Fields of broken dreams

This park in a quiet Nottingham suburb has been enjoyed by generations. Now the council plans to build a car park on it. But its fate is not unique, as the nation's open spaces slowly succumb to the bulldozers. Matthew Sweet reports
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The Independent Online

When Albert Heymann was buried on a snow-touched spring morning 80 years ago this week, they scattered crocuses on his grave. The choir of St Giles, West Bridgford, joined the church organist, Mr CB Morris, in the hymn, "O God Our Help In Ages Past", and the mourners - the Brahmins of Nottinghamshire's political, charitable and industrial castes - paid their last respects to the greatest philanthropist their town had known. The local newspaper had already identified his greatest legacy: light, air and green space. "Only last year," its obituary noted, "he disposed on liberal terms of his West Bridgford residence, the hall and park, to the Urban District Council." The Reverend JP Hales read the last rites, flowers were strewn upon the casket, and Albert Heymann's ashes were lowered into an evergreen-lined grave - in which he is now, presumably, spinning like a bobbin.

Joyce Langdon, 40 years resident in West Bridgford, is certain that his memory has been betrayed. She meets me on the perimeter of the park and tells me about the morning four years ago when she spotted a team of surveyors setting up their theodolites on the grass, and realised that something was afoot. She points out the site adjoining the park that, if Rushcliffe Borough Council has its way, will soon be occupied by a sleek new branch of Marks & Spencer. She indicates the nursery school directly adjacent to this spot which, three years ago, was mysteriously refused planning permission for a modest extension of its premises on the grounds that it would "lead to further congestion, noise and disturbance in this mainly residential area".

As we walk through the gates of the park, she offers her diagnosis. "It is all based on greed," she declares. "Ever since Rushcliffe took over, they've had their eye on this park. But we have no democracy in West Bridgford. We have no voice. Councillors who live outside this area vote on what happens here."

West Bridgford, a settlement of neat Victorian terraces and squat Edwardian villas, is a suburb of Nottingham that has succeeded in maintaining administrative independence from its neighbour. In 1895, it came under the jurisdiction of the Urban District Council and its first chairman, Albert Heymann. In 1974, the boundaries were redrawn, and the town became the responsibility of Rushcliffe Borough Council, an agglomeration of mainly rural wards. No town or parish council was ever established in place of the abolished body - and it is the absence of this tier of local democracy that Joyce and her fellow-campaigners in the Central West Bridgford Community Association fear will aid the slow destruction of their shared heritage.

The Conservative-controlled Rushcliffe Borough Council does not intend to sell any land directly to Marks & Spencer: the retail outfit intends to build a new store on a site currently occupied by a moribund pub named the Manor House. The shop, however, will be the chief beneficiary of the council's plan to tear up five of the park's seven tennis courts and obliterate its bowling green, in order to provide room for 60 new parking spaces.

The park's pavilion, a modest prefabricated building which hosts dozens of community activities, is also scheduled for demolition. Joyce comes down here every Thursday morning, hurling herself about at the Swing into Shape class. Today, the Shopmobility group is in session. Joyce pops in for a word, while I copy down a ragged notice on the locker-room wall: "Could all bowlers please play across the green on non-match days, to spread the wear and tear on the green ends." The Luftwaffe scored a direct hit on the green in 1943 - on frosty mornings, apparently, the ghost of the explosion becomes visible in the grass - but its current tussocky, uneven state is simply a consequence of neglect.

In a speech delivered this week to a conference on obesity in young people, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, declared her government's "passion for sport". So far, however, this amour has had little effect upon the actions of local authorities keen to unburden themselves of their recreational amenities. And the Government's attempts to prevent schools selling off their playing fields have yet to produce results worth cheering.

Since October 1998, when the Education Secretary assumed direct control of the disposal of these facilities, 213 applications have been approved, and only six refused. Just as depressingly, the monitoring committee which was established four years ago to scrutinise such transactions admitted this week that it has not held a meeting since last May. At a conference next Thursday, however, Tessa Jowell will try to drum up some optimism with the somewhat paradoxical announcement that most of the change-of-use applications involving playing fields now also include investment in sports facilities. Other statistics may prove more persuasive - figures from the National Playing Fields Association, for instance, that list 1,699 recreation grounds under threat from developers, and its calculation that British sports fields are disappearing at a rate of one a day.

The campaigners in West Bridgford hope that their case will be helped by the contradiction between the national government's ambition to revive grassroots sport, and Rushcliffe Borough Council's plans for the park. When Joyce emerges from the Shopmobility meeting, she brings a friend to put this view across. Jennie Gilbert has lived in the area for 30 years. "There's all this fuss about children being overweight and not getting enough exercise, and what do they want to do with the tennis courts? Park cars on them." The protest, she insists, is not an outbreak of nimbyism. She and her allies have no objection to Marks & Spencer (indeed, judging by the meagre stock of the town's Co-op supermarket, West Bridgford is in dire need of parsnip croquettes and honey-roasted salmon flakes); she just doesn't want Rushcliffe Borough Council to oblige the store by turning the park's sports facilities into a Pay and Display. "The council runs the park, but they're gradually encroaching on it," she says. "Bit by bit, they're taking it away from us."

The history of West Bridgford is loud with tales of middle-class revolt. Its staunch application to the principles of the temperance movement kept pubs from its streets until the early 1960s. A public rally in 1988 forced the council to abandon its ambition to build a shopping arcade on the Croquet Lawn, a neat stretch of green that divides the park from the town's main road.

But not all such campaigns submit to easy sentimentalisation. In the last 120 years, the Nottingham authorities have twice failed to assimilate the town into their territory, but it's hard to know whether they were resisted out of principle, or simply because Bridgford's separate status made it a tax haven for professionals who wanted to work in the city and enjoy its facilities without paying metropolitan rates bills. Similarly, it's difficult to believe that any noble notion motivated the committee which successfully prevented attempts to build public housing in the town until 1936.

And what are we to make of the group of local residents who, in May 1924, hired a lawyer to prevent a playground being established in the park - a gentleman named GC Allsebrook, who argued that children on swings made "shrill noises, and plenty of them"? Fortunately for the young people of the area, the sarcasm of the West Bridgford Advertiser seems to have shamed this campaign into silence. The evidence is on microfilm reels, in the local library: "Why not erect a lethal chamber which could be covered with roses and vanille [sic] ices temptingly displayed just inside - where our children could be peacefully put to sleep? Or as an alternative why not build a mammoth padded room in which our children could romp merrily in the fond belief that they had discovered another Arcadia!"

The library's local-studies section offers the best place to measure the differences between West Bridgford's past and present administrators. A monograph on the Heymann family by the town's pre-eminent historian, Geoffrey Oldfield, describes how Albert's father, Lewis, emigrated from Saxony to Nottingham in the 1830s, established a successful lace-making business, and made his mark upon industrial history by inventing that most middle-class of fancy goods, the lace curtain. (He exhibited a 90in-wide specimen at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and took home a medal for his trouble.) Oldfield's research also notes that Lewis was remembered as a model employer: his obituaries noted his generosity to unemployed workers during the travails of the "Hungry Forties", and pronounced that his business practices were "in noble contrast to some more modern manufacturers, who buy cheap and 'sweated' designs".

It is his eldest son, however, who receives the most lavish praise. Although he opted for a career in banking, leaving the management of the family firm to a younger sibling, Albert's influence upon West Bridgford was far greater than that of his father. He was made a magistrate for the county in 1876, and took a turn as its deputy lieutenant. He was a donor to the General Hospital and General Dispensary. He was vice-president of the local literary and debating society, chairman of the parish finance committee and president of the lawn-tennis club, the choral society, the Glee Club and the Mechanics' Institute. When the Urban District Council was created in 1895, he marked the occasion by hosting a grand bazaar in the grounds of his house - the land that now forms West Bridgford Park. A souvenir brochure describes the attractions: a maypole decorated by a team of 30 children, the performance of a one-act farce entitled Cross Purposes by a band of amateur actors; a display of tableaux vivants, peopled by the citizens of West Bridgford; the exhibition of the preserved head of an American Indian chief named Tibbi. "Albert Heymann was the father of modern Bridgford," Geoffrey Oldfield tells me, when I pay a visit to him in person. "He devoted himself to public life."

In the closing years of the 19th century, one of Mr Oldfield's predecessors, John Mellors, ended an account of the town's history with this extravagant encomium: "We have now surveyed West Bridgford in relation to its past history, and present state," he wrote. "We have noticed its social institutions, promotive of neighbourly feeling and cheerful exercise; its administration, with every provision for health, convenience and comfort without the demoralisation resulting from public houses; and looking around we exclaim, 'Bridgford is a place of which we may be proud; an honour to have had a hand in its governance; a garden city which other places may with advantage copy; and from which should go forth a noble band of young people to bless the world'."

There's time for a last look around the park before I take the bus back to Nottingham. On one of the tennis courts, a young family is playing doubles, children versus adults. Next to them, a couple of boys begin a game, bopping a foam-rubber ball back and forth with a pair of cheap pink plastic rackets. A trio of girls dressed in identical quilted jackets are running across the garden, shrieking and giggling.

Joyce Langdon, however, should have the last words: "I've told my family," she informs me, "don't bother giving me a fancy funeral, just put me in a cardboard box and incinerate me, and scatter my ashes here. I've spent many happy days in this park with my children and grandchildren. If you come down here and you're feeling lonely, you can find someone to pass the time of day with, even if it's only to say, 'Aren't the flowers beautiful?'."

She casts her hand towards the crocus beds, which are bright with the same petals that were interred with the remains of Albert Heymann. "Why should we give up all this for commerce?"

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