LOOKING at the extensive cluster of Victorian terraces in the Arboretum, it's hard to imagine that this suburb was once the site of fabulous public pleasure gardens.

The Aboretum has featured many times down the years in the Worcester News, and writer Mike Grundy was one of many to pen stories based on its past. 

In one ofhis accounts, he wrote:

"So magnificent and beautiful were the Sansome Fields and Arboretum Gardens that they made Worcester the envy of many a provincial town and city.

In their heyday, the pleasure grounds had a huge central fountain, a crystal palace at the end of the main drive, promenades, sports facilities and a broad avenue of tall elms.

Back in the 18th century, Barbourne was a hamlet and all the land between Foregate Street and Rainbow Hill and Merriman's Hill was a vast open expanse of rural character, known as Sansome Fields.

It was here, in the mid-1700s, that one of the acknowledged leaders of Worcester society, Sir Charles Trubshaw Withers, and his heiress wife chose to build a large villa and lay out Sansome Fields as a park extending to the summit of Rainbow Hill.

This became a favourite promenade for citizens for pleasant strolls amid the rows of elms and around a mock Grecian temple built by Sir Charles.

However, dramatic changes came in the early 1800s when the mansion and estate were sold off in lots after the death of the Withers. The city began losing this treasured rural lung and, by 1840, the Sansome Fields were in real danger of disappearing altogether.

It was at this time, however, that a private group calling themselves the Worcester Public Pleasure Grounds Company bought 25 acres of the Arboretum Gardens and had them laid out by the eminent landscape gardener William Barrow.

He created promenades, terraces, flower beds, a cricket pitch, a bowling green and archery butts. A crystal pavilion and a central fountain were also introduced.

The pleasure grounds from Sansome Walk as they would have looked in around 1865

The pleasure grounds from Sansome Walk as they would have looked in around 1865

The Arboretum Pleasure Grounds opened in 1859 with the city council contributing £1,000 towards the cost. This was for the privilege of free admission one day a week for citizens.

Big public attractions were staged, including shows, tight-rope spectaculars, firework displays and even a concert by the Band of the Coldstream Guards.

Sadly, however, like many good things, the Arboretum pleasure gardens had a comparatively short life. The company that owned them went into liquidation after only a few years.

The Arboretum was then clearly ripe for housing and commercial development, and the land was bought for £13,000 by the Worcester Engine Company (the railway locomotive construction firm at Shrub Hill), mainly for the building of workers' houses.

The city council could have stepped in but decided in the end that it could not afford to do so.

The result was that house building began in 1866 and soon swallowed up virtually all the former parkland.

The crystal pavilion was dismantled and sold, while the mediaeval-style main drive gates and railings went to Worcester Royal Infirmary where they can still be seen at the entrance. The avenue of elms was also felled to make way for road building.

The only amenity provided in replacement was a skating rink, built on the site of the crystal pavilion. In addition to skating, it was used for public meetings and circuses and later became a bus depot. It was not pulled down until 1972.

As we look at the Arboretum today, we can perhaps ponder on the fascinating fact that all the principal streets follow almost exactly the lines of the paths of the former pleasure gardens.

But in maybe thinking longingly of that once widely popular green open space, we must also weigh in the balance the very great social need that was answered then and now by the hundreds of homes built on the land!"