it’s easy to think how kind the Victorians were to provide public parks for the people. But in fact they were just dead worried about the epidemics occurring amongst the poor and the violence. The French Revolution was still strong in their memory.
The upper classes persuaded themselves that parks were the solution for those “who …have been absolutely pent up and stifled in the smoke and din of their enormous prison”. It was certainly cheaper to build a few parks “as a means of exercise for the humbler classes” than rehousing those thousands who were living in such dreadful surroundings.
And so the Public Health Act of 1875 was born. This empowered Councils to establish green spaces for the public. And parks in Exeter soon followed.
Bull Meadow park was built in 1883 and in 1885 Little Bury Meadow was established as a “Public Promenade and Play Ground for the citizens”. Belmont Park soon followed and was opened to the public in 1886. St Thomas Pleasure Ground was opened in 1891.
Subsequent parks were opened to the public - Heavitree in 1906 and Rougement in 1912. In 1952 Eastern Fields were purchased by the council.
However, NORTHERNHAY predates the Public Health Act and is believed to be the oldest public park in the country. It was a bowling green in 1612 and its long wall contains Roman and medieval stone. The park was wrecked during the Civil War but rejuvenated with 200 elm saplings and gravel paths in 1664.
Because the park overlooked the County prison, in the early 19th century hundreds of people would collect there to watch public executions on the roof of the prison.
In 1923 the Exeter War Memorial was erected to the dead of the First War, and the park became very popular with locals flocking to listen to music from the bandstand. It now has many statues including Harry Hems’ memorial to the Volunteer Force Memorial (now the Territorial Army).
But back to a brief history of the Victorian parks –
BULL MEADOW PARK is in the Shytebrook Valley. The name is the clue - it carried human sewage. A leper hospital had once existed in what is now the north east corner of Bull Meadow. In 1890 forty trees were planted at a cost of £7 and Garton & King provided iron railings and gates for the sum of £73 – sadly they were removed in the Second World War for munitions.
The Commissioners of Improvement agreed in April 1845 to lease about four acres of LITTLE BURY MEADOW as a “Public Promenade and Play Ground” for the citizens. It was called Victoria Park in the 1850s and, in celebration of the accession of Edward VII, it hosted a Citizens' Treat Day on 24 June 1901 with sports, a band and a firework display.
In 1909 it hosted Exeter's first historical pageant. Entitled, 'Briton and Roman', three hundred men and one hundred women enacted a clash between the Britons of Exeter and the invading Romans.
In May 1942, it was used for a field kitchen to feed women and children. Latterly, it was the venue for a rally against the Poll Tax in 1990.
ST THOMAS PLEASURE GROUND was opened on 30 March 1891, for the people’s health and for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. There was band music and a speech from the chairman of the Local Board of Health beseeching the people not to damage the shrubs. Veich were involved in the planting of tall trees. During WW1 32 allotments were dug in part of the park. In 1938 a children’s paddling pool was opened. In February 2005, vandals caused £5,000 worth of damage to a children's playtrain in the park and in March Wessex Trains offered to replace the burnt-out equipment.
The natural moat was used to store water for fighting fires during WW2 air raids. This was not very successful. Latterly, and until 2009, the now empty moat was used by the Northcott Theatreto stage Shakespearean plays in the summer. Magical experiences.
HEAVITREE PARK was opened in 1906, "to clear rowdy youths" who were damaging the gas lights in Fore Street. In 1907 a bowling green and tennis courts were added and Veitch designed and landscaped the grounds. The Coronation oak with a cast iron plaque was planted for the coronation of George V in May 1911. It subsequently disappeared but, when questioned by David Morrish, the park keeper thought "it must be that old plaque on top shelf in the store"! The plaque was restored and replaced.
In July 2009 on a stormy morning the Coronation Oak suddenly split in two. A bystander "heard this enormous creaking sound & watched the tree crack down the middle." A Council spokesman insisted that with the tree’s crown reduced it would survive for another 98 years.
On the park’s centenary in 2006, the Lord Mayor unveiled an obelisk while local children, dressed in Edwardian clothes, sang period songs, danced around a Maypole and attended a tea party.
Initially the park covered 5 acres, half its present size, on the site of an old brickworks clay pit. The other half of today’s park is on the brickworks itself, owned by a Mr Phillips who had refused to sell his land to the council. However, only a few years later, his son (who by then had become the owner), did sell the land and therefore the area of the park was extended to what it is today.
There was, however, another separate brickworks over the road where the Clifton Hill Sports Centre is now located. One might wonder why there were so many sites for brickworks around Exeter until we look at the vast expansion of the city that resulted in the constant need of bricks.
A major feature of the park laid out 50 years after it opened was the “Sensory Garden” on the eastern side. It was first designed by a local man who is reputed to have had seen a lady elsewhere stop to find the source of a strong scent which came from a flower that he could see, but she could not. It transpired that she was blind but had a sharpened sense of smell. He was so moved by this that in 1939 he designed a whole garden of scented flowers that other blind people could smell and from which they could gain pleasure and enjoyment. It was the first public scented garden to be built in the UK and is generally thought to be the first in the world. It was restored in 2007.
The idea has spread around the world for the benefit of blind and disabled people as well as flower enthusiasts at large. The idea expanded to include edible as well as scented plants, water features creating “sounds”, and structures such as sculptures with textured surfaces, magnifying glass screens and braille notices as well as audio descriptions, to give pleasure to deaf and other disabled people as well as the blind. Today they are usually designed with wheel chair access too. Even a “bare foot walk” has been constructed at Trentham with changing surfaces along its paths!
In 1887 the park was the location of a pageant to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Ten years later a keeper named John Lock recorded that a number of nearby streams were often fished by local anglers, but today they are either dried up or covered over and underground. In 1902, Edward VII’s coronation was celebrated at the park with various sporting activities and the whole park became officially recognised as a “botanical garden” with its various plants, and also trees which had been added by then.
During the Second World War, the park was the scene of a range of wooden huts, used by the Army Pay Corps, and when the war ended these were taken over by Exeter Technical College. The remaining hut is still used today as a community centre and by occasional visiting societies and clubs - like ours today..
The garden area along the top boundary beyond the Sensory Garden was upgraded in 2008 when 21 varieties of roses bred by Gertude Jekyll (who had died in 1932) and by William Lobb, a 19th century plant collector for the Veitch nursery, were added.
We left the park by the Sensory Garden and up the slope along the wall where the roses had once been planted. Walking along the side of a bowls club pavilion we noticed how this seems to have been built on old foundations. Originally a row of houses here formed a boundary with the main road. these were demolished and a levelled area, formed over the foundations, became a bowling green, with a clubhouse alongside. this is still very much in use today, as one look at the superb green made clear!
On reaching the road we crossed over to an old public house, once called the “Rope Walk Inn”. There was once a long strip of land behin the pub which was used as one of the numerous Rope-making Yards way back in time.
Walking down the other side of the road, heading for the chapel and its alms-houses, we noted the very old houses and buildings hidden further back,especially “Moose hall”, a recent home of the Exeter branch of Moose International. The building was originally a non-conformist church, but later was adapted and enlarged for the hall. Currently it is boarded up, having been purchased by the university to add yet more accommodation for students!!
THE ORTHODOX CHAPEL
We first met Archdeacon Peter Scorer who told us about the chapel's history. Firstly he told us about the alms-houses, built after the church in 1561, then gave us a quick glimpse of the gardens (right) behind the church.
But the star of the day was the church itself. Dating from 1418, several times modified, even into becoming a private house, but today a living, vibrant church once again.
The church lost its right to say Mass soon after when a clandestine marriage took place. The right to say Mass was restored in 1477 but the offerings to the chapel were taken over by the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral. These were 6s 8d annually until the Dissolution in 1539.
In 1561 the new owners built eight almshouses on the site and during the Civil War (1646) the buildings were damaged though not so seriously as to be uninhabitable.
In 1837 the Town Council were accused of making the proclamation of the new Queen at the wrong time. This was apparently rectified when read outside St Anne’s Chapel. There were also in that year plans to build the attractive gateway which we see today but which is actually dated 1927.
By the beginning of the 20th Century it was felt that the almshouses must be rebuilt. This work was completed in 1907 – which date decorates the drainpipes.
During the war, the church of St James was badly damaged and not rebuilt until 1956. The congregation moved to St Anne’s – it must have been pretty crowded.
The Dean and Chapter now had an empty building on their hands so were glad when in the 1980s the Orthodox Parish took a long lease on the building for a peppercorn rent. They now now hold regular services as well as weddings and funerals. Its members come from many nationalities today and the name of ”Greek” Orthodox has been abridged accordingly.
Twenty years previously, Father Barnabas, an Orthodox Priest had founded an Orthodox Monastery in Willand but, as his community grew, the need was felt for a place of worship more convenient for the many Orthodox believers in Exeter. It is now a busy place of worship with Sunday services for up to 70 people and it is licensed for marriages and funerals.
We really admired the result of his personal efforts in cleaning and repainting the ceiling, the restoration of its earlier shape with one door, one window plus wall niches and the exposed beams of its “cradle roof” (see pic below left).
As can be seen in similar churches on the Continent, the walls and internal furnishings are all gloriously painted. A wooden screen, called an Iconostasis, has paintings of holy icons and it separates the sanctuary (the altar area in most of today’s churches) from the body of the church. But this has a folding screen door in the centre which is opened to reveal the altar and link it to the congregation in accordance with the Orthodox Church’s traditions. Although very small (the chapel can hold up to 70 people but only fifteen seated!) it is full of life with its conventional (for this branch of the Church) paintings and decorations all around the walls.
Everyone was so impressed with the beauty of the chapel and delighted to have discovered this jewel in the heart of Exeter – to many previously unknown.