BATTERSEA PARK IS but a very few miles (only three!) from where we live in London, yet it is a place that until now we have hardly ever visited. Maybe, this is because it is across the River Thames on its south bank. To those who live on the north side of the Thames, anything across the Thames seems extremely far away and almost in another country. That sounds ridiculous, but it is the case. The river is like a psychological barrier to us ‘northerners’, but it is well worth crossing it. We parked our car in Chelsea close to the Albert Bridge, an elegant structure built in the early 1870s. A short stroll across the bridge brings you to Battersea Park, which stretches along the south bank of the Thames to Chelsea Bridge, which is downstream from the Albert Bridge.
Before 1858, when the park was opened, the land on which it now stands was marshland reclaimed from the Thames and used by market gardeners. Prior to the opening of the park, the area was a popular location for duels. The Duke of Wellington challenged the Duke of Winchilsea in this area in 1829.
The name Battersea is derived from the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Badrices īeg’, meaning ‘Badric’s Island’. In the Domesday Book, it was called ‘Patricesy’. Gradually, the name evolved into its present form. The park was laid out between 1846 and 1854 by the architect Sir James Pennethorne (1801-1871), but when it opened in 1858, the year that Chelsea Bridge was completed, it differed somewhat from his original plans. In 1889, the year when the Eiffel Tower opened in Paris, the park came under the control of London County Council (‘LCC’). Moving forwards to 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, much of which took place near Waterloo Station on what is now called the South Bank, Battersea park was used to stage a part of the festival known as the ‘Pleasure Gardens’.
You can read much about the Pleasure Gardens on an interesting and informative illustrated website at https://alondoninheritance.com/eventsandceremonies/the-festival-of-britain-pleasure-gardens-battersea-park/ . In contrast to the rest of the Festival, the aim of the Pleasure Gardens:
“… was to balance the other events and add an element of fun to an otherwise mainly serious festival.”
Unlike other parts of the great event, the Pleasure gardens allowed commercial sponsorship. This was because the cost of these gardens was greatly in excess of what the government could afford. The Pleasure Gardens’ attractions included: a shopping area, ‘The Parade’; the Grand Vista with its fountains, arcades, towers, eating areas, and firework displays; a miniature passenger-carrying railway with two stations (Oyster Creek and Far Tottering); a fun fair; lawns and flower gardens; a dance pavilion; specially designated areas for children’s performances such as ‘Punch and Judy’; and a zoo. It must have been quite a wondrous place and a great relief for many people who had suffered hardships during WW2 and just after it. Many of the structures in the Pleasure Gardens were designed by well-known artists of the time including, to mention a few, John Piper, Osbert Lancaster, and Hugh Casson.
The former Pleasure Gardens were on the north side of Battersea Park close to the river. Little remains of what must have been a wonderful sight. The Children’s Zoo flourishes. It is the descendant of the zoo created in 1951. It nearly closed in 2003, but was rescued by Carol and Roger Heap, a couple intensely interested in wildlife education and conservation. Their son Ed is involved with the zoo’s management and his wife Claire is the zoo’s resident vet. I have yet to see the zoo, which we did not visit recently on account of the rain.
Hardly anything remains of the other parts of the Pleasure Gardens. The funfair that was opened in 1951 continued to operate until the early 1970s when an accident involving the Big Dipper occurred on the 30th of May 1972 hastened the fairground’s demise. What little remains of the Pleasure Gardens today has been conserved well by Wandsworth Council. This includes, The Parade (a tree-lined avenue running inside the park parallel to the riverbank), the Fountain Lake, and a few remnants of the Grand Vista. The prominent Peace Pagoda (erected 1985) with its gold coloured Buddha stands where once the Mermaid Fountain (sponsored by Lockheed Hydraulic Brakes) stood.
We visited Battersea Park on a grey weekday when few other people were in the park. The remnants of the Pleasure Gardens, where many people once congregated to have fun, was eerily empty, almost surrealist in appearance. Next year, it will be 70 years since the Festival of Britain. Being optimistic, it would be nice to imagine that maybe the pandemic will have subsided significantly, and we might be able to celebrate again, possibly with an element of ‘socialdistancing’ as one of the ‘attractions’.