Preston Park lies adjacent to the busy London Road and is, with its green space, tall elm trees and the colourful Rockery opposite, makes an impressive entrance to the City of Brighton. (Panorama here)
Brighton Corporation bought it from the Bennett-Stanford family of Preston Manor in 1883. Covering 63 acres it was Brighton’s first public park.
However by 1922 the condition of the park had deteriorated and members of the Council asked the Superintendent of the Parks and Gardens, Captain Bertie MacLaren, to produce a “Grand Design” that we might say these days, should have the “wow factor”
MacLaren pulled out all the stops and produced a scheme that was both visionary and breathtaking in its design.
He proposed a boulevard system already started in the Steine, which would encircle the park by removing the heavy railings, and removing the lodge at the south end.
The focal point of his design was a 6-acre lake filling the western half of the park, parallel to the main London Road. The lake shores were to be constructed of concrete with formal terraces to the north and south, the rest left as natural grass slopes with existing trees kept as shade.
The steep slope to the north east behind the lake was designed as a rock garden, with a waterfall to the lake, the rock ‘stratified to copy nature and ideal for the growth of alpine plants. Seats in sheltered niches amid this wealth of floral colour completed his fine scenic effect.
The lake was to be informal in shape with an island in the north-west corner ‘where waterplants and reeds can grow and swans and waterfowl make their home’.
MacLaren commissioned Charles Knight, a local artist, and lecturer at the School of Art, to paint a watercolour of his Grand Design, which he then submitted to the International Exhibition of Garden Design in 1928. Preston Manor and St Peters church, Preston became the main focus of the view to the north, the main London Road lies beyond the picture to the left. The Chalet is to the right of the lake.
MacLaren rescued urns and tazze from the recently demolished Aquarium and placed them in the gardens of Preston Park. In the Superintendent’s Report book of December 1926, MacLaren writes,
“I have made use of the Chalet as an outstanding point of interest which should prove a source of revenue. This centrepiece with five terraces jutting naturally into the lake is easily approachable from the principle parts of the park and is designed on such a scale as will accommodate large crowds of people. The Chalet improvement also provides space for promenading and ample sitting out room for those requiring refreshments. To secure a dignified effect at this point I have introduced on the top terrace stone pergolas in order to camouflage a building which although useful is not altogether beautiful. The pergolas can be so arranged that screens could be fixed when required for shelter to suit the convenience of those dining or dancing. On a lower elevation spacious stone landing stages with ample seating add to the harmonious composition of the whole and suggestively make an ideal site of accommodating spectators at regattas and water sport meetings”.
However, his scheme would have done away with the football pitches, which may have upset some people. The basic estimate of cost was £50,000, a huge sum for that time – but it would have created much needed work for the unemployed. Sadly other schemes in the town took priority and the “Grand Design” was rejected. Perhaps now is the time to flood the football pitches and realise Bertie MacLaren’s visionary scheme!
References: Virginia Hinze: Thesis on Parks and Gardens of Brighton.
Virginia is a landscape architect, working for English Heritage,
with a special interest and training in the conservation of historic parks.
The proposed scheme: watercolour by Charles Knight