PEEK INTO PAST: The history of Burnley’s parks

THIS week I am going to introduce you to a project I have been working on for more years than I care to remember. This is a single volume history of Burnley which I hoped would be completed this year as we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of Burnley becoming a borough.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 28th December 2011, 3:33 pm

I had intended that the book would be an A to Z encyclopaedia of the history of the town, its events, institutions, people, streets etc., but, on reading a few local histories only recently I have decided to revert to the system I used in my history of Briercliffe which, incidentally, celebrates its 30th anniversary next year.

Though there are completely new sections, much of what the Burnley book contains can be found elsewhere. What I have tried to do is put into the national context, the issues and movements which affected Burnley in the different stages of its history.

A case in point is the story of Burnley’s municipal and public parks and public open spaces. Burnley should be very proud of them as six of its seven parks have green flag awards, the national standard by which parks are judged. However, the history of Burnley’s public parks, the story of how the land upon which they now stand was used in the past and how they were paid for is quite different to what might be expected.

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Burnley’s special character stems from the open spaces within the town. Over centuries, despite industrialisation and increased urbanisation, Burnley has managed to retain, create and develop green areas in large sweeps and small pockets – sometimes colourful with wild flowers or studded with splendid trees, some wild, sometimes made magnificent by the hand of man; sometimes open and spacious, sometimes hidden. This has been compounded by the successful Forest of Burnley project, which was funded by the borough council and the Millennium Commission, and has increased the tree cover of the borough to a respectable 9.2%.

Nor is the town resting on its laurels. The on-going Brun Valley Forest project, to the east of Burnley, though financed rather differently, will provide facilities which remain in short supply at a time when increasing numbers of people want to be enjoying themselves in the open air. In addition we have active “friends” organisations for all our parks with a new one for the Rowley area just getting into its stride. It is very encouraging that the people of Burnley want to see our public parks and open spaces meeting the needs of our citizens and visitors from elsewhere in the region.

Parks are important but they are not the only public open space we have. In fact, Burnley came rather late to public parks and, in the 1870s, had embarked on the provision of recreation grounds and small gardens to serve local communities. These facilities still undertake this work and examples of the former can still be seen at Whittlefield, Rosehill and St Andrew’s. There are small gardens at Thornber Gardens, Barden and in Briercliffe Road though there are others across town.

We should not forget the grounds of the former private estates. Towneley, Thompson Park and Scott Park, now public parks, should be included among these, but there are also Gawthorpe, Huntroyde and Ormerod. Few towns can claim to have such magnificent reminders of the estates of the landed gentry. In the past they might have been guarded against poachers but today they become green lungs which have a positive effect on all our lives.

Then there are the cemeteries and graveyards of Burnley and Padiham. They are now being recognised for what they are – not only the last resting places of our citizens but of immense heritage and environmental value. The same can be said of our countryside which, even today, constitutes something like nine-tenths of our land area. There you will find the wooded charms of Castle Clough in Hapton, the historic and beautiful hamlet of Hurstwood, the haunted valley of Thursden and the riverside walks of Ightenhill. A little further afield the remains of the great medieval hunting forests of Pendle, Trawden, Rossendale and Bowland can still be identified and they too have great impact on our landscape.

In Burnley we do not have the botanical gardens of other towns but, once, Towneley Park was regarded as one of the great arboretums of the north of England and much has been done, in recent years, to restore that reputation. In the park there remains much to do but the Offshoots Permaculture Centre, based in the Walled Garden there, is gaining a national reputation with its work on restoring the native British black bee to our countryside, while at the same time, demonstrating in very accessible ways how to grow environmentally friendly fruit and vegetables.

It is worth thinking about what Burnley would be like without these plots of land, both large and small, which remind us about the natural pace of life and our place in the enormity of creation. Parks, of course, play an important part in this. They were designed for public access but our parks are of comparatively recent creation.

The first public park in England is generally regarded as being Birkenhead Park, the land for which was purchased in 1841 though the project was not completed until 1847 by which time Peel Park, Salford, had already opened. There is another park, the Prince’s Park, in Toxteth, Liverpool, which is even older (opened in 1843) but this was privately financed as was the refashioning of Regents Park, London, in 1827.

In Burnley we had to wait until 1893 for our first public park and residents of the town are often surprised to learn this honour goes to one of our finest parks, Scott Park. I think they expect Towneley should be the oldest park and, in a sense, of course, it is but Towneley was in private hands until 1902 when Burnley Council bought part of the estate from Lady O’ Hagan, the last member of the Towneley family to live at the hall.

As I have indicated, Towneley is one of the surviving historic parks of Burnley. Originally it was a small hunting park, going back 600 years or more, owned by the family which developed, as the years went by, into parkland not unlike a public park. The Towneleys could not exclude the public from the park even when they were in residence at the hall as there are several historic rights of way across the park including a pack horse route very near the hall.

The same can be said of Thompson Park which, in its earliest days, constituted part of the private gardens of Bank Hall. When General Scarlett was in residence he allowed residents of the town, on application, to use the lower gardens for walking and picnicking on the banks of the Brun. Scott Park contains much of the former gardens of the Hood House Estate and the mere shadows of the current park’s former use can still be identified on the ground.

At Queen’s Park, named in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, though it was not opened until 1895, the land was donated to the town by Sir John Hardy Thursby. Previously it had been regarded as poor meadow land and was crossed by a mineral railway connecting three coal mines. It was anything but a park in the old sense of the word. Ightenhill was constructed in 1912 on land donated by the then Lord Shuttleworth. Surprisingly, the land was outside the former Ightenhill Park, the private hunting park which was at its peak in the Middle Ages and was merely rough grazing and woodland.

Padiham has its own much-loved public park. It was quite an achievement for a small urban district, as Padiham was when the park was constituted, to develop such an amenity. The park is almost in the centre of the town and its importance has been enhanced by developments on the old railway line and Grove Lane.