The parkland and countryside of Billericay
PUBLISHED: 15:04 11 April 2016 | UPDATED: 15:04 11 April 2016
Billericay might not be famous for its green open spaces, but perhaps it's time to think again. Petra Hornsby meets the local volunteers looking to make the most of the town's countryside and parkland
Essex is blessed with some beautiful countryside and, across the county, local councils strive to ensure that their towns are also studded with green spaces and parklands that can be enjoyed by the community.
Billericay’s Lake Meadows is a tucked away gem with a convenient car park which is kept very busy thanks to the regular visitors who frequent the park daily — especially dog walkers.
As well as being a great spot for a stroll, with or without a canine companion, Lake Meadows provides facilities for numerous activities including fishing, bowling, tennis, skateboarding and model boating, and is a great place for children to play and explore.
The park, which is owned and managed by Basildon Borough Council, is situated on land that was bought by the wealthy Spitty family in 1839. Thomas Jenner Spitty inherited the land from his father in 1858 and went on to hold several prominent posts within the county including High Sheriff and Deputy Lieutenant of Essex, as well as being regarded as something of a generous local benefactor. At an unspecified time before 1874, Spitty employed agricultural workers paying one shilling a day to dig out the lake – a much needed wage at the time for those struggling to find work during the agricultural depression.
The lake is of course the major focal point of the park and has three fountains which switch on at alternate times. Although very decorative, they act chiefly as aeriation to keep the green-blue algae at bay and maintain the lake’s health. The lake is home to ducks, water birds and visiting wildfowl. The lake is also well-stocked with fish, which attract keen local anglers.
Thomas Spitty died in 1898 and, with the land by then in the hands of several different owners, some of it was sold off to make way for local housing. In the 1930s, some keen locals built an outdoor swimming pool (sadly no longer there), but there is an indoor swimming pool situated on the edge of the park.
In 1935, Billericay Urban Council bought the remaining land, around 40 acres, to create parkland for the town and, in 1936, Lake Meadows was officially opened.
The park has an incredible selection of trees, many of which are marked and labelled, including an imposing bank of conifers. Tree enthusiasts and those keen to learn more can follow a Lake Meadows Tree Walk guide produced by the Friends of Lakes Meadows (FoLM) which is available from the information centre near the entrance to the park.
The wildflower meadow is a great space for both people and wildlife. The meadow really comes alive during the summer and is a lovely free space for families to enjoy the atmosphere of the park complete with ‘storytelling’ tree stumps, picnic benches and a very special log monster, part of a stricken oak tree, which sits waiting patiently for small visitors.
Another great attraction for youngsters is the Wizard and the Dragon, two carvings from an old oak tree and initiated by the FoLM. These brightly painted and eye-catching statues were carved by local woodman Neil Bruce, who also created the Gruffalo and friends located at Brentwood’s Thorndon Country Park. A story has been written around the characters of the Wizard and the Dragon and young children can enjoy spotting some special carved dragon eggs situated around the park.
So what of the Friends of Lakes Meadows? Who are they and what do they do? I met with Rosie Novis, a volunteer and Friends committee member, who gave me a tour of the park.
Rosie explains: ‘The group was formed in 2012 and we have 12 committee members plus an additional number of volunteers who join our gardening group every first and third Tuesday morning monthly, and for our special projects. We work in partnership with Basildon Borough Council and Billericay Town Council to develop ideas for the park and we also collect historical information and old photos about Lake Meadows, many of which are displayed in the information centre and on our website.’
Since its formation, the group has worked hard to improve the woodland area, putting in pathways, creating a sensory garden and masterminding the wildflower meadow, along with carrying out the essential maintenance of painting railings, cleaning benches and signs, and running events throughout the year.
‘Every Easter, we organise a Great Lake Race and during the summer we have a free Jazz Festival. In September there is a popular dog show, called Bark in the Park, and we also have carols at Christmas as we gather down by the boathouse where our special young Christmas tree is planted.’
There is also a photographic competition which is free to enter. ‘The closing date for entries is August 31, with winners being announced in late September,’ says Rosie. ‘This year we have some great prizes.’ If the display in the information centre of previous entries taken is anything to go by, the creative possibilities around the park for aspiring photographers is obvious.
One major project that has been undertaken by the group, in partnership with Billericay Town Council, is the refurbishment of the Garden of the Child, which is a special section of the park that is separated off by iron railings and which has, as its main feature, a beautiful bronze statue – The Child in the Park. The piece was commissioned for the millennium by the Billericay Early Years Forum and sculpted by Essex sculptor John Doubleday. The sculpture is of a young child kneeling and holding a snail. Doubleday creates his pieces to be touched and, at the base, there are carvings of 17 small creatures that children will enjoy spotting and feeling.
Rose explains more about the changes to the garden: ‘Veolia North Thames Trust have donated some money to create softer, bark-chipped pathways that are designed to meander throughout the garden allowing greater access and there will be a major re-planting scheme by a horticulturalist to provide good ground cover and additional interest.’ This project is due for completion by the end of March.
During the spring and early summer months, the Friends will be working hard on all the garden displays in the park – planting in flowering shrubs, maintaining the rose beds and finding new plants of interest for the raised beds in the sensory gardens.
None of this impressive work would be accomplished if those keen gardeners didn’t have a great passion for the park and, in turn, Lake Meadows wouldn’t be the park it is today without that passion.
With so much work to do, it’s no surprise that Rosie is keen to add to the ranks. ‘We would love more people to join us and become part of the team,’ she says. ‘We are a friendly bunch and all are welcome, whatever your gardening skills. Working together is a very sociable experience and to become a member costs just £5 a year per household.’ w
Find out more
To join the Friends of Lake Meadows or to find out more information, visit www.lakemeadows.org.uk or call 07843 860135.