As the restoration of Battersea Park nears completion, Katrina Davies talks to Wandsworth parks chief JENNIFER ULLMAN
"YOU have to break a lot of eggs to make a cake", says Jennifer Ullman, Chief Parks Officer for Wandsworth Borough Council describing the recent restoration of Battersea Park. "We have spent three years making a mess and are now putting it back together again." At times the park has looked more like World War 1 than one of the most important public landscapes in Britain. But with just four months to go before the opening of the final stage of the restoration, the park has moved a long way from the undeniably poor condition it was in before it was awarded a substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 1988.
The restoration, now running at £11 million, is one of the biggest in the country, and serves as a lesson for future projects given that it was one of the first major historic landscape projects to be undertaken.
The aims of the restoration are to restore the beauty and heritage merit of the landscape, which is listed Grade II* by English Heritage, by neatly folding the 1951 Festival of Britain Pleasure Gardens into the original mid-nineteenth century park. "In terms of historic landscape restoration, Battersea Park has been a text-book problem of which landscape period to restore back to", Ullman says. And, over the course of the project, ideas have changed.
The original Millennium bid did not include Gibson's planned Riverside Promenade beside the Thames and no more than a ground-level outline of the 1951 Festival Gardens. But the current restoration plan, drawn up by landscape architects Hilary Taylor Associates, made full restoration of the Russell Page gardens a priority.
Taylor has described them as "a major moment in British design history," especially significant given the involvement of Russell Page. Ullman praises Taylor's meticulous historic research, particularly for locating previously unknown plans for the Promenade, which have been used as the basis for the Victorian recreation.
Completion of this major phase of work, including the Riverside Promenade and Festival Gardens in November 2002, completed a significant proportion of the restoration programme. During this phase of the work, however, it became clear that further funding would be required in order to achieve the original approved purposes of the grant from the HLF. A grant increase of £600,000 was awarded in January 2003, plus the reallocation of £300,000 of the original grant (intended for a pier which has yet to be built).
This additional funding has enabled a continuous ribbon of restoration encompassing the heart of the park and the busiest routes through it. The last phase of the restoration began in January with the closure of 30 acres of the southern end of the park. This centres on Gibson's Victorian Subtropical Garden and Rosary and will be completed in the summer, with the Duke of Edinburgh scheduled to open the gardens on June 2nd.
Jennifer Ullman describes one of her main tasks as 'taking everyone with you'. Unlike central London parks, Battersea has a strong local user group, so the restoration has been an emotive issue. When a row began brewing over the felling of 150 mature trees (which were diseased or dying), Jennifer saw it as her task to communicate the benefit to her audience. She sees Battersea Park as a model of good practice for restoration work.
Getting on her 'soap box' has given the restoration a good name locally with a very limited number of complaints and much encouragement from the 'Friends of Battersea Park' whose continued support is enabling the restoration work to continue beyond the HLF funding.
Over the course of the six-and-a-half years of the project, Jennifer has seen attitudes to historic landscape restoration change. The HLF has expanded what 'heritage' means with regards to historic landscape restoration. The original lottery grants made little provision for maintenance, but now sustainability is seen as crucial to an overall plan. Current levels of horticultural expertise are dismally low and Jennifer would like to start up a school of horticulture in the park to raise standards of park maintenance.
She also sees interpretation of restoration as an important next step. With only directional signage planned for the immediate future, little of the in-depth historical research carried out to justify the restoration is communicated to the general public.
Jennifer sees the links between sustainable park management and restoration as crucial to the continued success of the park. Scrupulous attention to improving standards of ecological management and management for biodiversity will underpin this success.
For the latest news of the Battersea Park project, please refer to the Wandsworth web site, http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/Home/EnvironmentandTransport/Parks/Batterseapark/bprestoration.htm
Jennifer Ullman will be leading a walk in Battersea Park on 10th August. Further details