EARLIER this month, my fellow columnist Mayor Derek Brown officially reopened the newly refurbished Victoria Park. Victoria Park is the oldest of Salisbury’s parks and as a letter to The Journal last week mentioned, the blue plaque at its entrance remembers the role of an earlier Salisbury Mayor in its creation.
Frederick Griffin was Mayor of Salisbury at the time of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee back in 1887. By all accounts he was an inspiring and civically-driven individual.
For the golden jubilee, he fulfilled his duties and then some – rows of long tables were laid out in the Market Place, serving lunch for 4,000 men and tea for 3,560 women.
In between, Griffin opened Victoria Park, which as the plaque says, ‘was wholly his idea from the first’. He joined a crowd of 10,000 in watching an afternoon of ‘rustic sports’ – because nothing quite celebrates a royal jubilee like seeing who can throw a hay bale the furthest.
The concept of municipal parks, open and free to everyone, is more recent than you might think. For most of British history, common ground was anything but. It was only in Derby in 1840 that the first properly public park was opened.
The timing wasn’t coincidental: parks were seen as an answer to health concerns raised in the Factory Act. This was just as nineteenth century travellers were returning to these shores with hundreds of new plant and tree species to fill the flowerbeds.
Since then, parks have become embedded in our country’s history. After the Crimean War, captured Russian artillery guns were placed on plinths as victory trophies.
When the First World War revealed concerns about the fitness of the ordinary British working population, parks were boosted as a place for sport and exercise.
In the Second World War they grew in a different way as part of the Dig for Victory campaign.
There followed a period where parks fell out of favour, with funding switched to other leisure activities such as indoor sports centres.
Then in 1994 came Park Life, an influential Demos report based on interviews with 10,000 park users.
This revealed that many more people were using parks than official statistics suggested and that they were a much wider cross-section of society than those using sports centres.
Particularly through lottery funding, parks became invested in again.
With the Victoria Park renovations, it was Salisbury City Council who stumped up the cash.
I hope they continue to do so. As the next generations play on the swings or learn to ride their bikes, parks are not just about preserving a city’s history, but providing for its future, too.