Derby Arboretum: How Britain's first public park inspired open spaces around the world

Created by a mill owner 175 years ago with a dazzling array of trees, it went on to inspire Central Park

Dean Kirby
Saturday 29 August 2015 21:29 BST

Britain’s first public park, one of the inspirations for New York’s Central Park, was created as a haven for textile workers in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Now, 175 years since the Derby Arboretum first opened its gates, it remains a place of peace and contemplation for harried city workers.

The Arboretum, which was created by local mill owner and philanthropist Joseph Strutt in 1840, is recognised as Britain’s first park. Strutt wanted to give people a place where they could exercise and relax, while broadening their minds.

The green space soon became a home for tree specimens from around the world and one of a number of British parks that inspired Central Park in New York.

Now garden historians and arboriculturists are celebrating the park’s 175th anniversary and the work of its designer, the botanist and landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon.

Professor Paul Elliott from the University of Derby, one of the country’s leading historians of British gardens, said: “Derby Arboretum is one of the most significant public parks in the country.

“It has an important place in the history of landscape gardening because of its designer, John Claudius Loudon, and because of the way it was founded as an open space that could be used for free by working people. Joseph Strutt wanted to give something back to the workers who had helped to make his family wealthy. He donated the arboretum at a time when other parks were only open to paid subscribers.

“He hoped it would also bring about social improvements, develop their moral conduct, teach them about botany and also enhance their industriousness. It was the first place that they could go on a Sunday afternoon to get away from the mills and their homes.”

Professor Elliott describes the arboretum as the “living embodiment” of Loudon’s work as a botanist and landscape designer, and it became a model for many other parks that followed. “Some of those parks have disappeared, but thankfully the Derby Arboretum is still with us today.”

Loudon designed the park to include mounds planted with trees and shrubs to disguise the paths and park boundaries and to give the illusion of space.

To encourage people to walk all around the 11-acre site, he decided that no two species of tree or shrub would be the same.

Workers were given a three-day holiday when the park opened in September 1840, and more than 20,000 visitors gathered among the newly planted trees to watch a civic procession. But admission was free only on Sundays and Wednesdays – and it was not until 1882 when charging on other days was finally abolished.

Today, the park, owned and managed by Derby City Council, is a Grade II* landscape in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens. It contains some of the finest examples of unusual trees including the tulip tree, the Turkish hazel, the Caucasian wingnut and the cucumber tree.

Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew Gardens in London, who is a fan of the Derby Arboretum and a recent visitor, said: “It’s really nice to see that some of the old trees are still there along with newly planted trees that will still be standing for people to enjoy in 100 years’ time. The park has real historical value and some of the tree specimens there are the best of their kind in Britain.”

The park has been given a new lease of life in recent years with the help of £6m Heritage Lottery funding. Councillor Martin Rawson, Derby City Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for city centre regeneration, said: “Derby Arboretum is a fantastic park with a rich cultural heritage and our work to restore it in partnership with the Heritage Lottery Fund means it can be enjoyed by future generations.”

The city council’s parks department and community groups are planning a day of celebrations to mark the anniversary on 5 September – complete with Victorian stilt walkers and people dressed in 1840s costumes.

Jenny Anthony, creative director for Spiral Arts, a group which has a studio in the park and provides free workshops to school children, said: “We’re so lucky to be based here. The park is a really special place. We look out of the window every day and see that we are in this beautiful landscape with so much history. The park is really busy and we see the same people coming through the gates every day. Even when it’s cold and windy, it’s just lovely to watch the trees blowing around.”

But it is the people of Derby who perhaps love the park the most and they are still using it in the same way that Victorian workers did 175 years ago.

Sabine Parker, 38, a mother of two who moved to Derby from London a decade ago, visits the arboretum almost every day. She said: “I spend most days here meeting friends, walking the dog or just walking through on my way to the city centre. The park is an oasis from city life. It connects us to the outside world. It’s absolutely lovely.”

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