Guide: Steve Bruce
18 July 2023
You probably pass Abbey Park whenever you travel into Leicester but when did you last take time to explore it and how much do you know about its fascinating history? On a showery evening in July, members of the Society resisted the temptations of the visiting funfair and we were treated to an excellent tour of the park by Blue Badge guide, Steve Bruce.
In the hundred years to 1880, the population of Leicester had grown six-fold and the town (not yet a city) was wealthy from the hosiery trade. Spinney Hill Park and Victoria Park already existed but the Corporation proposed a prestigious new “people’s park” that would enhance the town and provide green space for residents of the densely terraced housing. The chosen site was on a marshy island between two branches of the River Soar, which one critic described as “dank, damp and diptherious”. Nevertheless, the Corporation bought 97 acres of land from the Earl of Dysart and ran a competition to design the new park. It was won by William Barron, who created a layout full of sinuous curves to make the most of the available space. He successfully drained the land by forming a boating lake in the centre, with water levels balanced between the higher canal on the east and the lower river on the west. Barron was famed for his ability to move mature trees and many of those in the new park were brought from the grounds of the Corporation’s water works at Cropston.
The main entrance of the park was via a grand gateway on the newly constructed Abbey Park Road. It was here that the Prince and Princess of Wales – the future King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – performed the grand opening ceremony in 1882 and enormous crowds turned out to see them on the processional route from the town centre. Alexandra also planted an oak sapling, which is now an impressive tree. The main paths around the park were made wide enough for the wealthy to drive along in their carriages but there was something for everyone to enjoy, including locations for archery, fishing and swimming in the river. The Victorians had a craze for all things Japanese – which also brought us The Mikado – and the Japanese garden still exists in an altered form. However, the American garden has disappeared; I wonder what it would have contained? Later additions to the park include a bowling green, a miniature railway and a sensory garden. The formal bedding scheme is still beautifully maintained and its design is said to be based on the necklaces favoured by Princess Alexandra.
In the 1920s, the Earl of Dysart offered the Corporation another plot of land, this time on the west side of the river, which was the site of the old Leicester Abbey. A new bridge was built and the extension to the park was opened in 1932, exactly 50 years after the original opening. It accommodated a new café, tennis courts and a cricket oval, which later became the site for the fondly remembered Abbey Park Show. Nothing now remains of Leicester Abbey itself but low walls have been built to mark its outline. Founded in 1150, at one time the abbey was said to be the most impressive in the country after Westminster. It was favoured as a place for clergy to stop between York and London – the most famous of them being Cardinal Wolsey, who died here in 1530 while returning to London to be tried for treason. A memorial shows the likely position of his grave. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey’s gatehouse was converted into a dower house for the Cavendish family. It was in turn burned down during the Civil War but partially survives as a ruin. The walls of the abbey precinct are remarkably intact and it is worth admiring the decorative Tudor brickwork next time you are stuck in traffic along St. Margaret’s Way – or turning off to discover more of this fine example of Victorian civic pride.