Harlow Town Park

Overview

Heritage Category:
Park and Garden
Grade:
II
List Entry Number:
1468217
Date first listed:
18-Aug-2020
Statutory Address:
Fifth Avenue, Park Lane, Harlow, Essex, CM20 2QQ

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
Fifth Avenue, Park Lane, Harlow, Essex, CM20 2QQ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County:
Essex
District:
Harlow (District Authority)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TL4508310855

Summary

Public park, planned in 1949-1953 by Frederick Gibberd, master-planner for Harlow New Town, and landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe DBE, as part of the new town development of Harlow, also master-planned by Gibberd. Detailed designs were undertaken by the landscape architect John St Bodfan Gruffydd and Harlow Urban District Council’s engineer and surveyor AWR Webb. The first phase opened in 1957 and later extensions took place between 1961 and 1971, with more land being added along the River Stort in 1988. The park was refurbished in 2015-2017 by Kaner Olette Architects and Allen Scott Landscape Architecture.

Land north of Edinburgh Way, nominally part of the park, has been left as a nature reserve rather than a designed landscape and is therefore excluded from the registered area.

Reasons for Designation

Harlow Town Park, a public park planned in 1949-1953, and opened in phases from 1957 to designs by the architect/planner Sir Frederick Gibberd and the landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe DBE, with detailed designs by landscape architect John St Bodfan Gruffyd and Harlow Urban Development Corporation’s engineer and surveyor AWR Webb, is registered at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Historic interest:

* as a rare example of a new public park associated with a first generation new town, which exhibits all the features of picturesque planning associated with the movement, a mix of formal park and natural setting; * the incorporation and preservation of the old hamlet of Netteswell Cross within the park is a particularly rare and early example of a conservationist approach to planning given the immediate post-war date and new town context.

Design interest

* as an significant example of the work of renown landscape designers Sir Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984), Dame Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997) and John St Bodfan Gruffydd (1910-2004); * it successfully combines formal park design with existing landscape features, making excellent use of the undulating topography, old gravel workings and watercress beds; * as a fine example of a post-war public park whose structural framework and key features survive substantially intact.

History

Harlow, with the parishes of Netteswell, Latton, Great Parndon and Little Parndon, was designated a new town in 1947 to relieve over-crowding in north-east London. Of all the new towns around London, Harlow had the smallest existing population, and by leaving the existing village of Harlow, subsequently renamed Old Harlow, as an outlying neighbourhood, the architect-planner (Sir) Frederick Gibberd (1908-1984) had an unusually free hand in his master-plan, which was approved by government in 1949. Gibbered was also unusual among the new town master-planners in continuing as a consultant throughout the history of its construction until Harlow Development Corporation was wound down in 1980. His master-plan comprised four main residential areas or ‘clusters’ situated on high ground and separated by deep wedges of open country, all set around a new town centre (the High) on the highest central point at Dad’s Wood (the only major woodland to be wholly lost). The wedges of open land were designed to accommodate the main roads into the town centre along with secondary schools, playing fields, the town park in the north and a golf course in the north-west. In the early new towns responsibility for parks and recreational buildings fell to the local authorities, whose relative shortage of money and, in many cases, resistance to the new towns themselves, meant that their laying out was delayed until the development corporations could offer grants or help in kind under the New Towns Act of 1959. The slow development of Harlow Town Park is typical of what happened in the new towns in these circumstances.

Gibberd produced a master plan in August 1947, to which he made small revisions and added detail in 1952. The landscape architect Sylvia Crowe (1901-1997) was appointed to detail the landscape across the town in 1948, and served as a consultant until 1974. Crowe was one of Britain’s distinguished landscape architects and designed landscapes for hospitals, power stations and reservoirs including Rutland Water and assisted with the gardens at the new towns of Harlow and Basildon. Sylvia was concerned that new developments such as roads were being landscaped by non-specialists. She thought that the standard of landscape relative to housing was poor in this country and set out to improve things. She was president of the Institute of Landscape Architects, now the Landscape Institute, from 1957-1959; and in 1967 Sylvia was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the CBE, and was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, DBE, in 1973. In 1949, Gibberd proposed creating a lake by the River Stort, but the slope of the valley and poor gravels made this proposal too expensive and it was abandoned in 1950. Gibbered produced a more comprehensive report and plan in September 1953, outlining a park to serve the elderly, grown-ups, adolescents and children. He stated that the park ‘must not be regarded as an active sports area but an amenity in the nature of St James’s Park, London. A contrast between open grasslands and intimate areas such as ponds and gardens was the objective’. At this stage no attempt had been made to define all the functions of the park, with some remaining conjectural and perhaps even unknown. Sites, however, were suggested for a swimming pool, an open-air theatre in the gravel pit by Netteswell House and a hotel at the junction between First and Fifth Avenues, while a restaurant, café, dancing arena and look-out were proposed for the south side of the park. It was proposed to treat the existing road as a gravel avenue. Only the swimming pool, however, was realised according to this first plan, and this was demolished in 2004. Recognising that the variety of wetlands, heath and arid ground would require different landscape treatments, Gibberd planned open ground to the west on the high ground by Fifth Avenue, a pitch-and-putt course with parking and woodland (the existing Marshgate Spring Wood) to the east, and boating and fishing by the river. He also sought to include Terlings, a house occupied by the development corporation, on the north side of the river, where he proposed a botanic garden. Sports facilities were to be given their own area outside the park, planned on the west side of Fifth Avenue, where a pioneering indoor sports centre opened in 1964 (all replaced by housing in 2004). As the existing wooded valleys were seen to be the 'most intricate and varied features of the landscape', Gibbered ensured that they were left in their natural state 'for the old to enjoy for their own sake, families to picnic in and the young to explore'. Unlike conventional municipal parks, Gibberd also planned for the park to have no hard boundaries, so that it would not be shut off from its surroundings, while the hamlet of Netteswell Cross was incorporated into the design to ensure 'that there would be life in the park at all times'.

It was agreed that the design for the Town Park would be made by Gibberd and Sylvia Crowe and then leased to Epping Rural District Council (becoming Harlow Urban District Council in 1955) for maintenance. After the first section of land was acquired by the development corporation in 1956, the Welsh landscape architect John St Bodfan Grufydd (1910-2004) supervised the infilling of the gravel pits and the early clearance of the site in 1956-1957. Gruffydd, who was born at Plas Eryr in Snowdonia, achieved recognition when in 1945 he was asked by David Lloyd George to design a garden in memory of his wife. He served as a consultant to Harlow Development Corporation in 1953-1957 and also worked at Crawley, until in 1961 he turned mainly to teaching. He established a course in landscape architecture at Cheltenham (now University of Gloucestershire) while maintaining a small practice that gave his students practical experience. He worked on programmes for the rivers Thames and Mole as part of schemes to improve waterways in urban areas, and on parks at Orwell and Shrublands in Suffolk, and Stonor in Oxfordshire. A late work was the landscape at Robinson College, Cambridge University, in 1984-1985. He was President of the Institute for Landscape Architects (now the Landscape Institute) from 1969-1971.

In 1959, however, Harlow Urban District Council, under its engineer and surveyor, AWR Webb, took over, with Gibberd approving his designs and a Miss Willis at the development corporation advising on the planting. The northern area of the park continued to be farmed until late 1956 when it was bisected by the construction of Edinburgh Way parallel to the railway line to its north. The first area to be landscaped was to the east of School Lane, including Marshgate Spring Wood, where undergrowth was cleared and Marshgate Farm was landscaped and re-seeded. New planting was described in June 1956 by the chief officer, Ben Hyde Harvey, as small islands of trees, planting in the waste land to screen the railway, and more significant tree clumps to define ‘the future scenery of the park’. Paths were graded in March 1957 so they could be negotiated by prams and the first areas were opened between April and June that year. In the same year an area of native woodland, which had established itself on the site of a former C17 gravel pit, was incorporated into the park. It was named Peace Wood in 1997 to commemorate the end of the Cold War.

In 1959 some 83 acres (33.59 ha) of the park was passed to the district council, which was formally responsible for its realisation, though the development corporation continued to provide financial assistance on condition that it approved all the designs for the landscape and buildings. More land was added to the south of Park Lane in 1964, with the Water Garden (laid out on the site of water cress beds), Rhododendron Dell and a paddling pool being created shortly afterwards. A sculpture specially commissioned for the paddling pool, known as ‘Two Children on a Rock’ by Hilary Few, was removed in 2007 after being badly vandalised and replaced by a new piece entitled ‘Shoal’ by Will Spankie in 2009.

In 1965 a small estate centred around Spurriers House, which was built around 1868 by William Cox, a solicitor and former MP for Finsbury, London, was purchased by the council to form Spurriers Core, a civic entertainment area centred round a petting zoo known as Pets’ Corner. In the same year a prospect mound known as Lookout Hill, created from the tipping of construction material from the building of the new town, opened in the park's south-west section.

Further land was added to the north of Edinburgh Way in 1971 and a final 21 acres completing an extensive river walk in 1988. The plan originally extended to the swimming baths, an integral part of the park built to the south-east of the paddling pool on First Avenue in 1961, but this was replaced by housing in 2004-2005. The restaurants, hotels and other buildings proposed by Gibberd were not realised and the southern fringes of the park have now been developed with housing. A small group of homes has also been added to the east of Marshgate Farmhouse, within the park at the north end of Netteswell Cross, a site originally identified for housing by Gibberd.

In 1971 a single-story extension was added to Spurriers House to provide additional space for the Town Museum along with a drinks dispensary. Two years later the Museum was moved and a further extension was constructed against the east stable block to create a much larger café. In the same year a bandstand was constructed to the east of Spurriers House, nestled into the side of a shallow slope, while a toilet block, named the Greyhound Toilets after the neighbouring pub, was built adjacent to the Netteswell Cross car park.

A sculpture entitled 'Pisces' by Jesse Watkins (1899-1980) was installed in the Water Garden in 1973 after it was found to be too large to be exhibited at Watkins's retrospective of sculpture, paintings and graphics at the town's newly-opened Playhouse. As the piece fitted the garden so well it was acquired by Harlow Arts Trust and retained.

In the 1960s and 70s, the park became home to a popular roller rink which eventually fell into disrepair. Petitions for the construction of a new skate park were presented in the 1980s by local skateboarders and skateboard retailers, resulting in the opening of a temporary skate park in the 1990s. It was replaced by a permanent facility which opened in the park's south-east corner in 2008.

A Scented Garden for the Blind opened in 1984 on the east side of the access lane leading northwards from the Spurriers Lodge entrance at Netteswell Cross. Originally planted with roses, it was replanted in 2015 with planting and garden furniture designed to help develop and stimulate senses through touch, sight, scent, taste and hearing and renamed the Sensory Garden.

In 1997, the Newfoundland Garden was laid out to celebrate both the 50th anniversary of Harlow New Town and the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Newfoundland, Canada, to which Harlow is twinned. Dr (later Lord) Stephen Taylor, a leading member of the development corporation, later taught in Newfoundland and helped to secure the twinning. It was planted with trees and shrubs native to Newfoundland.

In 2012 Harlow Council received a grant of £1.83m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (now the National Lottery Heritage Fund) and the Big Lottery Fund, enabling a £2.8m restoration programme. Completed in 2016 by Kaner Olette Architects and Allen Scott Landscape Architecture, the work involved the restoration of Spurriers House, including the demolition of the late-C20 extensions, and the refurbishment of Pets' Corner, including the addition of an education venue (the Learning Centre) an events building (the Events Barn). The bandstand was re-roofed and extended with the addition of backstage facilities, while restoration work was undertaken to the Specimen Garden, the Water Garden, Rhododendron Dell, the Cherry Orchard and Lookout Hill.

In 2018 plans were put forward to replace the paddling pools with splash pads, but this had still not been implemented by January 2020.

Details

Public park, planned in 1949-1953 by Frederick Gibberd, master-planner for Harlow New Town, and landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe DBE, as part of the new town development of Harlow, also master-planned by Gibberd. Detailed designs were undertaken by the landscape architect John St Bodfan Gruffydd and Harlow Urban District Council’s engineer and surveyor AWR Webb. The first phase opened in 1957 and later extensions took place between 1961 and 1971, with more land being added along the River Stort in 1988. The park was refurbished in 2015-2017 by Kaner Olette Architects and Allen Scott Landscape Architecture.

Land north of Edinburgh Way, nominally part of the park, has been left as a nature reserve rather than a designed landscape and is therefore excluded from the registered area.

LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING The park lies in the valley of the Spurriers Stream, with two, linked, dry valleys, one containing Park Lane lined with houses on one side and one the former Netteswell Road, now a cycle track. Between these three valleys the land rises in a series of pronounced undulations towards the south, and especially to the south-west, beyond which the land rises to the town centre. At the centre of the park is the hamlet of Netteswell Cross, located at the junction where the north-south aligned School Lane is met from the west by Park Lane and by the old Netteswell Road from the east.

The park, including the nature reserves and water meadows to the north of Edinburgh Way, covers an area of 164 acres (66.4ha), and approximately 137.7 acres (56ha) excluding this unregistered area. It forms an open approach to the new town when arriving by rail and road from the north.

Boundaries are the fenced hedge line running parallel with Fifth Avenue to the west, the rear boundaries of housing in Tanyard Place, Park Court and Jim Desormeaux Bungalows to the south, the grounds of Burnt Mill Comprehensive School and Princes Gate Industrial Estate to the east, and Edinburgh Way to the north. Land north of Edinburgh Way, nominally part of the park, has been left as a nature reserve rather than a design landscape.

The southern part of the site is a heavy glacial moraine, partly excavated for gravel and infilled, partly using soils from the excavation of the town centre. Construction material was also used to create Lookout Hill, the main viewing point within the park. The area around Spurriers Stream to the north consists of clay and alluvial soils, while waterlogged clays lie to the north of Edinburgh Way.

ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES Most of the park, as Gibberd intended, is left open all the time. The main visitor car park is at Netteswell Cross where the roads, School Lane, Park Lane, and the old Netteswell Road (now a cycle path), divide the park into four main sections, all accessed by footpaths from this point. There are three pedestrian entrances off Edinburgh Way, two leading to Spurriers House and one following the stream, plus a pedestrian gate at Marshgate, and open access from Fifth Avenue and at the corner of Fifth Avenue and First/Mandela Avenue. There is further open access from Park Lane and School Lane.

PRINCIPAL BUILDING Spurriers House (unlisted), a detached, brick-built villa erected around 1868 for William Cox (1817-1889), a former solicitor and MP for Finsbury, London, stands at the northern side of the park. It was bought by Harlow Development Corporation in 1964 and adapted as a café to form part of Spurriers Core, the park's main entertainment hub. Its associated stable blocks (unlisted) were adapted and extended in 1966 as a petting zoo known as Pets' Corner, including a cobbled duck pond. Later extensions to the house in around 1966, 1971 and 1973 were all demolished in 2015-16 when the house was refurbished to accommodate a new café on the ground floor and residential accommodation on the first floor. Pets' Corner was refurbished and extended at the same time, including the addition of a education venue (the Learning Centre) and an events building (the Events Barn). The house's contemporary walled garden, which was much rebuilt in the 1950s as a plant nursery, is now (2020) used as a base for the park volunteers and also as a community horticulture hub.

Among the historic buildings at Netteswell Cross, Marshgate Farmhouse (C16), Hoppits (C16), Hill Hall Farmhouse (late C17) and 6 School Lane (late C19), are all listed at Grade II. The hamlet's dominant building is the Grade II-listed Greyhound Public House which dates to around 1800.

In 1973 a bandstand was added in the low valley to the east of Spurrier's Core and a toilet block, known as the Greyhound Toilets, were built adjacent to the car park at Netteswell Cross. The bandstand was restored in 2015-2016 while the toilet block is now (2020) disused.

PARK Entering the park at its northern end, through the central entrance gate from Edinburgh Way, a north-east to south-west aligned access lane and footpath rises up the ridge to Spurriers Core, a linear alignment of buildings and structures forming the park's principal entertainment hub. Spurriers House, at its northern end, contains the park café, while the former stables to its south, which were extended in 2015 with a Learning Centre and Events Barn, accommodate a petting zoo known as Pets' Corner. To the south again, the former walled garden contains a polytunnel, greenhouse, raised beds, bee garden and beehive. Lying to its west are paddocks for ponies, reindeer and sheep.

To the east of Spurriers House there are formal gardens, including rose beds, overlooking the valley of Spurriers Stream, where a bandstand of 1973 makes use of the natural amphitheatre. The length of Spurriers Stream immediately in front of the bandstand has been canalised with concrete revetment walls. At Netteswell Cross the main car park is slightly sunken so as to be unobtrusive. From the hamlet the old Netteswell Road (now a cycle path) leads eastwards to two outdoor gyms, and hence through trees to Old Harlow. A second footpath heads north-east to an adventure playground in an area called Marshgate Burrows. North of the adventure playground an underpass beneath Edinburgh Way leads to Marshgate Springs Local Nature Reserve to the north, where a bridge leads over the railway to Maymeads Marsh Local Nature Reserve and meadows along the River Stort.

Lying immediately to the north of the Spurriers Lodge entrance at Netteswell Cross, on the east side of the access lane, is a Sensory Garden. It originally opened in 1984 as a Scented Garden for the blind, but was restored and replanted as a sensory garden in 2015. It contains scented shrubs such as lavender and rosemary, while two carved totem poles and wind chimes help to develop touch and hearing.

Located in the park's south-western quadrant, bounded by Park Lane to the north, School Lane to the east and First Avenue to the south, is the Water Garden, its most popular and well known theme garden. Designed by John St Bodfan Gruffyd, it was created in 1963-1964 on the site of watercress beds and consists of three cascading pools fed by natural springs. The pools are edged with cobbled banks, rockery gardens and a paved terrace with bench seating. A painted-steel sculpture entitled 'Pisces' by Jesse Watkins (1899-1980) was installed in the Water Garden in 1973 by the Harlow Arts Trust.

Lying immediately to the south-west of the Water Garden is Rhododendron Dell, one of the park’s original theme gardens. It was re-planted with a new collection of rhododendrons in the early C21, though the original ornamental shrubs, including hydrangeas and azaleas, along with pine trees and birch trees, still provide the backdrop to the new planting.

To the west of the Water Garden and Rhododendron Dell is Peace Wood, an hectare (2.4ha) of native woodland incorporated into the park in 1957. Located on the site of a former C17 gravel pit, it contains native trees, including ash and hawthorn, along with shrubs such as bramble and ivy.

Located to the south-west of Rhododendron Dell is a concrete paddling pool dating from around 1964. It incorporates a limestone sculpture entitled ‘Shoal’ by Will Spankie, which was installed in 2009 to replace the original 'Two Children on a Rock' sculpture that was badly vandalised in 2007. To the north-east of the paddling pool, and to the south-east of the Water Garden, the land rises sharply, enhanced by the tipping of spoil from the creation of the town centre, to a crazy-paved viewing platform known as Lookout Hill. Opened in 1965, it provides views across the Water Garden, Peace Wood, Spurriers House and the Hertfordshire countryside to the north.

On the north side of Park Lane, opposite the Water Garden, is the Specimen Garden. Laid out on the site of former allotments, it was originally designed as an educational garden, demonstrating examples of ornamental trees and shrubs that could be planted in the private gardens of the newly-built Harlow homes. The specimen trees within it include firs, spruces and oaks.

Immediately to the north of the Specimen Garden, and separated from it by a deciduous hedge, is a large, open area of grassland known as the Showground. It is, as Gibberd intended, used by the town for annual events, including fairs, circuses and firework displays.

From the east side of School Lane, and from the car park at Netteswell Cross, footpaths lead directly into an area of undulating hills and hollows containing the Cherry Orchard, one of the park's original theme gardens. Immediately to its south-east, occupying a landscape valley, is the Newfoundland Garden. It was planted in 1997 with trees and shrubs native to Newfoundland, Canada, including balsam fir, white spruce, mountain ash, white birch, red maple, red pine, crackerberry, cinquefoil, Canadian yew, and common and training yew.

A skate park, created in 2008, lies immediately to the south of the Newfoundland Garden. Planting around it includes snakebark and paperbark maple trees.

Sources

Books and journals
Gibberd, F et al, Harlow, the Story of a New Town, (1980)
Websites
Information on Harlow Town Park from the Harlow Council website, accessed 14 February 2020 from https://www.harlow.gov.uk/parks-and-culture/parks-and-green-spaces/harlow-town-park
Other
Records of the Harlow Development Corporation, A6306, Essex Record Office

Legal

This garden or other land is registered under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953 within the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens by Historic England for its special historic interest.

End of official listing

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