public parks in towns and cities in order to provide fresh air and investment opportunities, defuse social tensions, and improve citizens’ moral and physical condition.
Behind this was a clear notion that it was beneficial for people of different classes to mix (with the tacit acknowledgement that some were in more need of improvement than others). In typically British fashion the benefit, or otherwise, of the mixing of the upper, middle and lower classes was hotly debated. Some argued that while it might indeed improve the lower orders; equally it might ‘reinforce feelings of disadvantage’. The expectation was ever-present that the lower classes would be unruly. So parks were locked out of hours and park keepers tried to keep order. The fact they were often too old to chase troublesome youths was sometimes bemoaned.
‘Appropriate recreational activities’ were built into the park design. At Saltaire Park in Yorkshire, the rules stated there were to be ‘no shooting games, dancing, washing or drying clothes, beating carpets, or the sale or consumption of liquour’. Male sports predominated, though football was almost always the last to be catered for. In much of the 19th century women were expected to stroll and look after the children, entertained perhaps by music from the bandstand. Cycling became associated with the movement for female emancipation at the turn of the 20th century; Battersea Park was one fashionable venue for taking to two wheels.
Parks were set up with great ambitions for education, lofty aims that could not always be sustained. The Arboretum in Derby, arguably England’s first public park opening in 1840, was conceived as a magnificent botanical garden, with plants and flowers gathered from around the world and lovingly installed by the benefactor. But the flora couldn’t withstand the pollution from nearby industrialisation. Within three decades all the exotic planting had gone and most of the carefully labelled specimen trees were replaced with practical London planes and limes, which were much more tolerant of the dirty air.
Most of the architects of Britain’s public parks built on their experience of creating private gardens. Public parks needed to cope with far greater numbers of people, a wider variety of activities and generally much smaller budgets, yet they too wanted to give their visitors a sense of space, exciting vistas and periodic surprises. Designers were expected to make the park a place one would want to visit again and again.
Many designers drew on the ideas of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-83), John Nash (1752-1835) and Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who was probably the best known of Capability Brown’s followers. Brown’s creations epitomised the fashion for idealised but apparently natural landscapes. They were, in reality, the product of a great deal of planning and resculpting of the original environment. Unlike Brown, Repton was rarely involved in the construction of his designs, which meant that many never got realised at all, or were substantially changed from his original conception. He would present his clients with a ‘red book’, of which the most notable features were his ‘before’ and ‘after’ visualisations, allowing the client to appreciate his ideas without having to interpret a plan.
John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), another well-known landscape gardener, was the designer of Derby Arboretum. Loudon used carefully placed earth mounds to focus attention into the park rather than out to the town that was swiftly growing around it, and to obscure walkers on one path from others nearby. The result was that the park seemed much bigger than it really was, a trick that others were happy to borrow.
Joseph Paxton’s (1803-1865) influence on park design extended beyond the many he created in England and Scotland. In 1842 he was commissioned to develop a park in Birkenhead. Paxton incorporated a variety of landscapes, building rocky outcrops, digging out lakes and setting out a serpentine route for carriages and horse riders around the boundary of the park. He worked on an even more ambitious design for Crystal Palace Park in the early 1850s, which included the huge glass structure originally erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition, wide terraces and a lake with islands populated by life-size replicas of prehistoric species, including various dinosaurs and a pterodactyl.
These great park architects are all well-known and their lives and works documented. As for the ordinary working-class park user, their voice is seldom heard. There are, of course, ample records of the generosity of the founders and sponsors, but these need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Often there was a good degree of self-interest in the establishment of the parks, either through the retention of the right to build elegant villas around the perimeter or through the benefits of having a healthier, grateful workforce. Ultimately what we have are the material remains, though much of the original architecture has gone and what does survive is often in a fairly shabby state. The open spaces, however, are still with us and are as valued as ever.
The industrial outskirts of Bristol
Brough the Jack Russell, accompanied by David and Chris Stewart, relives his youth on a scamper through his favourite park and on to the adjoining Oldbury Park, following the banks of the River Frome.
During the 19th century Bristol was a rapidly expanding city, even if its port was losing out to rivals such as Liverpool. In 1801 the population was just 61,000; by 1851 it had doubled to 137,000; and by 1881 it had more than doubled again to 307,000. By 1850 it was considered one of the unhealthiest places to live in Britain.
The north-eastern part of the city, along the banks of the River Frome, was heavily industrialised, though today it is better known for its Tesco superstore and massive Ikea warehouse, and the M32 motorway that runs right through it. A large pottery, run by Joseph and James White, was based at Baptist Mills, a stone’s throw from the modern retail park.
There was a working coal pit in nearby Easton, helping to fuel the city’s factories and homes. Easton Colliery thrived from the 1830s until the 1870s; after that the pit went into decline, eventually closing down altogether by 1911 (it is shown as abandoned on the 1911 Ordnance Survey map). It was a tough and filthy place to work. In common with most mines of the time young boys were used to enter the thinnest seams and to tug tubs of coal. A government inspector, Elijah Waring, visited the pit in 1841 and found one boy aged seven and half who had already been working underground for a year.
Chocolate-making was a boom industry in the 19th century in Bristol, taking advantage of the imports of cocoa coming into the docks. The business benefited from the fall in duties on imported cocoa from the 1830s onwards – it no longer needed to be smuggled – along with a rise in disposable incomes. The huge Packer factory was built on the hill above the colliery in 1900 by an ex-employee of another chocolate manufacturer, Fry’s. At its height it employed over 1000 people.
These industries contributed to the wealth but also to the noise and pollution of the city. Ben Tillett (1860-1943), a founding member of the Labour Party, was brought up in a street in Easton, right by the colliery. He describes the environment eloquently: ‘It was a drab and mean street and most of its inhabitants worked in the pit. The outlook was black, gaunt and smoky against the sky line. The buzz and musical clamour of the circular saw, swiftly cutting timber and pit props to length, driven by an engine with a deep-voiced exhaust, added to the industrial orchestra.’
In spite of the obvious need Eastville Park came somewhat late in the roll call of British municipal parks. Since the 1830s a large number of towns and cities had become the proud owners of a municipal park. By the 1880s there were clearly people in Bristol who felt that a place for relaxation and recreation for the working folk of Bristol was long overdue.
The land for Eastville Park, until that point a stretch of farmland on the outskirts of the city, was bought in 1889 by public prescription to the tune of £30,000. Some complained that the location was too remote from the city – though for the colliers of Easton and their families it was right on their doorstep. Some mature trees were kept and avenues of lime trees and London planes were planted. Various paths were laid out, with 100 seats and some small wooden shelters.
Further work was carried out in the early part of the 20th century. The lake was dug out in 1908 and 1909 from an existing water meadow, with labour provided by unemployed applicants under the Distress Committee’s Labour Bureau. It is built to a ‘serpentine’ plan, popularised by Capability Brown. By virtue of this design, wherever you stand on the perimeter you will not be able to see the lake in its entirety: there is always some hidden corner folding out of view.
Most of the original built features of the park are long gone. At one time there was a caretaker’s lodge, bandstand, refreshment pavilion and a drinking fountain, the octagonal footings for which can still be seen at one of the entrances. The boathouse on the lake burned down in 1913, supposedly set alight by a group of suffragettes. The replacement, built in 1925, has also been removed.
We got to know our municipal park, Eastville Park, and the long connecting footpath that led away from the city along the River Frome, like the back of our hands. Our two years of living in Bristol coincided with the early years of our endlessly energetic Jack Russell, who needed at least two decent walks a day. Brough now knows these parks as his homeland: whenever we are back we are sure to meet at least some of his doggy friends as we undertake one of our habitual outings around the park.
To reach the park we have to circuit the cemetery, another oasis of calm from the city, though not one you are allowed to walk your dog through. We pass by the trackbed of a disused railway, now converted into a small nature reserve, and enter Eastville Park by Royate Hill. Most of the outer railings of the park are gone, surviving only at a couple of gated entrances. At last Brough can be let off the lead, passing by the bowls club, discreetly hidden behind a dark hedge, and then a bench more often than not occupied by a group of genial alcoholics with cans of liquor in hand. When the park was planned this certainly wouldn’t have been allowed. In many cases parks were founded specifically to counter the temptations of the tavern, although the fact that many were closed on Sunday and at night seems to have been counterproductive.
We arrive at the car park and walk past the children’s play area. The wide expanse of park opens up before us. At Eastville Park football has arrived in force. There are a few tennis courts but mostly they stand empty. Football pitches fill the once open grassy area, between lines of trees that would have originally been lime and plane trees, now partly replaced with horse chestnuts. When the park opened, the grass was managed by a combination of mowing and grazing; the sheep are long gone.
On our right as we walk down the side of the pitches is a small outdoor swimming pool, constructed in 1905. Enclosed on three sides by high brick walls and on the park side by tall iron railings, the pool must have been a pleasant place to bathe and sit in the sun. Now it is drained, a victim of lack of support for outdoor swimming, concern about health and safety and the fact that it is just too small to be worth maintaining. A few years ago the site was overgrown, shabby and permanently locked. Volunteers have tidied it up, repainted the ironwork and planted some reeds and flowers. Despite all the hard work, you hardly ever see anyone in there. With the pit of the pool rather oddly laid out with planting, reached by steps that once would have taken bathers gingerly into fresh cold water, it remains strangely purposeless.
A few metres beyond we bear right to descend some wide stone steps. Brough for some reason likes to wait at the top while we walk down and then bound down at full pelt. It’s an odd ritual that maybe has something to do with the likelihood of his meeting a friend by the lake, which now appears on our left. The lake has two small islands covered in bushes and trees – shelter for ducks, moorhens, geese and the occasional pair of swans. From time to time we spot a heron standing impassively on a log.
During the spring, conversation at the lake always centres on the numbers of young birds spotted trailing behind their parents across the water. The ducklings always seem to do well. But if the geese and swans have offspring at the same time, the goslings are hunted relentlessly by the male swans and drowned. We all stand and shout, furious and impotent at this cruel display of dominance by one species over another. Why can’t they each find space at opposite ends of the lake? Every day one fewer gosling is to be seen, until eventually the adult geese are to be found swimming around totally alone.
Walking on from the lake, we continue by the banks of the River Frome towards Colston Weir. At this and various other weirs along the river one becomes aware of the volume of water and the extent to which an apparently lazy river falls in just a few miles. Before the advent of coal the Frome was, along with the Avon, one of the founding reasons for Bristol’s early growth. The river, running between steeply sided wooded banks, was a hive of industry. In the 1700s a substantial brassworks developed near here, doing good trade with the manufacturers of Birmingham. Good trade, that is, until the customers collectively decided they had had enough of ‘price fixing’ by the owners of the Bristol works. In 1781, after a year of industrial espionage and poaching of Bristol staff, they set up their own brassworks, much closer and conveniently serviced by the Birmingham canal network. There must have been some truth in their allegations as the Bristol business could no longer compete and rapidly declined. The site lies right under the M32 junction at the corner of Eastville Park.
At Colston Weir it’s possible to cross a footbridge and then cross back a few hundred yards further on, using the bridge for the lane that joins Fishponds and Stapleton. If you stick on the right-hand bank of the river, however, you come to a rocky outcrop reaching right down to the water. A small tunnel through the rock leads onto the path on the other side. Whether this tunnel once had a practical purpose, or was cut through (perhaps at a point where there was already a fissure) to give park visitors a bit of a thrill, no one seems to know. All along the Frome riverbank wherever there are rocky outcrops paths have been built through them. It’s a hint that the creators of the park had moved beyond the rounded curves of the serpentine landscaping style and embraced the excitement of the Romantics. Perhaps they wanted to create just a little bit of the Alps on the outskirts of Bristol.
We pass through an open meadow with allotments on our right, and then over a busy road to join the street leading down to Snuff Mills. The row of terraced houses includes a tiny one converted into a Methodist chapel, complete with arched windows. Now we get to stop for a while at our favourite snack bar. The same bunch of dog-walkers are always hanging around the counter, like regulars at a local pub. We get hot chocolate in proper ceramic mugs and a bacon-and-egg buttie to take round to the covered seating area at the back. Here we can watch the wagtails, ducks and other waterfowl making use of the broken branches lying in the water. Anywhere along the Frome you will occasionally see a flash of bright blue and orange as a kingfisher darts from one perch to another.
The riverside path continues upstream beside the remains of one of the mills. Although this partially reconstructed mill is commonly known as Snuff Mills, this isn’t where snuff was ground. That mill was further upstream, owned and run by ‘Snuffy Jack’, whose apron was always dusted with the product. Here the mill was used for various purposes, including the cutting of stone from the quarry that sits right behind it. The building used to be three storeys tall; when it became unsafe it was reduced to one and local enthusiasts protected the remains with a roof. You can see the huge boiler of a steam engine used to supplement the river when the flow was not adequate.
Beyond the mill the path crosses the river once again by an old stone bridge and passes by another substantial weir. Once again one becomes aware of the power of the water as it drops several feet from one level to another. We reach the boundary of Oldbury Court. This country house with substantial gardens was in private hands until the 1930s, when it was sold to the council by a member of the Vassell family. Locally it is still known as Vassells Park.
The landscaped gardens of Oldbury Court were designed by Humphry Repton. Here and there it’s possible to find elements of the landscaped environment – a planting of trees or a stream turned into a rather genteel rendition of a rocky cascade by the addition of several tons of boulders and the occasional small dam. The house itself was left to rot by the new council owners and eventually had to be pulled down. On the flatter areas of the park a children’s play area and several football pitches have taken over.
Everywhere on this walk grand plans have proved to be short-lived. Eastville Park, Oldbury Park and the intervening stretch along the River Frome would all be considered shabby and dilapidated by their original creators. The pathways are a strange mixture of tarmac, gravel and plain old earth. The signs are worn and sometimes unreadable. Here and there individuals make brave efforts to stamp some civilisation on the general sense of decline; the owners of the cottage by the mill at Snuff Mills are planting out beautiful gardens there and signs plead with dog owners not to let their animals trample over the flowers.
But to most park users it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Bristol Council spent a small fortune a few years ago building a concrete platform so that boating on Eastville lake could resume. No one came along to take up the lease. After a while the metal barriers protecting the platform came down and now it’s just an odd addition to the lake shore. Nobody has complained that it hasn’t happened; they just wonder why the council tried to do it when the money could have been better spent on something else. On the whole people seem to be perfectly happy with the park just as it is. The dogs certainly are.
Below is a list of other walks in public parks:
A favourite walk for Bristol dog-owners and those who want to get away from the bustle of the city. The walk takes in two public parks and a stretch along the River Frome, with a cafe en route and the relics of a working stone sawmill at Snuff Mills.... More info
A tour of London's Royal Parks (a special category of public park), this unusual walk starts right in the heart of London, at Trafalgar Square, before heading west to visit St James' Park, Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. After a section... More info
In less than three hours you can see most of the sights of London. Almost the entire length is free of traffic. The walk starts in Kensington and crosses the public parks of Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and St James's to Buckingham Palace. We pass... More info
From Kensington Palace to the Palace of Westminster, the route leads to lots of landmarks, many monuments and memorials and several statues of the famous or formerly-famous, as it proceeds pleasantly via picturesque public parks and celebrated... More info
The walk takes in a long stretch along the Mersey, followed by a stroll through three of the city's famous public parks.... More info
Starting close to the river, in St Michael's-in-the-Hamlet, we visit a church exported (yes, the building, not the religion) around the world and explore the birth of urban public park creation that inspired, ultimately, New York's Central Park.... More info
A varied walk from Minehead's Higher Town which features woods, fields with superb views, a public park, harbour and (tide permitting) a beach walk.... More info
A surprisingly wild walk for one that starts in town, this walk takes you from Endcliffe Park, through Bingham Park then out westwards through Whiteley Woods. It then continues up and out of Sheffield towards the Clough Plantation to reach Fulwood... More info
A circular in Livingston New Town along the river, through woods and public parks.... More info