Darwin Gardens

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Darwin Gardens Millennium Green A Pre-History 1959 - 2000

I have been asked numerous times about the pre-history of Ilkley’s Millennium Green, Darwin Gardens. When a young chap said he didn’t know who Charles Darwin was, it prompted me to write the following pages for this website. The Project is now part of the community and has long been out of my hands. Hopefully this is the last time I will have to write on the subject.

Back in the mists of time, at least that is how it seems today, I would cycle from my home in Eden Park, Kent to the village of Down just south of Bromley. Little realising in future years the once owner of this fine house would again inspire me. I remember a tidy yet somewhat overgrown garden. A long sandy path and a house full, when allowed entry, of scientific equipment.

At least as a child it seemed that way. Memories of Down House and the family who once occupied that delightful corner were to stay with me for many years. As too other places often passed through or investigated as the case may be. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew come to mind.

Some years later after leaving school and joining a local parks department the world of plants again opened upto me. It wasn’t long before day release and night school beckoned and a glimmer of the past revealed itself once more. How strange to talk about someone you never knew, who nevertheless touched your life enough to inspire you to greater things.

Darwinians will have guessed the occupant of Down House and why a budding horticulturist held him in such esteem. I will not bore you with the intervening years, but after the parks department came college. Or as it was known in those days, The Yorkshire (WR) Institute of Agriculture and Horticulture, Askham Bryan, near York. The educational seed bed for some of this country’s foremost horticulturists. In the late sixties it became Askham Bryan College and about the same time a tree planting project took place.

Involving local people and organisations, schools and colleges. Universities and other training bodies. Churches and religious groups, farmers, Landowners, businesses large and small, not forgetting the College. One family joked how they now had a ‘living family tree’. This humorous incident was to inspire part of a future project.

The early seventies saw a move to Ilkley as a member of the grounds staff at Ilkley College of Education. A fine building from the mid 19th century, originally the Ilkley Wells House Hydropathic Establishment and designed by Cuthbert Brodrick of Hull, architect for Leeds Town Hall, Leeds Corn Exchange and The Spa Hotel, Scarborough. Part of my work at Ilkley College entailed looking after the grounds around a nearby building, known then as today, as Hillside. They too would feature in the same project.

Onward to the eighties and a change of scene, well nearly. Writing and historical research started to take over from horticulture though by all means not all. Two friends retired (?) and went to live in a cottage on Ilkley Moor. A cottage with two stone baths and a history which spans centuries. A group of buildings for which I have a great attachment and the ‘Foundation Stone’ of Ilkley as we see the town today. Ilkley Spaw Baths - White Wells. Still unaware seeds planted in 1959 were becoming restless to grow and the project coming ever closer!

There had been talk for some time, nearly thirty years if people in the know were honest, of Ilkley College closing. It soon struck me how important Wells House and Hillside were to the scientific community for a start. So in 1994 began a long single-handed struggle, to inform the rest of the world what could and would be lost if the college closed.

Project Darwin had surfaced! I have to say, while much interest was shown by the rest of the world, the local community were more interested in saving their precious Green Belt from development. The college closed and the Green Belt left untouched. But I digress.

The main reason no-one would touch the buildings was finance, one does wonder however when an American couple gave $14million to their child’s school for a new science lab. West View Park beside Wells House was becoming more overgrown than usual. The path to the moors being passable only with a native guide and machete. A stream where Kingfishers once flew resembled an Amazon backwater. Bridges fell apart, culverts became blocked, fallen trees left in situ and the whole would have succumbed to total dereliction, but for the determination of a stubborn Yorkshireman.

While battling with them over t’ill as I call Bradford Council to re-open the footpath, mend bridges and make the whole more presentable, Ilkley Parish Council asked residents for ideas for millennium projects. Being parks trained I could see the possibilities of transforming West View Park from a derelict wilderness to a community project the town would be proud of.

What started as Project Darwin in 1994 became Darwin Gardens.
A Vision for the Future.

Darwin Gardens for those who don’t know the area are situate atop Wells Road on the edge of Ilkley Moor. Ex-pats and older visitors would remember the area as West View Park and Bandstand. Laid out around 1904 as Ilkley’s premier park it drew hundreds to the town and Ilkley Moor for fresh air, music, or playing on the nearby putting green. On the western boundary stands Wells House, on the east Hillside and on the moor above White Wells. All three buildings used by Charles Darwin while staying in Ilkley between October and December of 1859. A very significant year to Darwin if not the whole world.

In the early years many residents said the idea was ‘pie-in-the-sky’ and Bradford Council wouldn’t wear it. Others didn’t want to know unless the name West View Park remained. In order to prove the local populace wrong I undertook a survey in town, asking around fifty people of all ages the whereabouts of West View Park. All but three had never heard of it.

The three who had only knew it existed from a recent (at the time) article in a local paper. Surprisingly one of the latter had lived opposite the park for quite some years and didn’t realise it existed or that it was a park. Prefering to call it ‘an area of unspoilt countryside untouched by the hand of man’.

Using the InterNet, I sent out perhaps two dozen emails world-wide asking for interested parties to contact me in the refurbishment of West View Park for the Millennium. I also sent a similar number under the name of Darwin Gardens. The former were ignored while the latter brought dozens of interested replies. Proving Darwin Gardens was definitely a ‘product’ which would sell.

My first thought was for work to be done by the unemployed. The government were promoting ‘Project Work‘ and while certain objectives on the face of it may sound good in Westminster, the reality coupled with job satisfaction could in certain circumstances or communities, be found wanting. Especially rural communities.

For a project to succeed it must appeal to all groups especially the young. It is they who will carry it forward and must be included at all stages of the project’s construction. The concept behind Darwin Gardens encompassed history, art, sculpture, geography, the sciences, religion, countryside and much more. Irrespective of race or religion residents/visitors will find something at Darwin Gardens all can relate to. Ideally placed at the edge of Ilkley Moor, made famous by that infernal song, Darwin Gardens are within easy reach of the populace.

Having it’s own car park and being on a bus route makes access even easier. Wells House, the former Hydropathic Establishment where Darwin stayed for the first part of his visit, has undergone extensive refurbishment as part of an exclusive housing development. While North View House/Wells Terrace where he moved when joined by his family has also been refurbished and re-named Hillside Court.

During the time Hillside was St Winifreds Maternity Home another famous plantsman - Alan Titchmarsh first took air beside Ilkley Moor and Darwin Gardens, thus continuing Ilkley’s unique botanical theme. White Wells for their part look down from Ilkley Moor as they have done for near three hundred years. While donkeys no longer carry visitors up-hill one can relax in their tea room after your walk and is still possible to plunge into those icy waters which Darwin took in 1859.

In 1997 Ilkley Parish Council asked residents for ideas/projects to celebrate the millennium. On Tuesday 24th June the same year a working group was formed to further discuss eleven projects submitted, one of which being Darwin Gardens. Enthusiasm was somewhat lacking from many quarters and a deal of frustration felt by others. Frustration at no-one wanting to accept responsibility or seemingly so, plus ideas which may have served the 19th Century but not the 21st.

By July 1998 and with little firm backing or interest from the Parish Council or town I was again frustrated and desperate to find someone with marketing experience. It was at this point Dr Peter Hornet agreed to take on the Project and I passed ninety five per cent of my original plans for Darwin Gardens over to him. Keeping five per cent for a future addition to the Gardens.

The Darwin Gardens Trust was formed and while Dr Hornet, Trust members and the 'Darwin Gardens Army' publicised the project locally I continued via mobile phones, BBC Local Radio and the InterNet to inform the world of Darwin Gardens unique place in history. Thanks to The Natural History Museum in London I was put in touch with Professor Charles Urbanowicz of the California State University, Chico. Dr Urbanowicz kindly took a copy of this webpage and others to Ros Cameron of the Charles Darwin Research Station, Santa Cruz, Galapagos, while touring in the area.

After Dr John Haig designed the Millennium Maze, I realised people born at the former St Winifreds Maternity Home may possibly be interested in buying a stone or tree. Once again the media and InterNet were brought into play and ex-pats soon contacted the Trust. A network of interested parties spread across the globe, many of whom still keep contact with me.

Looking forward to the official opening it was clear we needed a ‘Name’ to do the honours and who better than an old friend, former resident and acclaimed author, Jilly Cooper. About this time I wrote to HRH the Prince of Wales for advice, both replied. Although Jilly would be in the middle of promoting her latest book, Score, she re-arranged her diary for 2000 to be in Ilkley on the 24th June.

Today is tomorrow’s yesterday.

The above is a warning to anyone who initiates projects for the good of their community. Like the Head Gardener who takes all the credit, often the person to come up with the initial ideas, who does the early ground work, research and cold selling is forgotten by those who follow. Who will Ilkley remember for conceiving Darwin Gardens?

Due to circumstances completely beyond my control I no longer have input into the project. I do nevertheless, take a great interest in areas which further Darwin’s philosophy, also the small white buildings which he visited during his stay - White Wells. But for White Wells there may never have been a Spa town of world re-known for Darwin to visit, nor for that matter the many others who came to take the waters. The continued success of the project depends largely on input by the local community, especially our younger members.For it is they who will bring their children and grandchildren long after we are pushing up the daisies.

If you have associations with Ilkley as visitors, former residents or staff/students at Ilkley College of Housecraft/Education, The Deaconess College on Queens Road, St Winifreds Maternity Home or one of the many schools in the area we would like to hear from you. Darwin Gardens Millennium Green is free and open to everyone.