Bringing Back The Glory to Grosvenor and Hilbert Park – Writer Carolyn Gray reveals all

Carlyn Gray taken by Mark Paul Perry
Carolyn Gray taken by Mark Paul Perry

Signs of our history are everywhere, captured within a road name or reflected within the style of a building but when it comes to public spaces, the history is not so obvious – even to those who live on its doorstep. Writer Carolyn Gray has lived ‘a stone’s throw’ from the historical Grosvenor and Hilbert Park in Tunbridge Wells for eighteen years but says it was only three years ago that she started to explore its history. She’s now become involved in a project to restore the park to its Victorian glory days and has kindly dropped by to tell us all about it.

 Over to you Carolyn…

 Firstly, for anyone not local, this park is situated in the north east of Tunbridge Wells, surrounded by several parishes: St Barnabas, St James, St Philips, St Matthews, St Lukes and St Johns. The park is very varied, as is its history.

How the park began

It all starts in 1066 when the first records are made of the area. At the time the route from Hastings to London was very important, which included the river crossing at Tonbridge. All the land to the south of the Medway was the Chase (or Forest) of South Frith for the Clare Family of Tonbridge. In 1620 Somerhill was built and the Countess of Essex conveyed the Chase and Manor of South Frith to the Earl of Clanricarde. The area became split up, with farms and settlements forming. A mention is made in the late 17th C of a farmhouse here (as in the current park’s location), known by various names such as Packs and Jeffreys, and in 1718 the farm was acquired by John Beane, a C of E Minister. The Rev Beane set up a charitable trust for dissenting ministers in Guildford and Dorking. This farmland remained with the charity until the 1930s. Anyone local to Tunbridge Wells will have spotted several now used street and place names in this section – Clanricarde Gardens, Dorking Road, Charity Farm Allotments.

John Ward's estate book, 1829. Image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum
John Ward’s estate book, 1829. Image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum

During this time the land to the south of South Frith had grown into Tunbridge Wells, following Lord North’s praise of the spring water. In the 1820s John Ward, a City Merchant, set about developing the Calverley Estate, with Calverley Park designed by Decimus Burton. Ward quarried sandstone for building from an area at the edge of South Frith, and tapped the adjoining spring – Jackwood Spring – for his estate. The site of the quarry is Quarry Road, and the area where St Barnabas Church is now located, with the spring rising where Medway Road now is. Ward constructed the Calverley Waterworks, with three reservoirs at Jackwood Spring feeding water to the new developments on the Calverley Estate. In 1845 the railway arrived in Tunbridge Wells, with a terminus at Jackwood, which became the Goods Station when the Wells tunnel was completed and the Central Station opened. The Goods Station became the industrial centre of the town, with the Medway Coal Wharf sited here. The Calverley Waterworks were bought by the Local Authority in 1865, and the reservoirs became redundant when a new reservoir was built at Pembury.

Looking at the area in the 1870s, there was the industrial heart, with rows of cottage housing for workers, local shops and pubs, then to the east farmland and woodland, and the remains of the reservoirs which were used as a swimming pool, with other land used as a refuse tip. In the 1880s the Tunbridge Wells Gas Works built new buildings at High Brooms, and in 1895 the Tunbridge Wells Electric Light Company built a works at the Goods Station with wooden cooling towers and a tall chimney.

Upper Lake Image provided by Tunbridge Wells Museum
Upper Lake Image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum

This increasing industrial situation was the basis for Tunbridge Wells’ first Mayor, John Stone-Wigg to donate four acres of land, which would include the former waterworks and refuse tip, to the Local Board for a recreation ground. Grosvenor Recreation Ground was designed by landscape architect Robert Marnock and opened to the public on 29th June 1889, and was the first public park in the town. During the past 125 years the park has continued to evolve.

The setting

The original lake area in the south is much as it was, although overgrown. The surrounding Goods Station is now gone, and was rebuilt as housing in 2011. The housing complex has been landscaped to flow into the existing park and includes a piece of community art ‘Grosvenor Rocks’ alongside the cycle path. The swimming pool was closed and filled in after World War Two, and this area is now the children’s playground, which has moved location several times during the park history. Tennis courts have come and gone as well, but the Bowls Club and Green, opened in 1912, are still there, with a Pavilion opened in the 1970s which expanded to include a coffee kiosk recently. The original Marnock design featured ornamental ‘lower lakes’ to the North East, as the spring flows this way. The lakes had dried out in the 1930s and were filled in. This area is now a natural feature, creating a wetland area supporting a variety of wildlife. In 1899 a bandstand was built, which survived until 1935, on that area was then built a British restaurant in 1942, which went on to become the Satellite Youth Club, then a Montessori Nursery School, until demolished in 2003. This was the extent of the original Grosvenor ‘Rec’. A local lady, who has lived here her whole life, can remember standing in Grosvenor Rec and looking over the hedge at cows in the field of the Charity Farm. At that time the Park Keeper lived in The Lodge house in Auckland Road, and at sunset he blew his whistle before walking around the park locking the gates.

Lower Lakes Image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum
Lower Lakes Image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum

In the 1930s the farmland area altered considerably, some of it becoming part of the Recreation Grounds. Cllr E. J. Strange donated a large part of the Charity Farm to the Local Authority to form parkland, and housing was built from Ferndale towards the farmhouse, which remains on Hilbert Road as “Packs in the Wood”. The Hilbert Recreation Ground is named after E.J. Strange’s mother, Lydia Hilbert, who was also the daughter of the Calverley Waterworks engineer, William Hilbert. Part of the Hilbert R.C. includes a protected playing field – one of many King George V Fields established following his death in 1936, and the Foundation supplied the heraldic panels on the gates at Hilbert Road. Two areas of ancient woodland remain here, Folly Shaw and Roundabout Wood, both with streams running through. These woods are now a Local Nature Reserve, managed by the Kent High Weald Partnership. This area of the park also has the original Oast House from the farm, which is used as a changing room by the football teams.

In recent years the whole park has been in need of serious maintenance, which lead to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council starting a bid for a Heritage Lottery grant. Money donated from developers of the new buildings surrounding the park was invested as the base of the bid. The plan was to restore the park to it’s Victorian glory days, as well as add new items for the future. A Friends group was set up to support the bid, and I joined out of interest. In the two and a half years since forming, the Friends group has organised several community events, as well as liaising with the council during the bid process. I’ve been researching parts of the history for our quarterly newsletter, and got to meet some interesting people with memories of past events. ‘Friends of Grosvenor and Hilbert Park’ have worked to raise the profile of a park that many people weren’t aware existed.

Grottos - Image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum
Grottos – Image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum

Restoring its Glory

On January 8th 2014 we heard we were successful with the grant bid, and £2.3 million pounds from Heritage Lottery and Big Lottery fund can be invested in the park. The main part of the plans involve the lake, pavilion and entrance, wetlands area and playground. Other work will happen in the woods with maintenance of the streams and bridges. New additions will be “Parkour”, and a community orchard. It will take about two years altogether and there will obviously be disruption during that time. This quote comes from Peter Every of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Parks Department:

“One early addition will be the appointment of the HLF Community Engagement Officer, who will deliver the Action Plan for the next five years. This post will based in the Park working alongside the regular Sodexo staff and Kent High Weald Partnership delivering volunteer activities and developing skills. We hope you will see a new face in the Park in early March.”

However, I don’t think this new variety of ‘Park Keeper’ will be living on site and blowing their whistle at closing time! So, while the historical parts of the park will be restored, it’s also a time to move on into the future, and whatever that may bring.

Bandstand image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum
Bandstand image supplied by Tunbridge Wells Museum

Many thanks Carolyn, it sounds like an incredible project to be involved in and I look forward to your blog and twitter updates.   

If anyone fancies getting involved, or just visiting the park to watch its transformation, then please pop over to the Friends of Grosvenor and Hilbert Park website for more details.

And if you would like to read more from the comfort of your armchair, Carolyn recommends the ‘excellent’ book ‘Grosvenor and Hilbert Park’ written by Dr Philip Whitbourn, OBE, FSA and Dr Ian Beavis which can be bought through the Tunbridge Wells Museum.

I’d also like to say a big thank you to Tunbridge Wells Museum for allowing me to reproduce these images.

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