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Calverley Grounds

Mount Pleasant House and the Calverley Estate

Calverley Grounds was originally part of the Mount Pleasant House estate built by Lord Egmont around 1762. In 1825 wealthy developer John Ward bought the house and land as part of his Calverley Estate, on which his architect Decimus Burton was to create a new town to rival the old village centred on the Pantiles. The Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria rented the house as holiday accommodation for their visits in 1826-28 and 1834.

Farnborough Lodge at Calverly GroundsCalverley Park

The grounds of Mount Pleasant House were next to and always closely associated with John Ward's private estate of Calverley Park, which formed the centrepiece of Burton's development. Calverley Park consisted of twenty-four individually designed villas, set well apart in spacious gardens, fronted by a crescent of private pleasure grounds. Work began in 1829 and continued until around 1837. Ward and Burton were inspired by the rus in urbe or 'country in the town' concept, and aimed to provide the residents of their new town with the same spacious environment as the inhabitants of the older town enjoyed by reason of their proximity to the Common or the Grove. Their eloquent propagandist John Britton in 1832 describes the Calverley Park villas as 'placed in the midst of a park, which is most pleasantly disposed by nature and adorned by art'.

Calverly Hotel and Pleasure GroundsThe Calverley Hotel

Royal patronage prevented any immediate work on the old Mount Pleasant House, but in the mid 1830s it was rebuilt to Decimus Burton's designs and opened in 1840 as the Calverley Hotel. The grounds were retained in their original state as an informal open space, consisting of meadows with a scattering of trees and a lake at their lowest point. Formal gardens were restricted to the immediate vicinity of the hotel, outside the present park boundaries.

Although the site has been much altered since those times, it is interesting that some of the original flora and fauna of the meadow lands has survived to the present day, including grassland butterflies and two nationally notable mining bees.

Proposed winter and summer garden at Calverly GroundsTransforming the grounds into a public park

The separation of the park from the hotel and its development into a public garden and recreation ground has a long and complex prehistory. As early as 1864, private enterprise proposed a summer and winter garden and an aquarium, with an entrance on the later Great Hall site opposite the station. This would have placed much of the park under a magnificent glass house.

In 1894 the Tradesmen's Association lobbied the Council to acquire the park for a summer and winter garden, but in the following year attention was diverted to the possibility of a public pleasure garden at Warwick Park. This didn't happen, and by 1911 both the Council and Tradesmen's Association were agreed on a policy of acquiring the Calverley Hotel park. Negotiations were opened with the Calverley Estate, but came to nothing. In 1919 the Council again declared itself in favour of a public park in the town centre area, and the Town Clerk was instructed to explore the available possibilities.

In 1920 the Ministry of Health held a public enquiry, at which purchase of the park was supported by the Tradesmen's Association and Advertising Association and opposed by the Ratepayers' Association. The decision was in the Council's favour, and purchase of the park and the Great Hall from the Calverley Estate was completed early in 1921.

Developing the park

From the beginning that the Council's policy was to transform the old informal landscape by the creation of formal gardens, sports facilities, and provision for public entertainments. A temporary bandstand was installed at an early date so that concerts could begin in the summer. In the autumn, Robert Wallace of the Old Gardens was commissioned to prepare a general scheme for laying out the park, but it was decided not to implement this immediately, and in the event development proceeded by stages without an overall plan over the next five or six years. The Civic Association commented in 1945 that 'our grounds seem to have accumulated an assortment of random features with the same inconsequence as the Victorian drawing room absorbs aspidistras and china shepherdesses'.

Through the winter of 1921-22 tennis courts were laid out by labourers paid from the Mayor's Unemployment Fund, and later in the second year a thatched pavilion was built to service them. A bowling green followed in 1923, also created by unemployed labour, along with terracing on the north side of the park. The next year saw the construction of a bowls pavilion and tea house, and the installation of ornamental iron work including gates at the main entrance from Mount Pleasant. An entrance lodge and a series of ornamental lamp standards were added in 1925.

The Burmese Bell in the rose garden at Calverly Grounds (1960)The Burmese Bell

The laying out of shrubberies and flower beds, including an 'Italian garden', was carried on in a piecemeal fashion, mostly in the period between 1924 and 1926. The Burmese bell bequeathed by Sidney Sladen was installed in the 'Italian' or rose garden in 1935, for which a sundial had already been presented by Councillor Hempson in 1924. A bank for floral motifs by the Mount Pleasant entrance was introduced in 1951. This site was used in 1987 for the erection of a memorial to Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, who lived in Calverley Park.

The bandstand and pavilion at Calverly Grounds (1926)The Pavilion and Bandstand

In the autumn of 1922, the Council organised a competition to design an ambitious concert pavilion with an integral bandstand on one side, which would be large enough to seat two thousand people. However, the local political climate was unfavourable to such a scheme, which became the subject of one of the regular battles which had raged since 1901 between the 'progressives', led by the Tradesmen's Association, who promoted projects to enhance the town's prestige and prosperity, and their implacable opponents, the Ratepayers' League, who were determined to keep public expenditure as low as possible in the interests of established residents. Both sides enjoyed support on the Council. As a result, although there were forty entries in the competition, and a winner was selected, the Council decided not to proceed but to look for a less expensive option. As an interim measure, a bandstand adorned with ornamental ironwork was erected in 1924, and work on a matching pavilion to provide covered accommodation for concert audiences began in the following year. The new pavilion was opened by the Mayor in April 1926.

Calverley Grounds during World War II

Sadly, the new pavilion survived only until 1940, when on the night of 26 September it was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during an air raid. The bandstand was also damaged, and its ironwork and copper roof were sold for scrap metal. At the time, it was intended that these facilities should be promptly replaced at the end of the war. The Civic Association's detailed and ambitious scheme for post-war development, commissioned by the Council in 1942 and published in 1945, presented plans for an elegant amphitheatre, its stage backed by a new pavilion; on the other side of the pavilion would have been a 'pond garden', reintroducing the lost water feature of the nineteenth century park. Unfortunately, no one had anticipated the severe and long-lasting financial constraints of the post-war period. Despite the availability of funding from the War Damage Commission, plans for a new pavilion and bandstand were repeatedly postponed and finally abandoned altogether in 1959.

Calverley Grounds in the late twentieth century

Subsequent events have included the removal and sale in 1966 of the attractive original lamp posts, disused for some years, and the theft of the Burmese bell in 1965 and its equally mysterious return to the site in the following year. In 1969 its guardian figures were replaced by similar ones spotted in a local antique shop. More recently, the bell was removed to the safety of the Town Hall, due to deterioration caused by vandalism and exposure to the weather. The tea-house was burned down in 1997, and replaced by a virtual replica in the following year.

Calverley Grounds today

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