Welcome to the People’s Park
Another in my Cool Gardens series – this time, one of the UK’s top 10 parks – Saltwell Park, Gateshead. Pictures by Vanessa Sundin.
I’m biased, as Gateshead is my home town, but Saltwell Park is one hell of a place, full of memories – childhood, teenage and great times with my children.
It’s changed massively since I was a kid, thanks to a multimillion-pound restoration from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Gateshead Council.
I remember Saltwell Towers as a derelict, fenced-off no-go area and a notorious concrete paddling pool (glass and wee), but between 2000 and 2005, it was transformed back to its Victorian glory, winning the Civic Trust Park of the Year Award 2006. It now attracts more than two million visitors a year.
The restoration involved the planting of 30,000 new trees and shrubs, 100 new Victorian-style seats, plus a renovation of Saltwell Towers and the maze – although I do miss the plane (there was an old Viscount with cut-off wings to play in before health and safety went mad).
Autumn and winter in the park
As well as the fabulous autumn foliage displays from the mature woodland, there’s no better place for a bracing Sunday morning stroll.
Field of Remembrance: honouring the hundreds of servicemen and women who died fighting for their country. Thousands of wooden crosses featuring the names of the fallen have been planted by members of the Armed Forces, their families, the Royal British Legion, volunteers and cadet forces.
A dedication ceremony will take place on November 4, at 10.45am, with a minute’s silence being observed at 11am. The field of remembrance will also be open to the public from dawn to dusk until November 17.
Enchanted Parks 2017 – The Inventors’ Ball: December 5-10: This annual after-dark event sees specially commissioned artists transform the park into a magical and mythical wonderland. Tickets are available from www.enchantedparks.com, £8 for adults (plus 50p booking fee) and £3 for children under 16 (no booking fee). Children aged 3 and under go free.
The park was opened in 1876 to provide a haven of peace and tranquillity for the town’s workers, hence the original name – the People’s Park.
The central area was originally the private mansion of Saltwell Towers and its gardens, built by stained glass designer William Wailes between 1850 and 1862.
Saltwell Towers and its landscaped gardens
After decades of dereliction, Saltwell Towers has been transformed into a cafe, visitor centre and venue.
The building’s mix of Gothic, Elizabethan and French styles has been sensitively restored, with a contemporary interior that hosts art exhibits and displays on the history of the park. The north east’s place in glass history is celebrated with a two-storey centrepiece screen designed by local glass artist Bridget Jones.
Bewicks Tearoom at Saltwell Towers serves drinks and snacks, and rather splendid afternoon teas, which you can eat out on the terrace, overlooking the gardens.
The old maze, which was half dead and finally cordoned off, was replanted with 1200 new trees.
Listed structures and the Salte Welle
I didn’t appreciate it in the 1980s but there are 12 Grade II listed structures and the park itself is a Grade ll Park and Garden of Special Historic Interest.
There also a number of interesting sculptures, including the half Tyne Bridge that took centre stage as Gateshead Council’s silver medal-exhibit at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2010.
One of the things that intrigued me about the park as a child was the drinking fountain near the Saltwell Road gates. It always looked impossibly old and spooky, gabled with Medieval-style pious Christian script, but was built in 1872.
Now a Grade II listed structure, the hills of Gateshead are home to many springs and wells, often named after the quality of the water, so no prizes for guessing what the water tasted like! (maybe that’s why the tap was disconnected.)
At the base of the well, a small archway has the text “ for ye goode of thirstie dogges”.
Over its 55 acres, the park offers a whole range of facilities.
- Free tennis and basketball.
- Two play areas.
- Three bowling greens, with historic Avenue Green Pavilion.
- The Northern Fields – main grassed area for picnics and events.
- The four-acre lake is a refuge for wildlife, especially waterfowl. Kingfishers have returned after a long absence. Boating takes place during the summer, visit www.saltwellparkmodelboatclub.co.uk.
- The Education Centre is housed in the restored stable blocks behind the towers.
- Pets’ corner – two aviaries have been restored to house some of the park’s much-loved animals, including peacocks.
- The Dene – a steep-sided woodland valley, typical of the area. The stream has been restored with pools, cascades and a lily pond.
- The Rose Garden – traditional beds filled with roses, with seating covered with arbours. A quiet place for contemplation.
- Address: Saltwell Park, East Park Road, Gateshead NE9 5AX, phone: 0191 433 3267.
- Accessibility: on foot from East Park Road, West Park Road, Saltwell Road South, Saltwell View and Joicey Road.
- Car and coach park: from Durham Road (A167) via Joicey Road.
- Buses: GoNorthEast’s 53 and 54 go past the park.
- Opening hours: dawn to dusk all year including all public holidays. Bewicks Tearoom at Saltwell Towers: winter, Monday to Sunday, 9am to 3pm; summer 9am-5pm.
- Friends of Saltwell Park: A mass of information on their website, www.friendsofsaltwellpark.co.uk.