A chance to transform Burnley’s ‘People’s Park’

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A few days ago I attended a meeting in the Rangers building in Thompson Park. The reason about 20 or so of us were there was because Burnley’s Green Spaces Department is working towards a submission to the Heritage Lottery Fund to make some very necessary improvements to the park.

I was there because I have made a historical study of Burnley’s parks for a forthcoming publication. As the application is to be made to the HLF, some information about the history of the park – how and when it was built – together with the history of the site, is necessary.

That is why I am involved but there were representatives from the former Friends organisation and the very successful miniature railway which operates in the park and is one of its greatest present day attractions. The Ribble Rivers Trust, which is making a big investment in the river, the Brun, which flows though the park, and a host of other bodies interested in the future of Thompson Park are also part of the team. At the end of the meeting I spoke to a young lady who was not originally from Burnley but wanted to do her bit for the park as well.

I was particularly pleased to see so many of the employees of the council giving up their spare time to be present. They have the interests of the park at heart and many have gone far beyond the call of duty to ensure the offer to the public at the park is as good as it can be. We have a lot to thank them for.

It is my intention to let you know how the HLF application for Thompson Park progresses. I think I am right in saying that, in the recent past, Burnley has made two HLF applications, one of which was very successful though the other was not. The successful application was for Towneley Park. The lady who helped in that application is part of the Thompson Park team. Unfortunately, the application for Memorial Park in Padiham was not successful but that park remains a great pleasure to visit and it is good to know it remains as popular as it is with Padiham residents and among people from further afield.

We are at an early stage in the development of the application. A submission will be made, this year, for Stage One Funding which, if obtained, will mean the council, and its partners in the Thompson Park Group, will be able to employ professionals to help in drawing up a detailed Stage Two application.

Ideas about what that should be are now being worked up. A superficial appraisal of the park’s attractions would reveal a number of very positive things about the park as it is at the present time. The miniature railway has already been referred to and added to this are the boating lake, now administered by the Leisure Trust, and paddling pool. This latter is one of a diminishing number of such facilities in public parks in the region but current thoughts are to retain it and improve it.

There are a number of facilities which do need attention. The park is now over 80 years old and, though work has been ongoing over those years, there comes a time when there has to be a reassessment about who the park is for and what facilities are needed to meet the requirements of present day users.

Both the council and Thompson Park Group have some ideas about what is necessary but public consultations will be organised so everyone can have their say. What follows is only my opinion but there are a number of projects that will have to be tackled. The boating lake is an original feature. It is now over 80 years old and work is necessary to the bed of the lake which is now very uneven. The whole of the lake needs attention if we are to get it back to the condition I recall in the 1950s.

The Italian gardens is another feature which should be a priority. A few years ago, after a great storm, a number of the Doric columns became unstable and had to be removed. They are now in store at a location in town and can be made ready for restoration and reconstruction if the HLF can come up with the necessary funds.

I would like to see two significant restorations.

One is the rose garden which, when it was completed, had a great effect on Burnley households who realised their tiny backyard gardens could be brightened up with varieties of the national flower. Another of my hopes would be that we can rebuild the conservatory which stood in the southern part of the park. I recall visiting it when I was a boy and was impressed by the exotic flowers and shrubs growing there.

My argument would be that a number of northern parks have seen, through HLF support, the restoration of several almost abandoned conservatories. Blackburn’s Corporation Park is one of these and it is a pleasure to see what has been achieved there. Of course, in Burnley, it would be that the whole of the conservatory would have to be rebuilt. This might be beyond the remit of the bid but it is certainly worth thinking about.

It should be pointed out that a number of buildings in the park certainly need attention. I think all three of the bridges, the former park café, the park keeper’s house and shelter all need HLF support. Doubtless, there are other issues I do not know about, but that is where you come in. What is your opinion about what should be done with a successful HLF bid for Thompson Park? Until means have been set up to contact the project, I would be pleased to receive your ideas and observations through this column. In return I will keep you up to date with what is going on at Thompson Park.

I have chosen 10 images from the Briercliffe Society’s Collections of two aspects of Thompson Park. They relate to its famous boating lake and its former conservatory. However, a few words about the history of the park are necessary.

The Thompson Park, not Thompson’s Park, was opened in July, 1930. It bears the name of J.W. Thompson of the Burnley textile family – the same family responsible for the former Thompson Leisure Centre. The park was rather different to the existing parks which had been built in better parts of town. Thompson Park might have had the grand houses of Ormerod Road on its doorstep but it was also very close to some of the poorer areas of Burnley.

Early users came from the Top o’ th’ Town and Hill Top which, in those days, contained some very poor housing. The Stoneyholme and Daneshouse areas were also close by and it was my “cousin”, Joseph Yelland, who lived in Abel Street, who, when we were boys, introduced me to the delights of the park. Before Joseph gets in touch to point out we are not real cousins, I should mention that because his mother (who was my godmother) and my mother were the very best of friends, we were always taught to regard Joseph and his brothers as cousins. The Yellands were a lovely family and I still miss my godmother, Margaret Yelland, after all these years.

Thompson Park gained a reputation as Burnley’s “People’s Park”. This was partly because of the proximity to the park of the homes of the weaving families of the town but also because, unlike the other parks, it was built by men who were unemployed because of the Depression, a feature of the inter-war years.

In a future article, if I can get the Local History Library to agree, I will publish photos of construction work taking place at the park. The library has some excellent images of the construction work in progress and I know of another source of photographic information which will be useful.

Lastly, I should mention that, though Thompson Park opened in 1930, the last of Burnley’s major municipal parks before the Second World War, the park itself has a history which goes back to the days of Queen Elizabeth I. In those days all the land occupied by the park, plus the land adjacent to Colne Road, and more, further up Colne Road, was in the hands of the Woodruff family who were also in possession of the first Bank Hall.

The latter was a half-timbered house not unlike Speke Hall of Rufford Old Hall. It was replaced by a stone built house, the hospital many of you will remember, in the 1780s and this was pulled down because the health authority had let it fall into disrepair. If this building had survived it may have made it much easier for a successful HLF application to be put together.