Grosvenor Park

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The Lavaux Map (1745) shows the "Head Lands" and "Cholmondeleys Place".

Grosvenor Park is the only park within the centre of Chester. It is famous for its tame squirrels and its formal gardens. It is bounded by the River Dee to the south, Vicar's Lane and Union Street to the north, Dee Lane to the east and the footpath from the amphitheater to The Groves to the west. There are entrances along each of the park boundaries. It is a very popular spot for weekend strolls and gets very busy in warm weather.

Grosvenor Park is now regarded by many as one of the finest and most complete examples of Victorian parks in the north-west of England, if not nationally. Many changes have taken place since its official opening, but much of the original design and features have been retained. The park is registered on English Heritage's list of Historic Parks and Gardens.

The character of the park is a classical 19th century design. It is typically Victorian in its layout with formal avenues lined with trees, statuary, large sweeping lawns surrounded with ornamental shrub beds and display bedding. The bedding displays are planted twice yearly to provide a spectacular and colourful display throughout the spring and summer.

History

Earliest times

Grosvenor Park from the OS Map of 1872. "Billy Hobby's Well" is marked as a "Drinking Fountain" and the location of the Lodge is marked. The Suspension Bridge can be seen south of the park.

Recently, the western part of Grosvenor Park was subjected to a full compliment of non-invasive archaeological survey techniques. The results indicated that:

  • Roman quarrying occurred in the area of the park and along the River Dee. The Hermitage was built on a sandstone outcrop in the remains of a large quarry. Roman Earthenware pipes have been found near the lodge which were used to bring water from the springs at Boughton to Roman Chester;
  • In the Medieval period the area was known as "Redcliffe", and the quarrying which had taken place in the area possibly gave rise to the mistaken belief that the course of the River Dee had its course purposefully altered;
  • The site was that of a Georgian house known as Cholmondeley's Mansion, which itself had replaced a Medieval building that passed to the Cholmondeley family at the time of the dissolution of the Fraternity of St Anne 1547. The Medieval buildings were destroyed at the time of the Civil War, but were located at the western end of the park;

The survey also identified several linear anomalies cutting across the park that do not respect either the alignments of the park or the historical townscape. These anomalies might indicate previously unknown archaeological features worthy of investigation and future interpretation.

The area that is now Grosvenor Park was originally made up of fields. The largest of these was marked on the 1833 plan of the city as 'Billy Obbies Field', in the corner of which was a spring, known as Billy Hobby's Well. The site was crossed from north to south by a lane, approximately following the line of Kemp's formal walk, which led from Union Street to the River Dee. To the north-west a row of houses stood adjacent to the junction of Vicar's Lane and Union Street. The development of the park entailed the closure of the lane, and the demolition of most of the structures on the periphery of the site.

1866 Cholera epidemic

Frances Wilbraham, the "Florence Nightingale of Chester".

In 1865 Cheshire was hit by a cattle plague and the following year there was an outbreak of Cholera. At the time people believed that this was due to drinking water being contaminated by surface drainage from places where dead cattle had been buried in haste. At a meeting of the Assembly in May 1866 it was decided to provide two places for Cholera wards within the City in case the outbreak reached Chester. One of these was located in a disused farmhouse on the land which was to become the park. The heftiest women from the local workhouse were selected as potential nurses but there was some concern that they were neither honest nor sober, had no training and that it was unwise to put them in charge of either patients or medicines. Fortunately Frances Wilbraham (1815-1905) of Kings Buildings (King Street), a wealthy member of the local gentry volunteered to oversee them.

The first two case of cholera appeared on 1st September 1866. One was a woman from a tenement in Goss Street the other Alderman John Trevor, a former mayor and editor of the Chester Chronicle: both were dead within days. The ward in the park was soon full of the sick and dying, but Francis Wilbraham nursed them tirelessly and by November the outbreak began to abate. The Duke of Westminster called Frances Wilbraham the "Florence Nightingale of Chester". The farmhouse was demolished before the park was opened.

Even by 1914 most working-class Cestrians lived in 19thC terraced housing with tiny back sculleries, outside lavatories, small back yards, and front doors opening on to the street. In the city centre, conditions in the courts of Princess Street, Goss Street, and Crook Street remained below that standard into the 1930s. In Princess Street alone there were 224 houses, of which 140 were damp and 120 verminous; 103 shared lavatories, 118 had no suitable washing accommodation, and 108 lacked a sink or internal water supply.

Construction

The park covers some 20 acres and the land was given to the city by Richard, the Second Marquess of Westminster. On 9 October 1867, he wrote to the Leader of Chester City Council (Corporation Minutes, 5 October 1867):

  • "I am desirous of placing the park on the hands of the corporation as a gift on my part to the citizens of Chester, hoping it may afford health and recreation to themselves and their families for many years to come."
Grosvenor Park in an early engraving. The statue of Richard Grosvenor can be seen in this engraving so it is dated after 1869 (after the park opened in 1867). Billy Hobby's Well can also be seen. However, there are few mature trees within the park, so this must show what the park looked like in the 1870's. It can certainly be no later than 1881 when the tower of St Johns collapsed.

The park was designed by Edward Kemp, landscape designer and former pupil of Joseph Paxton, the architect of the Crystal Palace in London. The Marquess paid for the design and laying out of the new "pleasure park". The gift was accompanied by an endowment to provide an income of £100 per annum towards the upkeep of the park. The Marquis' deed of gift stipulated that the park should be known as Grosvenor Park; there should be free entry to the park every day of the year, but horses and carriages were to be prohibited. Music, including band concerts were allowed, but dancing was strictly forbidden. The Marquis provided a gymnasium at the north-east corner of the park for recreational use. An undated and unsigned 19thC plan of the park survives (Chester Records Office). This generally accords with the surviving layout of the site, but varies in some details from that shown on the late 19thC OS map. In particular, the south-west boundary of the site is shown extending to the River Dee, the formal garden at the north-west corner of the park is shown planted with scattered specimen trees rather than geometrical flower beds, and small formal pools rather than flower beds are shown at intervals along the formal walks. The informal pool is also absent from the design shown on this plan. Further formal elements absent from the original design, including a terraced rose garden, were introduced into the park in the 1930s.

Many of the features and buildings within the park were designed by the architect John Douglas. These include Grosvenor Park Lodge, the boundary wall and gateways in to the park and the canopy to Billy Hobby's well. Grosvenor Park Lodge was originally the head park keeper's residence but is today used as the city council's parks and gardens administrative office.

While the park was being prepared in 1865/66, a cholera epidemic broke out in the city. For want of more appropriate accommodation, the sick were accommodated in a temporary structure on the park site, making it the first building there.

The grand opening

The park has a mixture of flat open spaces and winding paths through trees.

The official opening of Grosvenor Park in 1867 was launched with a grand procession that was more than a mile long. The East Gate was adorned with evergreens and the arms of the Grosvenor family were surmounted with a trophy of flags. The inscription below the family coat of arms read:

  • "Cestria today with grateful heart. accepts her noble neighbours more than princely gift. Her children, too, in ages yet unborn, shall bless the donor of the peoples park".

Things to see

The park is generally level, but falls away steeply towards the southern and eastern boundaries, thus allowing extensive views south and south-east across the River Dee. Grosvenor Park is laid out with two formal avenues or promenades which form an asymmetrical cruciform shape on plan; informal curvilinear walks form a perimeter circuit, while further curvilinear walks and straight paths cross the site from north to south, dividing it up into areas for recreation and horticultural display. The steep south-facing slopes at the south-east corner of the site are laid out as rock gardens, while to the south-west the slope is more wooded. There are further belts of mixed boundary planting extending along the east boundary, and screening the properties to the north-north-west of the park. East of the north/south promenade is an area of lawns planted with specimen trees and ornamental shrubs. Some 130m south-east of the lodge is an informal pond partly surrounded by specimen trees and moisture-loving plants. The pond contains a simple jet fountain, while to the north a series of three early C20 stone-walled terraces are planted with roses and seasonal subjects. A flight of stone steps ascends north from the pond to a lawn, from which it is separated by a clipped golden privet hedge. To the north-east of this lawn a single-storey gabled timber pavilion dated 1931 serves as the station for a late 20thC miniature railway which passes round the lawns east of the north/south promenade.

Statue of Richard Grosvenor

Richard Grosvenor, friend of pidgeons.

There is a marble statue of the park's donor, Richard the Second Marquis, in Garter robes. There was originally a suggestion that it should be bronze, but it was later decided to go for a larger than life marble statue. It was sculpted by Thomas Thornycroft and erected in 1869 at the junction of four avenues. At the time it was thought to be a single piece of Sicilian marble (thought to be the single largest carved from a single block in modern Britain at the time), however it was later found that there was a join at the shoulder.

  • "In November 1865, a subscription was originated by the tenantry of the Marquess of Westminster and by the citizens of Chester for the purpose of raising a testimonial to mark the public and private worth of his lordship, and the high estimation in which he is held by his neighbours and tenants, as well as by all classes of the community. Upwards of £5,000 was ... contributed for the purpose, and it was ...resolved that ...a statue be erected in a prominent place in the new Park".

Actually, there is some doubt as to how much was raised. Other records states that the statue cost £3,500 and that subscriptions had raised a total of £4,179, and the difference was spent on a portrait of the Marquess for the Town Hall. £5000 is over 400k in 2014 money. The statue was unveiled on 1st July 1869, but neither the Marquess nor his wife attended. The Marquess was already terminally ill (and would die on the 31st October) and his wife did not want a public unveiling. There is no record that the Marquis ever actually saw the statue, after unveiling.

The plinth is inscribed:

  • "Richard: Second Marquess of Westminster: K.G. The Generous Landlord: The Friend of the Distressed: The Helper of all Good Works: The Benefactor to this City: Erected by Tenants Friends and Neighbours; AD 1869".

This is the second inscription: the first was changed because it had "2nd" in figures (now written as ‘second’) and had spawned the joke of "the tuppenny Marquess" (two old pence were written as ‘2d’).

Two sets of guns used to share this space with the Marquess. There were two Boer guns which had been captured in the Boer War and also two Russian guns which had been captured at Sebastopol being brought in state to Chester Castle in June 1857 and later placed by the monument. It is believed that these guns were melted down in the Second World War. To the south of the statue the promenade continues c 10m before terminating in a raised octagonal terrace enclosed by low stone walls and stone bench seats backed by low metal railings. This was originally proposed as a site for a "belvedere" which was never constructed, although a bandstand once stood here. There are views south across the River Dee from the octagonal terrace, while short flights of stone steps descend east and west from the terrace to the southern perimeter walk.

Grosvenor Park Lodge

Grosvenor Park Lodge, 1865 by John Douglas.

The Lodge was originally the Park Keeper's Lodge and was Chester City Council's Parks & Gardens Office until 2001. The design of the Lodge and Billy Hobby's Well are the first recorded instance of John Douglas's employment at the hands of the Grosvenor family. The ground floor of the Lodge is made of stones with half-timbering on the second storey. This is Douglas's first known use of black and white. The masonry detailing is Gothic. There are seven carvings representing the Norman Earls of Chester and one representing William the Conqueror. Moving around the house from left to right, the statues are:

  • William the Conqueror

AVRANCHES (first creation)

  • Hugh of Avranches: 1st Earl of Chester, created (1070-1101) - eventually becomes a monk, then dies.
  • Richard of Avranches: 2nd Earl of Chester (1101-1120) - drowns on the wreck of the "White Ship" - no children.

MESCHINES (second creation)

  • Ranulf de Meschines: 1st Earl of Chester (1120-1129) - a brief earldom and death by natural causes.
  • Ranulph De Gernon: 2nd Earl of Chester (1129-1153) - a serial turncoat, may have eventually been poisoned.
  • Hugh de Kevelioc: 3rd Earl of Chester (1153-1181) - revolted, imprisoned, released, restored.
  • Ranulf de Blondeville: 4th Earl of Chester (1181-1232) - dies without issue although his adopted son was declared heir to the English throne.

CANMORE (third creation)

  • John Canmore: known as "John the Scot" Earl of Chester (1232-1237) - dies without issue.

Sensitive restoration of the lodge, including the removal of rather garish paint from the carvings and the addition of a glazed extension was completed in 2014. The lodge now provides a cafe for visitors and retains many internal features designed by Douglas including doors, door-frames, decorative tiles and some cornices.

Billy Hobby's Well

Billy Hobby's Well by John Douglas, in 2014.
Billy Hobby's Well, marked as a "Spring" on Murray and Smart's Map of c.1800

This was situated in Billy Hobby's Field before the park was created. The well had a magical reputation in Chester. Chester maidens would stand with their right leg immersed in the water, wishing for husbands. Hanshall, writing in 1823, describes it as follows:

  • "In a field at the bottom of Dee Lane is a beautifully clear spring called Billy Hobby's well,- how this name was applied remains to be traced."

..and when Canniff Haight (1904) visited as recorded in his "United Empire", the spring was still flowing and he noted:

  • After straying around the park for a whil, we approach "Billy Hobby’s Well," a spring of excellent water, where we have a drink.

The place-name of "Billy Obbies Field", is used on Tithe Maps from 1745, with an accompanying spring marked at 1791 on Poole's Map and on Murray and Smart's map of c.1800. This suggests that the spring gained its name from the field and not vice versa, with the name possibly representing a local person. However, "Hobby" derives from "hobb", a name for a devil or demon – from which the name "hobgoblin" is derived. This connection was famously used in "Quatermass and the Pit" - where "Hobbs End" was a fictional Underground Station. While the name "Hobb" is often associated with a place of danger (such as a swamp or quicksand) it has been suggested that, as the name "Hobb" is synonymous with Puck, and Puck possibly has a Roman origin, that the site could in this case be a much earlier Pagan site. A local anonymous rhyme (as noted at http://megalithix.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/billy-hobbys-well-chester/) records:

I lov’d the tales that idle maids do tell,
Of wonders wrought at Billy Hobby’s Well,
Where love-sick girls with leg immured would stand,
The right leg ’twas – the other on dry land,
With face so simple – stocking in the hand -
Wishing for husbands half a winter’s day.
With ninety times the zeal they used to pray

In 1867, John Douglas designed a little medieval-style canopy for the well (SJ 41277 66202). This is Grade II listed, and the description reads:

  • "Pumphouse pavilion for water garden in Grosvenor Park. 1865-67. By John Douglas at the expense of the 2nd Marquis of Westminster. For Chester City Council. Sandstone ashlar, red and buff. Octagonal on square plinth; each cardinal face has a pointed-arched opening with a pair of polished red granite columns attached to each jamb, with C13-style capitals; voussoirs with carved roses; wrought-iron bars with spiked crooks; recessed circlet in each canted side, with armorial sheafs and portcullises; carved cove forming cornice beneath eaves of light-grey slate spire surmounted by a copper fish as weathervane, on a lead finial."

In his 2008 book, "Haunted Chester", author David Brandon suggests that Billy Hobby was a real character who invented the legend while employed at the park and charged women to access the well on New Year's Eve. He stopped his lucrative side-line when at least one woman caught a chill and died. However the reference to Billy Hobbies Field from 1745 and the fact that Grosvenor Park was not first opened until 1867 would seem to argue against that.

Ancient relics

Some ancient relics of old Chester were also re-erected in Grosvenor Park:

  • St. Mary's Arch – the archway and wing walls were removed from St Mary's Benedictine Nunnery (adjacent to the Roodee). The Nunnery had lain in ruins since Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. The arch and walls date from around the 13th century. They also have a mystery of their own.
  • a doorway from old St Michael Church - at least that is what the label on it says. However, it actually looks virtually identical to the gate which used to be at "The Bars".
  • Jacobs Well drinking fountain – this little stone arch had a fountain for people and a dish for their pets. It is now dried up - for the simple reason that it was also moved from elsewhere. Beside the fountain is the inscription "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall never thirst again" (John IV, 13).

Other attractions

A children's railway runs in a loop on the east side of the park near to the north gate on Union Street. There is a pond in the centre of the loop. The railway was built in 1996 to commemorate the centenary of the Duke of Westminster's railway at Eaton Hall. It has a gauge of 7.25 inches (18 cm) and a circuit of 0.25 miles (0.40 km).

During the summer months (July–August) the park hosts the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, a purpose-built outdoor theatre that has been described as a "Northern alternative to The Globe and Regent's Park".

The sensory garden and large area of open space are on the west side, which is mainly used for informal recreational sporting activities.

Views

There's not much to see on the northern edge of the park, apart from the buildings on Union Street and Vicar's Lane. The best views are to the south, where the grounds start to slope towards the river valley. Here you can see spectacular views of the River Dee, especially to the south-east, the Meadows, the mansions of Queen's Park on the opposite river bank and on a clear day you can reputedly see as far as Shropshire.

Trees

The mature trees, including the avenues of holly and lime, were planted during the development of the park in the 1860/70s. The lime trees lining the main avenues have been traditionally maintained in keeping with the Victorian fashion for creating a pyramidal form, which gives rise to their rather strange appearance during the winter months.

Many new specimens have been introduced since then, including two Californian redwoods, (Sequoiadendron giganteum), planted in the mid 1970s. These two trees were raised from the seeds of the famous Giant Redwood named "General Sherman" growing in the Californian National Park whose recorded height is 274.9 feet with a mass of over 1,900 tonnes, the largest known living single stem tree on earth, and about 2,000 years old. The two redwoods planted in Grosvenor Park are not expected to attain such astounding dimensions, but may nevertheless develop into very large specimens, given a few thousand years...

Squirrels and other wildlife

Greys carry a virus which kills the Red Squirrel
Feral Pidgeon = White Whig

The park, being situated as it is adjacent to the river and to open countryside, abounds with wildlife.

There are hundreds of grey squirrels (Sciurus Carolinensis) living in the park. They are extremely tame and will happily run up to take nuts from your fingers. Local folklore says that Grosvenor Park was the first place in Britain where they were introduced from the USA. This is incorrect as grey squirrels were first recorded appearing in nearby Denbighshire, across the Welsh border, in the 1820s. Systematic introduction began when a Thomas Unett Brocklehurst liberated a pair from Henbury Park, Cheshire, in 1876. They seem to have been brought to Chester soon after.

The invasive grey squirrel is rapidly driving the UK's native Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) population to extinction, although the loss of habitat has also played a role.

The feral pigeon population in the park has grown considerably over the years. Together, the grey squirrels and pigeons account for a lot of damage to the annual bedding schemes through continual scavenging for food, so don't be too alarmed if you see irate park staff shouting and frantically waving their arms!

Many other species of birds can be seen, some of which may nest in the park. These include mallards and waterhens on the pond, as well as robins, songthrushes and blackbirds. Watch out for the more unusual species, such as the spotted flycatcher, a summer migrant, and the tree creeper, a shy furtive bird which may be seen walking up tree trunks in search of insects.

Scheduled revamp

In 2013 Chester City Council obtained a £2.3m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund's Parks for People programme to carry out a revamp of Grosvenor Park. The revamp includes work on the Groves and the St Johns Church areas. The final restoration and improvements to Grosvenor Park (completed July 2014) include:

  • restoration of the Edward Kemp Victorian landscape design to open up views and restore planting plans;
  • resurfacing all of the paths including a new accessible path in the southern end of the park;
  • restoration of the boundary walls, gates and heritage features including arches and statues;
  • a new natural play area that will be relocated to the east of the miniature railway;
  • a cafe and community rooms in the park lodge building;
  • new belvedere training building;
  • improved signage and interpretation panels;
  • an activity programme for the park.

Sources

  • A Virtual Stroll