Finsbury Park in North London is a classic example of a major Victorian park. Classic in every way. It started out as one of the star turns on the municipal parks scene nationally, and was celebrated up to the Edwardian era. Maintenance to original standards became more difficult between the world wars as labour costs rose. In the post-WW2 years its decline accelerated reaching a nadir in the 1980s and 1990s. Only now, with changing attitudes to parks and Heritage Lottery Fund money, is Finsbury Park being restored to anything like its former standards.
Founded in 1869, Finsbury Park was one of the earliest municipal parks in England. Its designer, Alexander McKenzie (1829-93), who had already landscaped the grounds of Alexander Park, Southwark Park and the Victoria & Albert Embankment Gardens, saw public parks as "lungs of the metropolis" and favoured natural planting schemes. He extended the existing lake on the site to surround an island, as it does today, "to give the appearance of a much larger piece of water". To the east he designed a display of flower beds and to the north he created "American gardens" in the Repton style with rhododendrons and azaleas in formal beds.
Over the next decade, the first Park Superintendent, Thomas Cochrane, brought the 150-acre north London park to its full glory. In its Victorian and Edwardian heydays, the park had extensive plant nurseries, which grew the 50,000 plants needed annually for the park's spectacular bedding schemes.
Recreation was a big part of the park's attraction: there were sports pavilions, a refreshment room, a boating lake, children's play facilities, and even a chrysanthemum pavilion, where Londoners flocked to the autumn displays. The park was patrolled by park keepers in smart brown suits and fedora hats. If Green Flags had existed in 1905, then Finsbury Park would certainly have won one.
Tragically it was all downhill for the Grade II listed landscape in the late twentieth century. The park had changed hands in 1889, when London County Council took over ownership from the Metropolitan Board of Works. During WW2 an anti-aircraft gun was installed at the top of the hill and the park was used to train ambulance men. After the war the LCC passed the park on to its successor the Greater London Council in 1965. Its decline accelerated from then on. By 1983, most of the original features had been lost.
In 1984 the Finsbury Park Action Group was formed by Margot Sreberny to fight for the Finsbury Park area and this gave birth to the Friends of Finsbury Park in 1986. The Friends faced a long uphill struggle.
In 1986 the GLC was wound up and ownership of the park passed to Haringey Council, but without accompanying funding for the upkeep of the park. There is no statutory duty on local authorities to maintain their parks and Finsbury Park, like so many others up and down the country, had to compete for resources against statutory obligations managed by the local authorities - like education and social services.
One of Haringey's first actions was to declare the GLC's 1985 children's play area unsafe and close it down. Compulsory Competitive Tendering in the late 1980s further eroded local authority spending on parks nationally and in many authorities parks were shunted between different departments.
For most of the 1990s, neglected and abandoned, Finsbury Park descended into decay and despair. In 1997 the lake became so polluted that many of the birds died from botulism. In 1998 "Queenie", the resident female swan, was killed and her seven cygnets stolen.
At one stage, parks in Haringey were placed under the Education Committee, who froze all repairs expenditure for over a year. During this time, when the park lacked a full-time manager, the cultural centre, the Spring Lodge, the cricket pavilion, the timber hut in the pit, the bowls pavilion and changing rooms and the two wooden gazebos were all burnt down.
In 1999 Dame Jennifer Jenkins drew attention to its plight in The London Gardener: "London's municipal parks have suffered from the neglect and under-funding that has afflicted those in other parts of the country, the position made worse by the transfer of parks owned by the GLC to Metropolitan Boroughs with smaller resources in money and professional staff."... "Today (Finsbury Park) presents a sad appearance: paths and carriageways pitted, lawns unkempt, the lake polluted and its edges bare, the buildings run down or empty, the shrubberies left to grow wild and the avenues losing coherence". As recently as 2000 a park leaflet reported: "Some areas of the park have serious problems of drug-dealing, cruising and vandalism". The Finsbury Park area also became notorious for the troubles centred around the Finsbury Park mosque.
Throughout all this time, the Friends continued to work to rescue the park. Other influential figures who took an interest in the 1990s included Dr Stewart Harding, founder of the Urban Parks Forum (now GreenSpace), which he set up to champion the cause of public parks.
Slowly the tide started to turn. In 1996 Haringey staff began to put together a Heritage Lottery Fund bid for the park, supported by the Friends. In 1999 the cricket pavilion was rebuilt.
The inspirational Liz Leverton has been involved with Finsbury Park since 2000, initially in Operations Management, and is currently the full-time Park Development Officer, based on site in the park offices. When I visited in October, Liz described how the opportunity had arisen for her to apply for the job of managing the Park's restoration. As someone who already knew and used the Park and had worked with the Friends and been encouraged by Stewart Harding, she had been delighted to take on this challenge. Liz has brought some much needed leadership skills and stability to managing the park and is fired with unquenchable optimism to restore the park to the local community as a source of pride in an area where there is considerable social deprivation.
After several years of consultation, the Haringey team finally won a £3.4m Heritage Lottery Fund grant to restore the park in the early 2000s. Haringey Council added £1.1m and the Finsbury Park Partnership £395,000.
As so often happens now, a large chunk of the budget is being used for the remedial work needed just to bring the park up to an acceptable minimum standard. Dredging the lake for the first time in 30 years has cost £250,000. Essential work has been required on the drains and power supplies, as, before any restoration could start, virtually all the basic infrastructure needed replacing or radical repair. The carriage drive was resurfaced during November. On my visit a new children's play area was being constructed south of the lake. The Manor House Lodge is being restored to be used for offices for the Parks Constabulary, Friends of the Park and Access to Friends of Sport to deliver sporting facilities in the areas. The Manor House gates are to be up-lit with external funding. Inside the park, thirty of Alexander McKenzie's original sixty flower beds are being restored with the original palette of colours. Aquatic plants being replanted around the lake, currently fenced off with netting to deter Canada Geese.
The Park's grounds maintenance staff are again employed directly by Haringey. Liz has been able to employ two gardener apprentices, now training at Capel Manor, who, she says, are full of, of youthful energy and enthusiasm.
Priority One is to reduce the level of complaints and make the park an attractive social area for the community once more. Public consultation has revealed most people want it to be a safe green space with floral decoration and sports facilities. Getting and keeping rid of the cruising, drugs and litter is a constant struggle and Liz works closely with the Parks Constabulary, which is funded by the Finsbury Regeneration fund. Originally the constabulary just covered Finsbury Park but now they cover all the parks in the Borough.
The problems have not been eliminated. On the day of my visit, one of the staff popped his head round the door to tell Liz that a burned-out car had just been dumped in the park.
Financially too the park is not yet free from its troubles. In 2001 the park lost £162,000 from its budget as the Council struggled to balance its books and further cuts are threatened in the current year.
Sport is an important priority. Besides the cycle park, sports arena and pitches, bowling green and tennis courts, Liz is hoping to exploit the accessibility of the park to stage the Paralympics. Access to Sport, based at Manor House Lodge, has delivered sports projects attracting over a thousand local children.
One of the most exciting plans is for an urban fishery at one end of the lake. The Environment Agency is involved in this, which is being used as a flagship project for young people and also disabled anglers. It is due to open next spring.
Hazelle Jackson interviewed Liz Leverton in October 2005.
Sources for background material for this article include