Betjeman Park: Celebration of the 20th Anniversary

Betjeman Park visitors

Just a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Wantage marketplace is a haven of wildlife, poetry and relaxation- the Betjeman Millennium Park.

This May, the park enters its 20th year of providing for the local community but why is the Park here in the first place? How was the land transformed from an empty derelict wasteland to the vibrant hub it is today? And why is it still so important?

You could be mistaken for wandering down from the Parish church or along by the mill and assuming the wild plot of land on the outskirts of Wantage is just a normal park or nature reserve, but this is far from the truth…

Named after local poet and former poet laureate Sir John Betjeman (who lived in Wantage from 1951-1972) and dedicated to the start of the new millennium, the park is certainly not your ordinary piece of flat and neatly squared out urban greenery. Being host to semi-wild woodland, engraved sculptures, a circle of ancient sarsen stones (the same as in Stonehenge), three educational exhibits and even a performance area this is less of a park and more of a centre of life. 

You can feel a sense of magic and myth as you wander around the trails and get lost within the sprawling trees and running rhythms of word. The freedom and wonder are infectious and not exclusive to humans – wildflowers pop up and enthusiastically cover the ground all around and birds call out from their leafy abodes. 

In most places it is us or nature. Houses, pavements, fences keeping us tucked away from wildlife like it’s our enemy, the unkempt sprawling mass that we can’t control. However, here it is (to an extent) beautifully uncontrolled and thriving and a poignant reminder that we can all be here and coexist happily.

To many (myself included) it seems like Betjeman Park has always been there – a permanent feature of Wantage- but, as I’ve learnt, the fight against housing development for this park has been hard, the upkeep crucial but most importantly the transformation incredible. The two-acre site of land on which the park lies was once a piece of derelict wasteland that was close to being developed with property. Seeing the opportunity for protecting wildlife and how devastating it would be to see this land become swallowed up by more infrastructure, a local group came together initially to establish an Amenity Society, later to create a Charitable Trust. Through hard work, they saved the land and bought the plot with help from a generous grant from the Vale of White Horse District Council in the mid-1990s. 

The Last Laugh by Michael Hordern
The Last Laugh by Michael Hordern

Chelsea Flower Show gold medalist Gabriella Pape was commissioned to help design the space, involving the  planting of native tree and shrub species to increase biodiversity. Local sculptor and artist Alec Peever was then chosen to engrave and install 6 sculptures to immortalise Sir John Betjeman’s words and poetry in stone which now make up the poetry trail. 

Finally, in May 2002 (after 7 years of dedication) the ribbon was cut and the park opened to the jazzy sounds of The Wantage Silver Band.

Today, the park is as relevant as ever in the local community and holds annual events like Art in the Park and the Betjeman Bike Ride and is used by many schools, cub groups and brownies for both education and adventure. It is also loved by locals (young and old) as a calm and relaxing sanctuary which transports you far away from the humdrum of the town. 

One local resident told me it’s “just so lovely to have this place in the centre of town” and “it’s a wonderful asset” which has bloomed out of the “rough, unloved ground” she once remembers.

Brownies in the Park 2017

The Park has also been especially helpful to locals during the lockdowns as it has provided many with the opportunity to get out of the house and spend some time with nature during those precious windows of exercise. The essential role it plays in the community has also been acknowledged as it is now recognised as a Local Green Space in the draft Wantage Neighbourhood Plan, which protects it from all future development.

As a park for both people and nature to coexist happily, the upkeep is essential and many dedicated local volunteers help out at monthly work parties. I went down to see what was going on at the April work party and met some of the volunteers and trustees. From the moment I joined them during their well earnt tea break I could really feel the deep sense of unity between them and the nature they care for. 

 

One enthusiastic volunteer, who has been involved for eight years and is one of the current trustees, told me how as a child she had quite self-sufficient parents and grew up “in the middle of nowhere” so it’s quite “a revelation to be in such a community”. However, it’s not always a walk in the park (!) as she tells me it can be challenging to juggle her job and other responsibilities with the time needed as a trustee but there is such a great “feeling of achievement” and so much social connection. 

Not only do those working inside the park’s perimeters feel the connection but I was told how often passersby stop to say how much they appreciate the work being done on the park and how much the park means to them which is “reason enough to do it” for lots of them. One elderly lady, although unable to do any physical work, regularly pops by to bring home-made biscuits for all the hard workers- not only is the park there for the community to enjoy but also for the community to care for in all the different ways they can. 

One student volunteer who got involved just about 9 months ago originally to be part of his Duke of Edinburgh award is now the Park’s youngest ever trustee and has spent 6 months on an ambitious project identifying and mapping out all the trees in the park alongside one of the more experienced and knowledgeable volunteers. He tells me the Yew tree is his favourite in the park with its reddish and purple bark and evergreen spines and how they are very slow to grow but can live for thousands of years. 

What I really came away feeling like at the end of the work party was that this is no begrudging task or tedious responsibility for those involved but really a great pleasure. As the chairman John Vandore said it is a real “privilege” to be able to ensure the survival of the magical space the original founding trustees fought so hard to gain. 

To find out more about the Park’s conception and hear firsthand about its development, I sat down with founding trustees Ralph Cobham (who resides in Betjeman’s old home) and Sheila Terry. Sheila first got involved in 1996 after she had retired from the County Council and Irene Hancock gave her a ring asking for help with the idea. The many contacts she had made within local councils and her degree in Urban and Regional Planning were extremely helpful in the early years of the Park’s life. She recalled how it was initially a “slog” in the early days but became “quite exciting” and really gives her a “thrill” now as she walks past, and “it has become part of people’s lives”. 

She fondly showed me lots of photographs from the early days of work in the park and the installation of several features, including the sarsen stones which Gabriella Pape (the designer) was “ecstatic” to see and to which “some people ask if they have always been there” which amuses her, but I think shows what a good job has been done. 

 

Someone instrumental in the Park’s creation (and Wantage’s history) she tells me is Dick Squires. Dick was a local GP who lives just opposite the park and played an invaluable role in the development by laying out paths, sourcing and arranging the transport of the sarsen stones, felling trees and purchasing railings among many other tasks and was also key to the development of Wantage’s own Vale and Downland Museum. Looking back on it, she’s “really really pleased they did it” as there’s “nothing like it around this part of the town” and admittedly “people need housing, but they also need open space”. When looking forward to the future and the next 20 years of the park’s life, she hopes “that it will never fall into neglect and that people will look after it” just like the “real heroes” do now in giving up their time. How to sum up the Park in 3 words? “A pure delight”.

Ralph stressed the real need for the park at the turn of the millennium as the old space was “a mess frankly” and he found it “very sad that the town had turned its back on Betjeman” who he believes is “the second great iconic figure in Wantage’s history [after King Alfred]” and was someone with whom he crossed paths. Ralph had attended some of Betjeman’s poetry recitals, walked the same way to church as him and funnily enough was pleased for the Betjemans to park their car outside The Mead on their annual visit to the dentist. 

He takes great pleasure in the care and attention devoted to the wildlife in the park, something he is well versed in as someone who has worked to educate farmers and landowners about leaving behind “monoculture” and embracing conservation during some of his professional life. 

Ralph Cobham at Betjeman's old home

 

 

The park is proudly “not a short back and sides and highly manicured space, typical of many urban parks, it’s there as a piece of delicately managed natural countryside/woodland” and “it is for the benefit not just of people but jointly with wildlife”. Very keen on encouraging the next generation to look after nature in the same way, he hopes that it “will be used significantly and increasingly as an educational resource by both primary school teachers and KA’s [King Alfred’s Academy] teachers”. The provision of significant educational facilities was made possible through receipt of a sizeable Heritage Lottery Fund grant.  

As a result, a Teachers’ Information Pack (available in The Museum) and three special learning spaces were established.  Ralph remembers “very happy occasions” when Charlton Primary School would visit for a picnic to learn and explore. Other joyful memories include ‘annual Art in The Park’ events in conjunction with King Alfreds’ art department and a group of professional actors who performed a restoration comedy to large audiences even in the persistent rain! For the future, Ralph hopes that “that the Park will continue to flourish, that it will continue to be loved [and] to be understood by the citizens of Wantage and its visitors”. 

But how can we help this vision to be achieved? You can volunteer to help at work parties (10am-12pm on the first Sunday of every month) and get involved in other ways by contacting the trustees and, of course, donations including legacies are greatly appreciated, as funds are critically needed to sustain the Park’s future. If Ralph Cobham had to sum up the park and its legacy?

“It’s one of many jewels in Wantage’s crown”

James Kent

Year 12, King Alfred’s Academy, Wantage

To find out more about Betjeman Millenium Park or get in touch check out their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BetjemanMillenniumPark

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