Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lever Park

This is how I described the ruined estate of William Lever at Rivington, in my book The King Of Sunlight (As recommended on 'A Good Read' on Radio 4!).

"Follow the grass-pocked macadam road across the fields, a stumbling parabola up into the woods that cling to the side of the hill. It's only when you reach the shade of the trees that you realize they are not what they seem; though the branches are as gnarled and intertwined as the spookiest of fairy-tale forests, this woodland is barely a century old. It's the rhododendrons that give it away. Nineteenth-century British landowners planted them like tom-cats laying down scent: you are now entering our territory, beware, Big House ahead. But money comes and money goes, while plants that were built to survive the snowstorms of the Himalayas prosper, and these rich green bushes have long since spread and multiplied across the hillside, swamping paths and bridges and summerhouses on their way. For beneath the rhododendrons, the leaf-mould and bracken and the detritus of eighty years of neglect, there is a formal garden here. A series of terraces is etched into the sandstone like the levels of Dante's inferno, their once formal planting sprawling out and spilling between levels in the darkness beneath the trees. A flight of 365 steps snakes steeply between them; one for each day of the year, bisected by four paths which were built to represent the seasons but have long since mulched down into a year-long autumn twilight. The upward path is treacherous; the steps irregular and slippery underfoot. You're exhausted before you've even made it up the first month's worth.

A hundred years ago, there were lions round here. And zebras, and emus, and buffalo and yak in specially built paddocks, not to mention the flocks of flamingos that lived on the Japanese pond further up the hill, laid out with ornamental lamps and pagodas as a living copy of the willow-pattern plate. There was every intention of stocking the caves that had been specially bored into the hillside with bears, too, but somehow it never quite happened. The man behind this fantasy made real, this other Eden in Lancashire, had moved on to another project by then - reading a book about the history of Liverpool Castle and its ruination by Cromwell's armies, he had been seized by the similarity between its site and the banks of the reservoir below, and decided to build a full-size, pre-ruined replica of it instead. Like you do."

It is one of the most magical, beautiful, extraordinary places in England. And a number of locals are very upset about the felling of a number of trees and the pushing through of planning permission for an adventure centre called "Go Ape" by the local council using delegated powers, which mean the public weren't consulted.

"Go Ape" is a series of tree-top walkways, tarzan swings and aerial runways, which it must be admitted sounds pretty aces - until you consult their website and find out that each visit will cost £45 per 10-15 year-old child and the adult who's obliged to accompany them. When he gave the land on which it will stand to the people of Bolton in 1901, Lever was very specific: it had to "be used as a Public Park for the use and enjoyment of the Public for ever... the purpose for which the Park is intended is its free and uninterrupted enjoyment by the Public."

They're trying to build one in Glasgow's Pollock Park, too, next to the Burrell Collection, my favourite art gallery in the world, which makes me think they've got something personal against me.

The Friends of Lever Park's campaign website is here.

1 comment:

claire said...

So sad...any commercial exploitation of this area has always been very low key...a tea room here, a Rivvy Barn there. Regular users of the park understand the profundity of Leverhulme's gift. But of course, we don't look to our local councils for spirituality; we just accept that they will invariably do the wrong thing.