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Poole’s Park for the People

Poole Park celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Tony Burton-Page took a walk in the park – and into the past.

A late 20th-century aerial shot of the park with the Boating Lake in the foreground and (looking comparatively small) Holes Bay beyond

A late 20th-century aerial shot of the park with the Boating Lake in the foreground and (looking comparatively small) Holes Bay beyond

Anyone who has lived in a town surely has a memory of a park. For children, such urban parks are oases where games of hide-and-seek can take place on a sensibly large scale, cricket can be played without the risk of breaking windows, ducks can be fed with yesterday’s bread, grandparents can be entertained in the sure knowledge that there will be somewhere for them to sit when they have been exhausted – parks give a taste of the freedom which is taken for granted in the countryside. Not only to children, of course, but childhood memories of time spent in parks linger longer than time spent in, say, airports.
The first purpose-built park in a town was Princes Park in Liverpool, opened in 1843. The idea was attractive to the Victorians, and many towns followed suit. Poole’s park was comparatively late on the scene, though, not opening to the public until 1890. The idea of a park for Poole had been floating around for some time, but the force which brought it to reality was that remarkable man, Lord Wimborne, otherwise Sir Ivor Bertie Guest. He was the eldest son of John Josiah Guest, who had taken over the family firm, the Dowlais Iron Company in Merthyr Tydfil, and made it the largest producer of iron anywhere in the world. When his health began to fail, his wife persuaded him to move to the south of England, and in 1846 he bought the Canford Manor estate. Ivor inherited it on his father’s death in 1852.

The boating lake with the lakeside restaurant

The boating lake with the lakeside restaurant

His great wealth enabled him to mix with the great and the good; it was on Disraeli’s recommendation that he was created Lord Wimborne in 1880. He may have been lampooned in Vanity Fair as ‘the paying Guest’ because of his penchant for high society, but he had a philanthropic side. This was shown when in 1885 he presented the town of Poole with land and a salt-water lake adjacent to Parkstone Bay for the purpose of creating what the Council Minutes refer to as a ‘People’s Park and Recreation Ground’: the thinking behind it was that it would be for the benefit of the new residential suburbs which had developed to the east of the medieval and 18th-century town and port. It was, in reality, reclaimed land, on which there had once been a farm surrounded by a few marshy meadows. Negotiations between the council and Lord Wimborne continued throughout 1885, and it was agreed that roads would be constructed on the east and west sides of the lake. A tidal sluice was constructed in the railway embankment by the Dorset Iron Foundry Company in February 1886, followed by an arched subway beneath the embankment for the use of carriages.

The fountain donated by Lord Wimborne in 1990 to mark the park’s centenary

The fountain donated by Lord Wimborne in 1990 to mark the park’s centenary

The council held a competition for designs for the proposed park, and in October 1886 it was announced that the best of the entries were those from Robert Veitch and Son of Exeter and Reginald Upcher of Poole. However, the following year the Borough Surveyor, John Elford, reported that neither of the two selected plans was capable of implementation as they stood and advised that his own plan (incorporating elements from the Veitch and Upcher plans) should be adopted.
Work on the construction of the park went on during 1888. Veitch’s disappointment over the non-acceptance of his design was mitigated by the fact that he was awarded the contract for the landscaping. However, local firms were given the contracts for earthworks, fencing and gates, and J C Rigler of Poole was responsible for the bandstand, lodges, shelter, cricket pavilion, drinking fountain and rustic bridge. Work on planting the park began in October 1888, and the shrubs were supplied by David Stewart, the founder of the Stewarts garden business in Ferndown.

The refreshment hut as seen in an Edwardian hand-tinted post card (image: www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/)

The refreshment hut as seen in an Edwardian hand-tinted post card (image: www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/)

Work on the park had not been completed by the time it was officially opened on 18 January 1890 – indeed, the cricket ground was not completed until 1892. The opening ceremony itself has gone down in history as one of the town’s less fortunate moments. The park was due to be opened by Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales. He, together with his wife Princess Alexandra and their children, had been staying at Canford Manor with Lord and Lady Wimborne. They were due to make a tour of the town, during which Parkstone Park (also designed by John Elford and now known as Ashley Cross Green) was to be dedicated, followed by the opening of Poole Park, which was to be a rather grander affair, unsurprisingly in view of the fact that it was about thirty times larger – a special marquee had been erected, streets had been decorated, a band was to play. It was to be a great day for the town.
But the Princess and several of her children went down with flu and were confined to their beds. Worse was to follow. On the night before the opening, hurricane force winds wrecked the marquee and destroyed the decorations. Arrangements were hurriedly made for the Prince to tour the borough and the two parks and to declare Poole Park open from the railway station before taking the train to London. But the railway police objected on safety and security grounds – ‘Health and Safety’ is not a new phenomenon – and eventually the ceremony was held in the cramped little booking office and the speeches were not even read: the Prince merely handed his text to the Mayor before departing.

The ceremony for the dedication of the fountain donated by Lord Wimborne for the centenary of the park was more successful than its predecessor in 1890

The ceremony for the dedication of the fountain donated by Lord Wimborne for the centenary of the park was more successful than its predecessor in 1890

But despite its inauspicious start, Poole Park has over the years proved to be one of the town’s most popular venues. It covers an area of more than 100 acres – 60 acres of this consists of freshwater and brackish lakes, which is highly unusual for an urban park – and its large size gives it a sense of space so that it never seems to be crowded even at its busiest times. While it retains its late 19th-century plan and many of its original features, such as the circuit of drives and walks, the lodges and structural planting, there have been several additions and changes. An ice cream kiosk in Art Deco style dates from 1922, although it was apparently not erected until 1945 (it is now used as the information point for the friends of Poole Park); a war memorial was added in 1927; the bandstand was removed in the 1930s (a cast-iron fountain in a 19th-century design was placed on the site of it in the 1990s, donated by the contemporary Lord Wimborne for the park’s centenary); Rigler’s rustic bridge of 1889 was destroyed by enemy action in World War 2 and was replaced by a brick and concrete one; and in 1949 a 10¼-inch gauge miniature railway began operating on a 700-yard circuit around the larger of the two freshwater lakes, and a steam train is still hauling passengers in open-air wagons to this day.

A 1960s shot of the Poole Park miniature railway, which has been in action since 1949 (image: www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/)

A 1960s shot of the Poole Park miniature railway, which has been in action since 1949

A 1970s shot of the railway showing a more modern train in operation  (images: www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/)

A 1970s shot of the railway showing a more modern train in operation (images: www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/)

The area to the east of the lakes which is today laid to grass was developed before World War 1 with a group of aviaries for exotic waterfowl; these were replaced in 1963 by a small zoo, which at one time had a Himalayan Black Bear as one of its inmates. As awareness of animal welfare increased, the zoo fell out of favour and it was closed in 1994. In 1952 a Model Yacht Enclosure was created by constructing a concrete walkway which separates it from the saltwater lake, and model boats have been sailing there ever since.
This year the park celebrates its 125th birthday. Its age is a cause for celebration but also for concern, for many parts of the infrastructure are deteriorating and becoming harder to maintain, such as the bridge and surrounds of the sluice gate, and areas of hard surfacing. In August 2014 the Borough of Poole and the Friends of Poole Park submitted a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) Parks for People Programme for ‘Poole Park Life’, a £2.7m improvement project for the park.
One of the main items in the project is the management and maintenance of the main boating lake to reduce the incidence of algal blooms, tassel weed and swarms of midges, thereby improving the park’s value for both people and wildlife. In January 2015 the HLF announced that the first phase of the bid had been successful and awarded a grant of £260,000.
This grant will finance the development phase of the project, which will involve a year of research to augment knowledge of how this tidal lagoon works, what comes in through the many pipes into the lake, how deep it is, how much wildlife is in there, what happens when the sluice gate is opened and water is exchanged with the harbour. There are proposals to dredge the lake to make it deeper, create new reed beds to diffuse pollution, and to install boardwalks.
Rather a lot for a 125-year-old to take on, perhaps, but it will ensure that Poole Park remains very much at the heart of the local community. ◗

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