The mother of all local parks to be rejuvenated

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The world's first public park, which was intended to make the best of a bad landscape in Birkenhead but became a model for Central Park in New York, is to be elevated from its faded grandeur with £6.6m of lottery money.

The world's first public park, which was intended to make the best of a bad landscape in Birkenhead but became a model for Central Park in New York, is to be elevated from its faded grandeur with £6.6m of lottery money.

The grant, part of a £45m allocation for 10 heritage projects, will be used to return the park to its splendour of the 1840s, when it was designed by the landscape architect Sir Joseph Paxton.

Paxton was understandably pessimistic about his project. "It is not a very good situation for a park," he wrote to his wife, "but of course it will rebound more [to my] credit to make something handsome and good out of bad materials." But the 125-acre public space he created managed to capture the finest elements of northern European architecture and landscape. It was a landscape of open meadows, with vistas across a rockery - his recreation of the Alps - a Venetian boathouse and Italian lodge, lakes shaped like sinuous rivers and a sandstone Grand Entrance modelled on Rome.

Paxton also incorporated surrounding land into the park, which was sold for housing to help pay for the park, and a perimeter road for traffic. His creation inspired Fred Olmsted, an American, who visited in 1850 and subesequently designed Central Park, the United States' first landscaped public park.

Today, Birkenhead Park's sandstone is covered in graffitti and looks decidedly worn. The park's subtle horticulture, intended to create different vistas and fragrances every 20 yards, has been destroyed by decades of heavy handed planting. A Paxton specialist has been brought in to advise on a horticultural makeover, improvements to the park's two large lakes and a visitor centre.

Though the park was built at a time of new-found weath - the Cammell Laird shipyard was starting to boom in the 1840s and Birkenhead, later home to Europe's first trams, was being fêted as "The City of the Future" - the sweated labour of Birkenhead's underclass was providing all the toil.

The park was to be for them, the start of a British "park movement" designed, in the words of an 1833 government committee on public works, to "secure open spaces in the vicinity of populous towns... to promote the health and comfort of the inhabitants".

Birkenhead never became that city and is today the recipient of European Commission Objective One money, allocated to the continent's poorest areas. The local council wants the revived park to provide better community focus. Yesterday, the park's ranger of 14 years, Mike Garbutt, said it had survived the years "fairly well" but was nowhere near its original best. "It's fine if you just like green grass but what we want to do is reinstate its horticultural value and brings the colours and smells back," he said. Everything from the drainage system to railings and paths will be replaced. Work on the park, which became a Grade I-listed landscape five years ago, is expected to begin by early 2002.

The architects of the renovation, whose first task will be to design the £150,000 visitor centre, will be well advised to retain the park's mass appeal, since Birkonians have stubbornly resisted even the gentlest attempts to exclude them from it. Birkenhead Park Cricket Club, which has played in the park since 1846, has been renowned for matches punctuated by locals who devoutly refuse to take a detour around the boundary rope.

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