Graham Young meets the man who fought for the restoration of a great Victorian city park.
Simon Baddeley grew up in London and the Home Counties. But, like so many other ‘immigrants’, from the moment he first came to live in Birmingham in 1972 he fell in love with the place in general – and Handsworth Park in particular.
A lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government studies, Simon, 67, is fascinated by the relationship and struggle between politics and reality.
And it was the fading state of Handsworth Park in the 1990s which led him and others to try to engage others into doing something positive about the 63-acre site.
Their enthusiasm paid off. In 2006, the Grade II-listed park was reopened following an £8.5 million restoration scheme.
That it happened at all is partly down to Simon spending hours in the Birmingham Community Library more than a decade ago.
His subsequent 40-page publication, History of the Founding of Handsworth Park, substantiated the link between the Industrial Revolution, Soho House and St Mary’s Church where pioneers Watt, Murdoch and Boulton are remembered with memorials.
“This is the cathedral of the Industrial Revolution which started here more than Ironbridge,” says Simon. “All of these places have the most extraordinary connection. It’s where the modern world began.”
His research was also one of the key factors which helped to secure the necessary funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Regional Development Fund, Single Regeneration Budget, Advantage West Midlands and the city council.
On March 21, he’ll be leading the latest of his regular walks through the park to explain how it was founded and opened, on June 20, 1888.
The walk will include views of the boating lake, bandstand, wooded avenues, sports ground and the landscaping of the park by designer Richard Hartland Vertegans.
“He liked people to come across spaces they didn’t know were there,” says Simon. “For some, the railway line through the park might have been a problem. Vertegens saw it as an opportunity to create two parks in one.”
Simon’s research taught him that it was only thanks to human foresight that there is a park in Handsworth at all. Cannon Hill Park was a gift to the city, but Handsworth Park had to be fought for politically,” he explains. “It was originally in the boundary of Staffordshire which was green, but some people realised that at the rate Birmingham was expanding, if they didn’t create the park the land would have been built on within 20 or 30 years.”
This is just the same sort of vision, Simon believes, which led to plans for the ICC and surrounding facilities in the 1980s.
“It’s hard to remember now how confused we felt in the 80s,” he says. “The hardest thing was to admit that we were no longer the city of 1,000 trades. Back then, when we took pride in our brash vulgarity, you would never have believed that people would now be coming to Birmingham as tourists.”
Looking forward, he believes the next decade will be hard for public and private sectors alike, but he warns against the city council trying to make false economies in parks. The Victorians realised that if you put a park in the middle of a bustling city you would have to assume the fecklessness of human nature. A few people can do a lot of damage; just a few regulations can prevent a lot of damage.
“The best park keepers are diplomats and being assertive is so important. I’ve never felt unsafe in Handsworth Park, but you want everyone to feel like that and it’s great to see people having picnics in the park now.
“When it reopened was one of the happiest days of my life. We’d fought for 15 years for that. But a park with no keeper would be one step from a derelict urban wasteland.”
The history walk takes just over an hour, but Simon says he’s been known to talk for a lot longer when people are really interested – especially as it now includes a chance to have refreshments in the Boathouse Cafe.
Even after the park’s restoration, this building remained closed for three years until May last year, when another passionate local resident, Mark Bent, persuaded the council to reduce the rent and let him run a cafe there.
Mark, 44, said: “I grew up round here but was angry there was nowhere to eat after the park had been restored.
“Park manager Lee Southall suggested I do it so I approached the council.
“All of our profits are being reinvested into the business while I work part-time for a Wolverhampton storage company after I took redundancy from Camelot.”
* To join Simon’s walk meet outside the lodge at the park’s Hamstead Road entrance at 1pm on Sunday, March 21.
* For more details about Handsworth Park visit
www.birmingham.gov/parks or call 0121 523 9624.