Standing together under their umbrella, Alex and Lizzie gazed through the rain at the crowds of people waiting for the Queen to arrive. Security was very strict, but they’d been led through the gates into the Park by a very kind policeman who told them she would be arriving soon. They were so looking forward to this reopening of a place which had played such a large part in their lives. They used to walk round the Park nearly every day, and their children and grandchildren had played on the swings and learned to ride their bikes here. But gradually, the visits had stopped and it seemed as if Baxter Park, the People’s Park, was no longer wanted by the people it was built for.
Alex wondered how it had got so bad. He remembered that after the war, the Park had a major reworking. The Dell was filled in, shrubs were stripped out and trees felled. When he was wee, his son had enjoyed a game of giant draughts on the board laid out by the bowling greens. A small rock garden had been also been made and the playground refurbished, but by the 1980s the board had been grassed over, the paths all narrowed, and more shrubberies stripped out. Lizzie had pointed out that the Park was expensive to maintain and the Council had to reduce its costs. Alex remembered they did introduce features like a water garden, but he could see how vandalism, the need for security and squeezed budgets meant maintenance standards declined.
He and Lizzie used to take the kids to the Pavilion for ice-cream, but it had lain empty for years, boarded up with graffiti all over. The water gardens had lasted only a few years before being filled in. By the 90s, gangs and addicts used the Park as a hang-out, so most folk avoided it. He shook his head of the memories, and murmured ‘The Park was a total mess’. No-one seemed to care about the Park, it was unloved.
But Alex, Lizzie and the rest of the community did care. So did the Council. They recognised it was an important landmark in the city, had a significant history worth saving, and more important, it was the local community’s big back garden. So with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, together, they decided they would bring the Park back to life and got to work.
It had taken five years but it was a massive transformation. He and Lizzie had watched how the Pavilion was restored and the new ranger centre built. They’d gone along to some of the exhibitions there and encouraged their grandkids to join in with some of the activities, as well as use the new playpark. He could remember the day they’d taken away the big gates in the war, but now they were back, along with the railings. They’d restored the tennis courts and there was a new grassy amphitheatre. That was grand as music and concerts had always been a huge part of Park life. The people were claiming back their Park and the whole family, including baby Alice, had joined their neighbours and friends to celebrate its regeneration with a day of live music, clowns, fairground rides, stalls and competitions, all a reminder of what the Park had witnessed over the years.
Today though was the formal reopening by the Queen. He could see the VIPs gathered together, and there she was, being introduced to them all. There was going to be some displays and entertainment but he was looking forward to the band playing the ‘Baxter March’. Apparently, it had been written specially for the opening of the Park back in 1863. Alex squeezed Lizzie’s arm as they looked forward to being part of the Park’s life for a few more years.
The reopening didn’t mark the end of the Park’s regeneration. Since 2007, a multi -use game area has been added, planting continues and the Park is used by walkers, runners, nursery groups, teens and families. Couples get married in the Pavilion, the bowling greens and tennis courts are busy and everyone can discover the delights of the flowers, shrubs, trees and the wildlife they attract.
Nearly 150 years after they’d first been planted, the lime, maple and sycamore trees have grown to form a magnificent canopy across the Park’s expanse of revived green space, witness to the changes over the years and to the improvements still to come.
Look for other benches with qr codes and listen to more stories about the history of Baxter Park.