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Public parks, allotments & a very grand design

This is a transcript of episode 10 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Amanda Lamb and Shrabani Basu as we continue our journey through the history of homes and gardens in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England Podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I’m Emma Barnett and, in this series, we are exploring the amazing places that have helped make England the country it is today. You've been telling us the locations you think should be on the list. We’ve had thousands of nominations already. You can go to HistoricEngland.org.uk/100places to nominate a place in one of our ten categories, which include Music & Literature; Art, Architecture & Sculpture; and Industry, Trade & Commerce.

Our panel of expert judges including George Clarke, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, and Monica Ali are revealing the hundred locations they've selected from your nominations to tell the story of England. Each judge gets to select ten places for their category, and in these programs we’re finding out why they've chosen their ten. And today we’ll explore three more of England's homes and gardens to unveil the ten places judge George Clarke has picked from your nominations in this category.

Today I’m joined in the studio by broadcaster and property expert Amanda Lamb, journalist and historian Shrabani Basu, and Louise Brennan from Historic England. Last time we heard how royal and aristocratic patronage have benefited and changed communities across England. Today we’ll be exploring three more locations as chosen by our Homes & Gardens category judge, George Clarke, and the first of these is a place that saw the birth of community gardening and the allotment movement. It is Great Somerford Free Gardens and Allotments in Wiltshire.

The green-fingered village of Great Somerford lies just outside Chippenham. It’s home to many beautiful gardens and cultivated green spaces, and one particularly special one. We met with author Jill Shearer and allotment member Hector Cole.

Jill Shearer:
Hello, I'm Jill Shearer and I've written a book called The Poor Man's Best Friend about the Great Somerford allotment gardens.

Hector Cole:
I’m Hector Cole. I've lived in the village since 1967. I'm vice-chairman of the parish council and part of the Free Gardens trustees.

Jill Shearer:
The gardens were actually established by the local rector, Stephen Demainbray, who came to the village in 1799. It was very much a rural backwater and in those days the people were really living hand to mouth, so he was really quite shocked by all this that he saw. So it was him who decided to do something practical for the people who were working on the land.

It was part of the Inclosure Act. At that time the landowners had been consolidating plots of land and taking over the common land that people formed in arable strips from feudal times, and building hedgerows and making the agriculture much more efficient because people were being much more urbanised and so it was a necessary thing. However, the poor agricultural workers had very little land themselves or very little control over what had happened. So Stephen Demainbray stood up for the locals and demanded as part of the Inclosure Act that a section of land was kept, in perpetuity, for the poor of the village, so that they could grow their own food. And in that Act he stipulated that they had to be free of charge.

Hector Cole:
If you look around now you will see, more or less, what they were growing. Possibly not asparagus, that we can see over there that has gone to seed, but leaks, cabbages, beetroot, Brussels sprouts over there, they would have been growing all those, wouldn't they Jill?

Jill Shearer:
Yes that’s right. I think it would be very much a practical rather than a recreational hobby than it is now. There’s some healthy, friendly competition isn't there?

Hector Cole:   
Definitely! [Laughter] It's part of the village heritage. As far as I am concerned this plot is sacrosanct.

Jill Shearer:
There's quite a lot of green open spaces within the village and to me it just seems very, very special that there was such need that was recognised and established something that was very much needed for the village, on a practical level. Now I think on a kind of psychological level…

Hector Cole:
Yes, and the social level.

Jill Shearer:
…and the social level. It’s very important to have these communal spaces where people can, do something really meaningful. I think it needs to be preserved and celebrated.

Hector Cole:
I'll second that, wholeheartedly!

Emma Barnett:
The author Jill Shearer and allotment member, Hector Cole. Well the Great Somerford Free Gardens and Allotments are the oldest continuously-cultivated allotments in England. In 1809, a philanthropic village rector, Reverend Stephen Demainbray, who you heard referred to there, used his royal connections to George III to vote these six acres of land to the people who were working but had very little money to spare. Having access to the land enabled them to harvest wheat and oats as well as other crops with which they could feed their livestock.

Louise Brennan if I could come to you first. The idea of people growing stuff today, it may be pleasurable, it may be something they want to do, but it was a different story then, wasn’t it?

Louise Brennan:
Yes, I know, it’s a matter of survival then, you know. If I think of what I’d be doing in my vegetable garden. You know, pootling around and letting things go to seed and not harvesting them, it's a completely different story then, particularly for the people who would have been using these free gardens, they are really the labouring poor on the agricultural land. You heard that they’re living a very sort of hand to mouth existence. So, for them, this is the difference between them feeding their family and not feeding their family and starving.

Emma Barnett:
The idea of life then, in 1809, we were a much more agricultural nation.

Louise Brennan:
Yes, we were. The population at the time was around nine million and 80% of people were living in the countryside, it’s hugely different. Even 50 years later there's a massive change of industrialisation and the population really moves much more to the urban centres. So then, the agricultural life, working with the seasons, living off the land, was how we lived.

Emma Barnett:
It’s quite amazing when you think about this village rector, isn't Amanda, who used his connections to enable people to have this access.

Amanda Lamb:
Good on him, I think! You know, because he could have quite easily not got involved and just thought, you know: “Not on my patch”. I think it's wonderful that he did and I think, as Louise said, back then it was a case of either if you didn't grow it, you didn't eat. I think nowadays allotments, we have one near us, there's a waiting list of four years to get an allotment near us!

Emma Barnett:
It's very fashionable now.

Amanda Lamb:
I know, it is. It’s suddenly become… but I think what's wonderful about allotments is it gets you in tune with the seasons. You know, back then you ate what was in season. You know, you didn't eat strawberries in December because you simply couldn't grow them.

I love the idea of the healthy competition. I just think that's great and you can just guarantee that whoever's got one allotment the other ones going: “Oh that marrow’s a little bit bigger than mine”.

Emma Barnett:
Very good. Well, let's get on to our fourth location in our top ten Homes & Gardens category. This place is a public monument, a World Heritage Site, and a family home.

Next up, George Clarke has picked the breath-taking Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Blenheim Palace Estate and Parkland comprises of a vast community in the Oxfordshire countryside today. It is the birthplace, of course, of Sir Winston Churchill and it’s still in the hands of its ancestral owners the Dukes of Marlborough.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of England's largest houses. Designed by English architect and dramatist, John Vanbrugh, Blenheim Palace is a masterpiece of 18th-century Baroque architecture, which sits in over 2,000 acres of landscaped parkland and formal gardens. You almost can't do this place its justice can you Amanda, until you see it? I have seen it. It is extraordinary.

Amanda Lamb:
It is utterly extraordinary but I love the history behind it. I love the fact that you have the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and their going to build this palace and Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough wanted Sir Christopher Wren to build it. I can just imagine the story: “But I want Sir Christopher Wren.” “Well you're not going to have Sir Christopher Wren. Have you seen how much he charges? There’s no way. let's try this Vanbrugh bloke. I think he’d be quite good at it.” And then there was this enormous conflict between Sarah and Vanbrugh because they just couldn't agree on anything. And how the thing ever got built is beyond me, but it is just jaw-dropping isn’t it? You look at it and the gardens, the whole place just leaves you with a sense of awe, it's a beautiful, beautiful building.

Emma Barnett:
And Louise, the idea that this was an estate that was gifted to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough for his services in the War of Spanish Succession - what a gift!

Louise Brennan:
I know it's pretty amazing, isn’t it? I don't think many people get given gifts like that! It’s the gift from the monarch at the time, Queen Anne. She had a very, very close relationship with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough and Marlborough is idolised by the British nation for doing so well in the military field and so it's a gift that's given. And, of course, there’s a tension there between, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, who just wants a home, somewhere she can live, and the nation who want a great monument. I think it's probably not chance that the Duke of Marlborough just keeps going away and leaving them to it. Well they have these massive arguments. It's a bit like the moment in Grand Designs where, everything goes wrong, the architect and the client aren't getting on…?

Amanda Lamb:
Nothing has changed has it?

Louise Brennan:
Nothing has changed and there’s a crisis, and: “Kevin looks worried”. It’s like it but for 20 years while they're building the palace.

Emma Barnett:
But the architecture, Amanda, does reflect the fact it had to be this national monument at the same time.

Amanda Lamb:
Yes, it did.

Emma Barnett:
It isn't your regular stately home.

Amanda Lamb:
No, it's outstanding in its uniqueness. It took a long time. There was a lot of toing and froing. They run out of money. They were exiled into France. They came back. I think one of the saddest things at the end of all of it though, was that Vanbrugh was actually banned from even visiting it when it was finished. So he’d put blood, sweat and tears into it. This huge conflict that went on between him and Sarah, and you know, a lot of the time architects have a vision of what they think will work, but that's the whole issue and problem, a lot of the time, is how you marry that with your client. And I think if you have someone, who is very strong-willed, like Sarah, there was a lot of locking of horns. And then when it is finally completed, he wasn't even allowed to go and have a look at it, was he?

Emma Barnett:
Which is unthinkable if you’re thinking about how much work had gone into this. I mean, just to give some detail here. It was designed, Blenheim Palace, to look and feel magnificent. Four corner towers, Doric and Corinthian columns, carvings and state rooms galore. It contains a row of nine state rooms in the main block of the house with two courtyards for light, which apparently it is said, if you look through the locks of the state rooms, you can see all the way through them in a row, which is kind of a testament to this amazing craftsmanship and the foresight and the design, isn't it, Louise?

Louise Brennan:
Yes, it is. I've been there and it is stunning. I think you immediately get the sense that Vanbrugh was a dramatist because it is like a stage set. It’s very much designed to impress. And you go into the courtyards and the architecture is vast, very much embellished with military emblems. So there's flaming bombs on tops of pinnacles. Lots of trophies, military trophies, and then you go inside and it just carries on. The spaces are huge, it doesn't stop.

Emma Barnett:
But it’s not just about the inside. When we get to the outside, this is quite extraordinary in terms of the gardens and the landscaping. Very famous, do you want to tell us about this very famous landscape designer?

Louise Brennan:
OK so it's Capability Brown, which is a name I think everybody is familiar with. He is employed, comes to Blenheim, and really makes his name in there with a sort of quintessential Capability landscape, so: a lake. He floods the lower storeys of Vanbrugh’s triumphal bridge, which Vanbrugh would not have been very happy about, but this is all about a different approach to the landscapes. So, it's a pastoral landscape and you’re bleeding nature right up to the doorstep of your palace. So, it's a completely different approach to the very formal parterres that went before. All that’s out of the window and now it's all about nature. It's about that sort of sublime Georgian experience of being a little bit scared.

Amanda Lamb:
I love the fact that Christopher Wren designed the library. I love the fact that she got one little bit from Christopher Wren. “Yes, he did, well he did most of it.” One room!

Emma Barnett:
And what do we think makes Blenheim still relevant today?

Louise Brennan:
I think it’s still a wonderful statement piece of architecture, which I think anybody can appreciate. You can see when you go there, visitors still walk into it and get that wow. So, I think as a piece of architecture it speaks to us all, so we can still understand what Vanbrugh was trying to do. I think you still see that.

Amanda Lamb:
Yes, and there are very few buildings like it, and I think that's what makes it so special and so unique, is that, yes, there are lots of examples of baroque architect, but that one really, really stands out. Also we talk about history, the whole story of how that thing finally got built and the infighting and all the bits of it, you know, it's not just a building, its people's lives. It's the history behind the people that live there, as well as the building.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, and there are many events there, of course today. Location filming, tenant farmers, tourists, there’s a maze, always an important part.

Louise Brennan:
Oh yes, I have got lost in that maze!

Emma Barnett:
And a miniature railway, apparently, to keep the present 12th Duke, comfortably moving around there. Have you ever been?

Shrabani Basu:
I have, many years ago. I sat on that train. What I love now is they have the Blenheim Literature Festival there and so all the authors come in. So, you have history, and you have literature, and it’s just, and this outstanding location. So it's a perfect mix really.

Emma Barnett:
Let's hear about the fifth location in our Homes and Gardens category. This is of course, from the judge, George Clarke. He selected from your nominations.
Birkenhead Park is a Grade I listed landscape and conservation area. The opening of this, the world's first publicly-funded park in 1847, was a landmark moment in our social attitude to public health. I'm not sure we can imagine that today, Louise Brennan, why it was such a landmark moment?

Louise Brennan:
No, I think now there are parks everywhere aren't there and we’re used to being able to access them, but at the time it was a completely revolutionary thing. If we go back to the Free Gardens at Somerford, we've moved almost 50 years and it's change that brings up the need for this kind of thing. So, we've gone from a largely agricultural population, to 50% of people now in the mid 19th century are living in urban centres. So, you can imagine the huge increase in the urban population. There’s huge concern about slums, there’s huge concern about sanitation and the idea of a park that's open to everyone and is beautiful, and gives them free, healthy air to breathe, is a really revolutionary one.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, and in 1847, of course, if you’re thinking about what was going on in England and Merseyside at the time, we've got the Industrial Revolution, which was transforming cities, Amanda.

Amanda Lamb:
Exactly. It would have transformed the cities, but what it would have done is it would have brought more and more people into the cities, and to have a sense of space, to have a sense of greenery that anyone, from any walk of life, it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, you all had access to it, is so incredibly important. I specifically chose where I live and where I bring up my family because of the amount of green space around me. I love the idea that because of the birth of the Industrial Revolution you had these cities that got bigger and busier and more crowded and more full of steam and smoke and noise, and there was this quiet little tranquil oasis that people could go and use.

Emma Barnett:
Well let's hear from Paul Davies, manager of the famous Birkenhead Park.

Paul Davies:
It was opened in 1847. There were 10,000 people at the opening day, which was no mean feat considering that the population of Birkenhead at the time was only 8,000. It was opened by Lord Morpeth, who sliced a ribbon, had a glass of port then hastily made his way to Morpeth Docks, which was opened on the same day.
We’re standing inside the Roman boathouse, which is situated on the lower lake of the park. It’s designer Lewis Hornblower, a local architect from Liverpool.

In 1847, the houses were closely knit. The families ranged between seven and eight people. The man would go to work five, six days a week. He would come home and put his wages on the table for the family, and then basically he would just go and drink. There was nothing for the people of Birkenhead at the time. The families weren’t very, very healthy. So, we needed somewhere for these families to come, enjoy themselves. Social cohesion, family cohesion, meeting of the families, the children playing with other children. It was definitely needed at the time, as it is today.

So, through an Act of Parliament in 1843 by Sir Isaac Holmes, it was deemed that a park was needed in Birkenhead. They looked for a designer who was Joseph Paxton at the time. He was based at Chatsworth. He came, and saw what needed to be done, it was a marshland. Its main design was for the local community and the workers at the time, somewhere for them to go and be healthy, happy, which is the same today for people.

The design of the park was that he wanted to bring different worlds for people to see. There’s the Swiss Bridge, which is just over there. There’s the Grand Entrance, which is neo-Greek classical design. There’s the Jacobean Lodge. He brought all these concepts, all these fantastic ideas into Birkenhead Park. So, it was basically a Disneyland. Its design concept was that the rich at the time and the horses and carriages, would ride around on the carriage driveway. If they needed to see all these spectacular features inside the park, they would have to leave the carriage, walk along the paths, and basically rub shoulders with the working class people.

In England’s history, it wasn't just that it was the first publicly-funded park anywhere in the world, its importance was that it started the movement for public parks. It was an oasis within the town centre.
There are families round here who clearly aren’t very well off and in the summer holidays with the children, as such, it’s a place for them to come where we have the free activities. It’s just an amazing place for them to come.

My favourite part of the park? I would say all of it but that’s a bit cheesy. I think standing from the rockery, looking down towards the Swiss Bridge. It just looks amazing, it really does. Here we are today standing in one of the best parks in the world, I think, and long may it last. How I see Birkenhead Park is a template for lots and lots of urban parks. Its design, its concept, the ideas behind it, it really was the first.

Emma Barnett:
This park also inspired another famous park didn’t it? Louise, what was it?

Louise Brennan:
Central Park in New York. There’s a really lovely quote from there, the designer, who went and saw Birkenhead Park and was just hugely impressed with it and said: “the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature, so much beauty. I was ready to admit in democratic America, there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People's Garden”. It's really interesting to me that that idea of a People's Garden and People's Park, obviously was current then, so things don't change, do they?

Amanda Lamb:
They really don't. I think yes, particularly in those times. I really love the fact that this was open to everybody, that it wasn't an elite space that you could only go into if you were very, very rich.

Emma Barnett:
Which would have been quite rare, Shrabani, wouldn’t it? People from different classes could all be together somewhere?

Shrabani Basu:
Oh absolutely. I think it was crucial, because they would also go, if Queen Victoria was riding by in the park, they could see her, they would wave to her. There's the monarch there. There's nobility riding by, there's the ordinary people walking there, so it's a mix. Also gardens, I think England came actually a bit late to the game with gardens, I have to say.

[Laughter]

Emma Barnett:
Hang on, we were leading for a moment there!

Shrabani Basu:
I have to fly the flag for the Mughals because they build the most passion-influenced gardens, which came to India. The Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir, they were there in the 17th century.

Emma Barnett:
OK. They beat England to it.

Shrabani Basu:
It came from Persia. And also many of the gardens here were also influenced by the Persian gardens.

Emma Barnett:
There's also the environmental aspect isn't there, to this? It’s the idea that you are bringing a green space to an area, which hasn't prioritised that, which is still an important issue to this day, Louise?

Louise Brennan:
Yes, it is. It really sprung out of a lot of concern at the time and people like Charles Dickens were campaigning and writing about slum living conditions. Because, as Amanda said, there’s this rapid industrialisation, where were the people going. The towns weren’t keeping up with the needs of people for housing, so they were just all crammed in and the sanitation was terrible. So something like this, which gave you clean air and access to exercise as well, was necessary, and you get the same now in certain areas.

Amanda Lamb:
Yes, but also quite interesting that you didn't get people saying: “Well let’s just use that space and build more houses”. You know, they did fight to keep them there, because like we say there's this huge influx of people: “We don't want to worry about green space, just put some more houses on there. Let’s fill it up with more people!” Well they didn’t.

Emma Barnett:
I think it’s interesting if you live in the area or you’re just going to visit, to note that the original features in Birkenhead Park are still there from the design. This idea of an open countryside feel, with lakes, meadows, woodland, it's all still there in lots of ways. 90 hectares of undulating land today stretched just outside Birkenhead town centre, has an upper and lower park. There is a cricket pitch, two lakes, football pitches, and driveways. I'm not sure how much people necessarily think about that when they're in there, but there is a lot of history, isn't there, Louise?

Louise Brennan:
There is a lot of history and I think your point about it still survived intact, so the amount of space, the original features have still survived. Just shows you how cherished parks are by people. They’re really embraced by the general population, and boy, if you try and attack someone's park or take away their rights, ore remove it, it’s at your peril. Yes, so they are an idea that was immediately embraced by the public and they love them and they’re still as important now as they were then.

Emma Barnett:
They are. Well that is all we’ve got time for now, but do join us next time for our sixth, seventh and eighth locations in the Homes & Gardens top ten, when we visit the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

There is still time to vote in our upcoming categories for England’s 100 most irreplaceable locations. You can join the conversation by using the hashtag #100places on Twitter to tell us what these places mean to you.

Thank you very much to my guests, Amanda Lamb, Shrabani Basu and Louise Brennan. Make sure you rate, review, and subscribe to this podcast on your podcast player of choice so you never miss an episode. I'm Emma Barnett and I'll catch you next time on Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

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