The Dell

 

IMG_1979The Dell is a small public open space below street level in the Leamington suburb of Milverton. It is bounded by Warwick Terrace, Beauchamp Hill, the rear of Albany Terrace and Warwick Street / Warwick Place, opposite the venerable Star and Garter public house.

It was originally a steep-sided brook valley through farmland. Before the development of Leamington’s New Town north of the River Leam the guide books for visitors to the spa promoted it as “a fine romantic dell”. The back road to Warwick, a muddy track, crossed the brook by a rustic bridge until in 1821 the landowners Edward Willes and Bertie Greatheed built a

stone bridge across the ravine to carry a new toll-free road to Warwick that would stimulate speculative house-building.

The old and the new road to Warwick, copied from a plan of 1821

The old and the new road to Warwick, copied from a plan of 1821

All that could be seen of the bridge over the brook in 2003.

All that could be seen of the bridge over the brook in 2003.

A wealthy incomer, Thomas Comber Raybould, had a villa built for himself (cost £6,000 in 1827) and soon acquired the land that would extend his grounds to take in the brook.

In those days sewage and waste of all kinds found its way into the nearest watercourse. By the 1840s the brook was an open sewer and of great concern to campaigners who were petitioning for improvements to public health. Panicked by the advance of cholera the local commissioners had the brook culverted in 1849. Too little, too late, although a positive outcome was the application of the new Public Health Act to

Comber House from Union Road

Comber House from Union Road

Plan of Comber House and grounds from the 1880 Particulars of Sale. North is to the right. The new road will be Albany Terrace. The present Dell is the strip at the bottom of the plan. (Leamington Library)

Plan of Comber House and grounds from the 1880 Particulars of Sale. North is to the right. The new road will be Albany Terrace. The present Dell is the strip at the bottom of the plan.
(Leamington Library)

Leamington and its suburbs. But the character of the dell had been irreversibly altered by the culverting.

Tom Raybould died in 1849. His widow Susannah later moved away and let the house. After she died it changed hands twice, houses were built on some of the grounds, leaving the area of the present Dell as a detached private garden and a small orchard. It’s possible that soil excavated for house foundations was tipped and spread in the Dell to raise ground level. The owners grew old and died while the Dell reverted to nature: “Just so wild and the gate kept locked”. Two further owners let it become an unofficial open space but the Corporation turned its face against repeated requests by local people to acquire it. Roland Salt, the next owner, a councillor and Rotary Club member, secured planning approval to build over the entire site. Only the outbreak of war in 1939 saved the Dell; Salt sold it on at a profit but the approved cinema, conference hall, shops and underground car park never materialised. The Dell once again became a disreputable jungle in the heart of this charming Regency suburb.

Towards the end of the war public sentiment demanded a better quality of life for the homecoming troops. The corporation persuaded the owner, Halford Constant, to give the Dell to the town as a public garden. Intensive work transformed it into a formal arrangement of flowerbeds, grass and paths. “Dedicated as an open space for ever” it was opened on 12th May 1948 by the Mayor, Councillor George Purcell.

Layout of the Dell approved in 1946 by Leamington Corporation

Layout of the Dell approved in 1946 by Leamington Corporation

The Dell in spring 1948

The Dell in spring 1948, looking towards Beauchamp Hill

By the late 1960s the town centre, the iconic Parade, was afflicted with traffic congestion. The Borough Engineer, Mr Druitt, took his cue from Professor Buchanan’s ‘Traffic in Towns’ report and proposed traffic management measures together with a dual carriageway relief road west of the town centre, the North-South Link Road. It would have vaporised the Dell and other cherished spots. Protests welled up against this and other developments proposed by an arrogant council, delaying their plans and adding to the bill for compulsory purchase. Meanwhile a remote regional planning exercise came down against the scheme in the light of the bigger roads picture and affirming the intent of the conservation area that had been created under the new Civic Amenities Act. Besides, the national roads budget was mainly going to motorways.

Impression of the North-South Link Road through the Dell

Impression of the North-South Link Road through the Dell

Protesting at the Corporation's neglect of the Dell, 1971

Protesting at the Corporation’s neglect of the Dell, 1971

After reorganisation in 1973-4 a new council took over but budgets were cut. Parks and public open spaces everywhere went into decline as the standard and frequency of maintenance was reduced. The Dell once again acquired an undesirable reputation but a local resident, the late Pearl Braddock, determined to reverse the decline, raised funds, formed the Friends of the Dell, and lobbied the council for improvements. She couldn’t be resisted. New play equipment was installed. In 1988 the Friends celebrated the Dell’s 50th birthday with a community party in the Dell on a glorious Sunday in May. Since then the Friends have secured further improvements with a lottery grant, supported by the council and the all-female volunteers of GALS (Gardening Around Leamington Spa). The party is a much-enjoyed annual event.Image 5

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