LAURA LEA takes a tour of her local park to discover a rich history you don’t need to spend a penny to enjoy.
With a week to go until summer solstice, long sunny evenings are well and truly here and what better way to savour them than in the outdoors. As city dwellers, it’s easy to forget these green slices of oasis are actually right on our doorstep and as the name implies, Belle Vue is one of Newport’s finest.
Walking me around the Victorian Park was Jennie Judd, parks and outdoor recreation officer and gardener, Frances Hope.
The land the park is on was gifted to the people of Newport by Lord Tredegar in 1892. Prior to this, it was used for farming.
Thomas Mawson, from Windermere, won the public competition to design the park, with his entry called ‘Seabreeze’. It was his first public park and it transpired that Mawson had put the design together thinking the park site was where the Royal Gwent Hospital is now.
“It was to give the people of Newport somewhere to come and enjoy a green place,” said Jennie and its use hasn’t changed much since.
“With money being tight, these green spaces are being used even more now,” she said.
The park is open 365 days a year - and childhood memories of riding new bikes around the bandstand on Christmas morning testify to this.
The final cost of the park recorded in 1895 was £19,500.
The park’s opening on Saturday September 8, 1894 was reported in the South Wales Argus. The article details the procession which left the Cattle Market before heading through Commercial Road, Mill-parade, Alexandra Road, Dock Street, Stow Hill, through Belle Vue park and then back down to the east side of the dock to watch a lifeboat launch demonstration in observance of “Lifeboat Saturday”.
As per the legal requirements of a gift, the council are not allowed to generate income from the land. The cafe in the pavilion is run on a charitable basis.
The afternoon we arrived at the pavilion, chairs are being stacked after a morning wedding. The beautiful space is beginning to become popular for both wedding receptions and ceremonies, with the backdrop of the park ideal for those all important pictures.
Climb the spiral staircase of the pavilion and you get to balcony, or as Jenny says, the “best kept secret”. From here, the symmetry of the park is beneath you and the Newport skyline beyond, with both the new bridge and the Transporter bridge permeating the horizon.
The park boasts bowling greens, a play area, tennis courts, band stand, fountains, cascades, pavilion and even a rustic tea house. Much of these features, as well as the park gates, lodges and terraces, all have Grade II listed status.
It even has its own stone circle. The Gorsedd Stone Circle was erected in 1897 for the National Eisteddfod, which was held in the park the following year.
“Not many parks can say they’ve got one of these,” said Jennie.
The lodge off Cardiff Road is still occupied by a park ranger. The other lodge is used by the bowlers as a changing facility.
The immaculate carpet-like bowling greens are well used by several clubs who operate out of the park. But alongside these, is the easy-to-miss Friary garden, described by Jenny as a quiet place for people to come and reflect. True to this, there was a woman sat alone among flower bushes reading her book.
The garden was an addition to Mawson’s original design and is gardener, Frances Hope’s, “baby”, as she designed it. The pergola archways and stone columns add a sense of grandeur amongst the wild, reminiscent of Hodgson Burnett’s secret garden.
Three full time gardeners look after the entire park. Frances has worked at the park for the last ten years.
She said: “I know every inch of it, more or less. You can’t leave any corner unseen, because you can guarantee there would be weeds.”
With her two colleagues, Steve Watkins and Justin Norman, helping, it can take two days to mow the entire park’s grass. Frances said: “Spring is very busy, but we’re busy most times of the year.
There are two months of leaf clearing. “You’re pretty sick of leaves by the end of that,” said Frances.
But Frances comes to recognise the park’s users as much as its plants.
“There are the regulars – especially the dog walkers,” she said. “ We know the dogs names more than the people.”
One of the most distinctive features of the park is the amount of trees. These are trees from all over the world including the Monkey Puzzle native to Chile, the Coast Redwood native to California and the stunning pink Himalayan Magnolia.
But they are also the oldest inhabitants. “All the main Cedars are the original planted Cedars,” said Jennie. “It’s magnificent.”
They are also largely evergreens, making it one of the greenest parks all years round. All of the trees are audited each year and at last count, reached the thousands.
In 2002, the park was awarded £1.564m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and £654,000 from Newport City Council for the restoration project, which included a new play area and restored pavilion and conservatories.
The requirements laid out by CADW were that the park be restored to its original landscape design. A lot of the tree stock was lost as a result.
In 2012, the park received the Queen Elizabeth Fields in Trusts blue plaque.
In terms of overall usage, Jennie tells me the park is one of the busiest in Newport. She said: “I think the people of Newport were very lucky Lord Tredegar gave them this land.
The park has become popular with film companies and even Dr Who has made an appearance by the fountain bowel with the TARDIS.
Jennie said: “People don’t realise how beautiful this park is and what it has to offer. It’s a great place. I feel very proud to work here and look after it. Unless you have pride or passion, you couldn’t work in a place like this. You feel as though you are taking care of history.“
The park is open every day from sunrise to sunset and car-parking is free.
A brief history of Belle Vue
1892 – The site of the park is conveyed to the council by Lord Tredegar.
1894 – The grand opening of the park.
1897 – The National Eisteddfod is held in the park.
1907 – Following residential pressure, the council agrees to meet demand for tennis courts.
1910 – The Rustic Tea House is built.
1934 – New bowls pavilion built.
1945 – The council resists the removal of the railings for the war effort.
2002 – The Heritage Lottery Fund awards £1.564m towards the restoration of the park.
2006 – The restored pavilion and conservatories open.