Handsworth Park Restoration

Simon Baddeley very generously gives everyone credit for environmental improvements in Handsworth, yet he’s the source of knowledge and information which gives us inspiration for moving forward. He has now moved his campaign focus to “Black Patch”, an area historically associated with travellers which Sandwell wishes to “develop” because of its proximity to the Metro. He sent this letter about progress in restoring Handsworth Park which I am reproducing here with permission.
HANDSWORTH PARK RESTORATION
This is good news and a lovely thing to behold. I recall my despair as I walked through Handsworth Park in the 1980s and early 90s. Now after years of local campaigning and industrious creative work by council officers supported by councillors with clout and vision, over £7 million has been raised from various sources to remake Handsworth Park. It is a sweet story of local people from all backgrounds infused with helplessness and disappointment coming together to present a picture of local protest at the decline of what had been the “bonniest park” in Birmingham.
It was designed by Richard Vertegans, laid out both sides of a railway line in the 1880 and 1890s as Handsworth Victoria Park – “to be open to the people for ever” (Lord Dartmouth at the opening of the second part of the park). But from the end of the 1970s, with the withdrawal of central government funding for urban parks, Handsworth Park began a long decline which ended when local people said enough is enough after learning of plans to build “on our park”. Resistance started with the “Save Handsworth Park Campaign” in 1992 begun and chaired by Dick Pratt who first brought together many different and hitherto separate pressure groups from the area to create what is now the “Handsworth Park Association”.
To get an unprecedented before-after view of an urban park going through the largest restoration of any park in the Midlands, unprecedented in Birmingham I seriously recommend going over and having look at Handsworth Park right now. It is a pleasure to see what can done and there may be lessons to be learned for other parks around the city. There is a lot of activity not only in the park but on the adjoining Victoria Jubilee Allotments.


The lower pond is empty as it is cleared of sludge accumulated over decades and its banks are being sloped for “soft” edges so that the hard edges of the 60s and 70s can be replaced with sloping reeded banks that will enable a return to the bio-diversity – once a feature of this Victorian creation.
A new boathouse – modern – but in the style of the old is nearing completion on the pond’s west bank. The old Sons of Rest house near the Leisure centre is now at a skeletal stage before being re-made into a new classroom for the park. All round the edges of the park the signature red and blue brick footings are going in that will hold the new railings removed in the 60s and during WW2. When these go up in anticipation of the park being closed at dusk (as requested by local surveys of residents) it will give the park a feel of being an important space. This work will also include new gates at all of the three main entrances off Hamstead road, Holly Road and Grove Lane.
All sorts of landscaping is going on to prepare for improved spaces for more accessible sports in the park with additional space being laid out by the developer across the railway in in the Victoria Jubilee Allotments (VJA)where there’ll be a second cricket pitch and two more soccer pitches. Next to these will be 80 new allotments – the largest new lay out of city growing space since the war in Birmingham and so we believe in the UK (a source of consolation to those of us who fought for saving the whole of that space for green space use). A third of the VJA is being prepared for 83 new houses being built by Westbury Homes who are taking down a house on Hamstead Road to provide access to the new addresses some of which will overlook the Park which has also gained from the Planning Gain deal when it was thought there wouldn’t be enough cash to clear all the sludge from the pond.
The restored bandstand will be going up in the summer as will the children fountain donated by Cllr Austin Lines in the 1880s. I and a friend went up to watch the restoration work at Heritage Foundry on the outskirts of Glasgow. The roof of the bandstand is already back in the Thomas Vale Works compound next to Holly Road. All watched over by 24 hour security. The funders are adamant that no capital is spent on this project without the revenue essential to its continued protection.
In the north east corner of the park is St.Mary’s Church where lie the Lunar men James Watt, William Murdock and Matthew Boulton giving this place its link with the start of the Industrial Revolution (along with Soho House and the site of the Soho Manufactory and Soho Foundry). Plans are afoot for the recovery of the graveyard with its crumbling record of past residents allowing students and relative newcomers like me (from London and the Home Counties of Berkshire and Hampshire) to learn more about where we’ve made our home and a serene place in the the city. For the moment there’s much mud and raw earth around and long lines of temporary fencing where heavy machinery is being used. That’s why I’m suggesting you come and see the site.
Of course there will be problems. What solution doesn’t bring those. But for the time being there is a feeling of an era ended and another starting. I’m so happy and proud to have been involved.
See you there perhaps. If you felt like a soundtrack for all this think of Jarre’s music “Raising the Barn” in the film “Witness”. I’ve been tempted to use it when giving one of my video and stills illustrated talks on the fall and rise of Handsworth Park, but it felt a little bit cheesy. Any better ideas which don’t breach copyright?
Simon Baddeley
More about Handsworth Park.

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