Saturday, 26 September 2015

Is Beacon Park in Lichfield
Britain’s favourite park?

Summer flowers in Beacon Park earlier this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

When I am back in Lichfield, I often stay in the Hedgehog, or at least have lunch or dinner there. It is a choice that has made Beacon Street feel almost like home, as I walk back and forth between the Cathedral and the Hedgehog.

But it also means I have come to enjoy Beacon Park, with its mature trees, woodland walks, a pool, wide open spaces, woodland, herbaceous garden, and views to Lichfield Cathedral.

Now, I read that Beacon Park is in the running to be named Britain’s favourite park this year. Beacon Park is one among a record-breaking number of 1,582 parks and green spaces that have achieved a prestigious, international Green Flag Award that recognises and rewards the best green spaces.

Woodland walks in Beacon Park, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Beacon Park dates back to the late 1800s, and is set in more than 70 acres of beautiful formal gardens and open spaces. The park underwent extensive renovation in 2010 and 2011. The project, led by Lichfield District Council and Lichfield City Council, helped to restore many of the park’s historic features as well as developing new facilities.

The programmes and events that attract thousands of visitors to the park include the Lichfield Proms in Beacon Park.

The park’s facilities include tennis, bowls, football, and an 18-hole par 3 golf course, as well as a large playground and an enclosed play area for under-11s. In summertime, Beacon Park is alive with activities, including crazy golf, mini cars, inflatables, donkey rides, pedaloes on the pool … and more.

The statue of Captain Edward Smith in Museum Gardens (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Museum Gardens is the more formal part of Beacon Park, with classic Victorian features, including flowerbeds that set off the central fountain, and monuments to Captain Edward Smith (1914) of the Titanic (1914), Erasmus Darwin and Edward VII (1908).

Recent new features in Beacon Park include an education hub, a café and a refreshment kiosk, interpretation, and a community gardening area – complete with a greenhouse and a compost toilet.

Museum Gardens were first created as an informal park in the late 1800s. The land was once part of Minster Pool until a causeway was built, on what is now part of Bird Street, and it became known as Bishop’s Pool (or Upper Pool). This pool silted up over time and eventually it was filled in.

Museum Gardens opened as a public park in 1859, during the reign of Queen Victoria. It was developed by Lichfield City Corporation and funded by the Conduit Lands Trust. The gardens, originally incorporating ornamental pools and avenues of trees, were designed to complement the Italianate architecture of the nearby Free Library and Museum.

Local philanthropists and wealthy residents donated items, including the garden’s ornamental fountain which was donated in 1871 by Canon James Thomas Law (1790-1876), Chancellor of the Diocese of Lichfield, Master of Saint John’s Hospital and Warden of Lichfield Theological College.

The figures of the lions surrounding Chancellor Law’s Fountain were given in the late 1880s by Sir Richard Cooper (1847-1913), a Lichfield city alderman. Cooper inherited the business of Cooper and Nephews after the death of his uncle, William Cooper, in 1885. The business manufactured chemicals and exported pedigree live stock. He lived at Shenstone Court outside Lichfield and was a breeder of shorthorn cattle and Shropshire sheep, supplying British livestock to Argentina. Later he became High Sheriff of Staffordshire (1901) and Deputy Lieutenant. In 1892, the Conduit Lands Trust agreed to supply water to the fountain three times a week in summer, without charge.

Beacon Park’s Recreation Grounds were opened in 1891 on nearly five acres of land. The grounds were extended by 12 acres in 1944, thanks to a local benefactor, Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Swinfen Broun (1858-1948). The area features now include tennis courts, bowling greens and football pitches.

The Martyrs’ Plaque, removed from the Guildhall in the 19th century, was restored in Beacon Park in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This is also the location of the Martyrs’ Plaque representing the seal for the city of Lichfield. There was a popular myth that 999 Christians were martyred in Lichfield by the Romans in the year 288 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. The carved stone monument decorated the front of the Guildhall from 1744 until it was removed during a Victorian restoration and placed in storage.

The discarded monument was moved to a rockery on the east side of the Museum Gardens, and fell into disrepair until 2010 when it was restored in the Recreation Grounds. Another interpretation of the seal can be seen on the railway bridge at Saint John Street.

Keep Britain Tidy runs the annual People’s Choice award, giving the British public a chance to vote for their favourite park. This year, Lichfield District Council is encouraging local people to back Beacon Park.

You can vote for Beacon Park by going to this page on the Green Flag Award site and clicking the “Vote for this Site” button.

Voting closes at noon on Wednesday [30 September], and the winner of the People’s Choice award will be announced in October.

The statue of Erasmus Darwin in Museum Gardens (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2015)