Chester's Grosvenor Park is a spark of inspiration
PUBLISHED: 16:13 09 May 2011 | UPDATED: 20:08 07 June 2016
An historic park just outside the city walls is one of Chester's hidden gems, as Simon Whaley reports
The opening event of Grosvenor Park in 1867 was described at the time as ‘‘one of the greatest ever witnessed in Chester’’. A procession stretching for almost a mile entered the park under a 30-foot arch of evergreens and flags.
Grosvenor Park was one of the first public parks to be created in Britain away from the big industrial cities and lies just outside the city walls. As well as a collection of fascinating plants and trees, recent excavations have also uncovered a wealth of history.
Originally a collection of fields, Richard Grosvenor, the Second Marquis of Westminster, bought the plot for £13,500 so the people of Chester would have a green space to enjoy in their leisure time.
And the Victorian design is still clear to see. Colourful formal beds sit among large swathes of pristinely cut lawn, crisscrossed with pathways.
One of the biggest structural features is an avenue of lime and holly trees which leads to a large statue of the park’s benefactor, carved in white Sicilian marble. According to park plans, the avenue was supposed to have a continuous line of holly trees, but a decade after the grand opening alternate hollies were removed and replaced with lime trees.
Richard Grosvenor employed Edward Kemp as the landscape designer, a highly skilled gardener who influenced many Victorian gardens and had been trained by Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire. Both had helped to design Birkenhead Park, Britain’s first publicly funded park, in 1847. Grosvenor also employed a local architect, John Douglas, to undertake the hard landscaping and the design of the Park Lodge.
This was Douglas’s first building in what was to become his trademark black and white style on a sandstone base. Park Lodge - which is festooned with carvings of William the Conqueror and the Norman Earls of the surrounding Chester area - was the residence of the park keeper who received £2 per week, while both his under-gardeners were paid 18 shillings a week.
John Douglas’s attention to detail even extended beyond the park. He designed a row of houses with impressive turrets and gables in Grosvenor Park Road so the approach to the park’s entrance would be as impressive as the park itself. He later went on to design the city’s famous Eastgate Clock, erected to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
During 2007, excavations uncovered the remains of a 19th century town house demolished in order to create the park. Another trench revealed a cobbled Roman street which may have led directly to Chester’s famous amphitheatre and in a third, near the adjacent Church of St John the Baptist, human remains were discovered.
Two of the four skeletons had their hands together underneath their spines, while their ankles were closely aligned, suggesting they’d been buried with their hands and feet bound together. It is thought they were convicted criminals, which may also explain why they were buried outside the graveyard.
Walk around the park today and there are plenty of interesting trees to see. Near St John the Baptist’s Church is an upright oak, tall and thin and shaped more like a poplar tree, and one of only a handful remaining in Cheshire. There is also a tulip tree, so called because of its tulip shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers. Other interesting trees include a weeping beech, blue cedars, contorted willows and even a strawberry tree, which does bear fruit, but be warned, it’s very bitter.
Within the grounds of Eaton Hall, the Grosvenor family home about three miles south of Chester, lies a private 15-inch gauge railway, built in 1896, which connected the Grosvenor’s estate to the Shrewsbury-Chester mainline railway, three miles away at Balderton. To commemorate the centenary of this railway, a smaller 7¾ inch gauge railway was constructed in Grosvenor Park, with both steam and diesel operated engines pulling small carriages around a quarter mile track.
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