Modern take on park restoration

An 18th-century park has benefited from a makeover that combines original elements with 21st-century updates, says Gavin McEwan.

The Heritage Lottery Fund's (HLF's) support for parks has done much to bring Britain's historic parks back to life. But often there is a tension between authentic restoration and meeting the needs of today's park-using public.

Managers of Priory Park in Reigate, Surrey, faced just such a challenge in marrying an 18th-century stately home and landscape with facilities for well-off local users with high expectations.

Much of this responsibility fell to Land Use Consultants (LUC) principal Adrian Wikeley, who has overseen the 18-month, £7m restoration of the park, which officially reopened in May. Wikeley describes the work as "a combination of a restoration and a redesign".

"I haven't intended to be historically accurate," he says. "There is always room to look forward as well as back. The planting scheme in the sunken garden in front of the Priory, for example, is 21st century. There's no point in restoring every element to the original - which was, after all, dependent on a huge crew of groundsmen."

The park only passed into public ownership after World War Two and new amenity facilities, including an open-air swimming pool, had in the past sat uneasily with the historic setting and had not been maintained to a high standard. Reconfiguring the park's layout therefore made sense in both heritage and amenity terms, says Wikeley. "Before, everything was in the wrong place."

Agreeing what ought to go where required extensive consultation with local park users, and a Friends of Priory Park group was formed in 2005 as a condition of the £4.2m HLF funding.

It was at the group's behest that the tennis courts were moved from the site of the current pavilion to a less obtrusive area, says Friends of Priory Park communications manager John Adams. "In the original plans they would have blocked sightlines."

The car park has been redesigned and replanted, making it more navigable by pedestrians as well as cars. Football pitches have also been relocated away from the Priory. Meanwhile, new elements, such as a fenced-in multi-use games area, and a purely ornamental lime arbour and cherry tree avenue, have been introduced.

New clusters of semi-mature trees have been planted in the wider parkland to provide a succession to existing clumps of lime trees planted in the 1770s.

Adams, who is responsible for the friends group's website and quarterly newsletter, admits that the group could not agree on a design for the pavilion.

"Everyone had an individual view," he says. "The winning design is not the one I voted for, but it's been very positively received. Because it reflects everything, it almost disappears into the landscape."

Wikeley acknowledges the value of the consultation process, but says: "Sometimes you get things like, 'we want a really high slide in the playground', that are not often possible. You have to design within the limits of EU legislation. There are always tensions, but it has been a fruitful relationship."

Not only the friends group was involved in this process, he adds. "We were in discussion with local skate park users, including BMX-ers. It's an important part of the park - there should be something here for all generations."

The one area of the park that has seen little change is the wider woodland, which rises on a ridge to the south, providing a sense of enclosure. "There was limited budget for the woodland - but then people liked it as it is," says Wikeley.

A condition of HLF funding is the provision of a 10-year management and maintenance plan. According to Adams: "We see the renovation as just the start - we want to work with the council to deliver the maintenance plan. Our main concerns are general maintenance and security in the park. But so far there's been very little, if any, damage."

This has been no doubt helped by the appointment last year of a full-time park manager, based in the new pavilion.

Wikeley adds: "This is the premier park in the borough and it's an affluent area, so you expect higher standards."

The presence of a Grade I-listed building in a setting that Wikeley describes as "historically quite intense" meant that English Heritage was an "associate monitor" on the project. Meanwhile, archaeological finds meant parts of the project were delayed from 2007. Round beds by the pavilion will be planted up with bulbs this autumn, for flowering next spring.

PARK HIGHLIGHTS

Pavilion - The striking circular mirror-panelled building, with an avant-garde interior, is the first UK commission for French architect Dominique Perrault, known for designing the vast Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris. The design won an Royal Institute of British Architects-organised competition, which attracted around 60 entries. "It doesn't compete with the architecture of the Priory," says Wikeley.

The pavilion scores high on sustainability. A ground source heat pump installed by Buro Happold provides year-round heating and cooling, which it is claimed will save 13.5 tonnes of CO2 a year.

Sunken garden - The original Victorian design had become heavily overgrown with yew. "It had been the showpiece of the park until the end of the 19th century, but had become a bit of a tip, and you couldn't even see in," says Wikeley.

The new layout is broadly based on what he describes as "brilliant photographic records", but the planting - a geometric arrangement of drought-resistant plants edged by topiary trees - is modern.

The new stone steps are based on originals and a ha-ha separating the garden from the wider park has been restored.

"But it's lower than it should be, for health and safety reasons," Wikeley adds.

Playground - Those who are familiar with the LUC-designed Diana, Princess of Wales' Memorial Playground in London's Kensington Gardens will note a certain similarity with this, which also features a wooden ship as a centrepiece, surrounded by sand. Wikeley describes the nautical theme as a nod to Admiral Earl Beatty, the Priory's last private owner.

"There are no wet-pour surfaces and no metal," he says. "Sand, timber, grass and planting make for a far better play environment, and you get less aggressive behaviour. But it takes more design time, and there is a higher level of maintenance."

Monk's Walk - This historical feature of the garden, evident in the 1914 Ordnance Survey map, was completely reconstructed, with new hedging, planting and a sundial, designed by sculptor David Harbour. "There was one there already in the photos, but we didn't feel we should necessarily restore it as it was," says Wikeley. "There's no harm in adding new things." The herbaceous border, though, he describes as "in a conservative style".

Pond - A fish pond adjoining the Priory can be traced to mediaeval times. Restoration of the current lake involved dredging out over 7,000cu m of silt to restore its depth, and increasing biodiversity through planting and management. However, a problem yet to be resolved is how to prevent the resident wildfowl eating the newly planted waterside vegetation.

Avenue - This reinstates the former carriage drive leading from the previous main entrance on the west side, whose route was uncovered through archaeological research. This showed that the original 18th-century route lay on a slightly different course from where a previously reinstated avenue had been planted.

"Only 50 per cent of the original avenue was left," says Wikeley. Large tree-lifting kit brought in from Germany was used to transfer the remaining specimens to supplement tree clumps in the parkland. "So far they have all taken," he adds.

CREDITS

Clients: Reigate & Banstead Borough

Council: Surrey County Council

Funders: Heritage Lottery Fund, Reigate & Banstead Borough Council, Legal & General, Parador Properties, Canon, Watson Wyatt, Fidelity, Charles Church

Principal contractor: Crispin & Borst

Main subcontractors: Calabasas, UPM Tilhill, Land & Water, The Fountain Workshop, Timberplay, Bendcrete

Main plant suppliers: Van den Berk, Boningdale Nurseries.


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