Knighton Park: A Modern Development
Knighton in Leicester has been settled since Viking times, with the land that is now Knighton Park a former part of manorial estate belonging to the Farnham and Cradock families since the 1700s. Although the park is a product of the 20th century, it was shaped by its history and by the fortunes of the Cradocks, who transformed their manor into a hunting lodge in 1846. By the early 1900s, they had to sell both the manor and the land, with the former being eventually sold to Leicester University in 1931 to start its new life as part of the vice-chancellor’s residence.
The land was developed by the Leicester Corporation following the Second World War in response to the growing urbanisation of Knighton village, now a suburb of Leicester, though planning commenced during the interwar years. The 7.2 acres of Knighton Spinney, which had been originally planted with oak trees for ship building by landowner Squire Cradock-Hartopp in 1840, were the basis for the park after it was formally declared a nature reserve for all time in 1932. The Corporation purchased private farmland and bought the Spinney itself and 28 acres surrounding it from the Cradock Trustees in 1936. First used for allotments and smallholdings for the war effort, by 1951 this land was full of scrap metal and rubbish. It was soon after cleared and prepared for fallowing until required for the park.
Further expansion was needed before it would become the park we know today, with more land bought from the University and Leicester Racecourse, causing a renegotiation of City boundaries as some of it fell over the County border! This was following a national policy that required Leicester to have the recommended minimum of public open space, the standard at this time being 7 acres per 1000 people – Knighton was growing and so was its need for a park!
The park was continuously developed from the 1950s with a lot of consideration given to tree and flower planting, landscaping, flood control and preserving historical features, such as the Spinney and the Ridge and Furrow, which can be found next to the tennis courts and dates back to the medieval era as a fascinating example of strip farming. Other features include the Rockery and Bog Garden, which was designed by Head Gardener, Mr W F Pearsons, who carefully planted a diverse range of flora, with the style still cultivated by the Parks Team today after it was replanted as the Heath Garden in the 1960s.
Knighton Park did not have a formal opening as the public were allowed free access but there was an official planting of four Dawn Redwood trees in November 1953 by the Lord Mayor, Chairman and long serving Park Department employees.
A survey completed in 1954 found that many birds, such as kestrels and lesser spotted woodpeckers, had made Knighton Park their home. Today, a diverse range of wildlife lives in the park and are surveyed regularly through such family-friendly events as the annual Bio-Blitz, which has taken place over a number of years. Visitors descend on the park all year round, for festivities, sport or just a walk to enjoy the natural surroundings.
The Wash or Saffron Brook
The Saffron Brook entered the park from the Eastern racecourse side, then turns and flows North along the Western borders of the park. It is a beautiful secluded woodland walk – the stream is bordered by many different species of mature trees, most planted as an arboretum in 1958 – weeping willow, common alder, Christmas tree, horse chestnut and corkscrew hazel. It then continues through the heath garden and out of the park. The brook was straightened the same year as the planting to avoid flooding and to prevent the paths washing away.
This brook, also known as the Wash brook, running through the park was both an advantage and a disadvantage to the local people of Knighton. It regularly got polluted in periods of bad weather and high rainfall because a storm sewer opened onto it. However, its banks provided ideal conditions for planting wood anenomes, irises and trees.
The park was closed to the public in the Spring of 1963 for a typhoid scare due to the brook becoming heavily polluted. At the time, there were two residences on the park for park staff, one which could only be accessed through the park gates. Once they were closed due to the quarantine, there was no access to the house of Mr Donald Jacob, the Park Keeper. At the time, he was quoted as saying:
“It’s very inconvenient. Postmen bring my mail, but take it back when they are unable to get in. The same happens with other deliveries… My mother sometimes throws stones at the windows to let us know she is outside… I don’t suppose anyone ever imagined the park having to be closed to the public.”
This is the only time in Leicester’s history that a park was closed and it has never happened since. The local community protested vigorously against the pollution problems, which was finally resolved by a flood relief scheme called the Washland Development from 1970 to 1973. This led to the expected public protests due to the concrete installed to help the storm drain being an eyesore and to a loss of some of the football pitches but it did solve the problem!
Now everyone can enjoy the tranquillity of a walk besides the beautiful stream running through Knighton Park and it often attracts young families and dog walkers, who may have little idea of how contentious it was in the middle of the 20th century.