WHENEVER I pass a small, quaint and eye-catching property in Sansome Walk, I am forcibly reminded of a major amenity that might still have been in existence for the enjoyment of Worcester people.

The building - seen in the photo top right - was originally constructed in mid-Victorian times as the entrance lodge or gatehouse to the Arboretum Pleasure Grounds, but it is now all that remains as significant testimony to a once hugely popular and heavily used leisure lung for the Faithful City.

However, before discussing further the case of "what might have been," a bit of historical background information is necessary.

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. 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 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.

In 1865, the flourishing Worcester Independent Order of Oddfellows celebrated a major milestone in its history when it was chosen as the venue for the Annual Moveable Conference of the nation's Oddfellows - a large-scale event attended by members from all over the country and by many local VIPs and civic dignitaries.

The main focus of the June 1865 celebrations was a Gala on the Worcester Pleasure Grounds at the Arboretum.

A large poster for the event, which still survives, lists some of the attractions at the Gala as "Balloon Ascents, Messrs Abbot and Stevens with their negro entertainment, and Mr and Mrs Ben Stanley, dancers and comic duettists whose songs will include 'the Broken Hearted Butcher Boy' and 'the Stage Struck Barber.' "

The day ended with "Dancing on the Greensward and Fireworks by Mr J. Wilder." There was also a "Public Banquet" at the Guildhall.

Berrow's Worcester Journal carried a lengthy report of the Oddfellows' 1865 Gala, stating: "Thousands of excursionists arrived by trains at the Shrub Hill and Foregate Street stations, and the streets of Worcester were gaily decorated with flags and banners to honour the event. The thoroughfares were thronged with folk from an early hour on what proved to be a gloriously fine day.

"The 15-acre Worcester Pleasure Grounds were crowded with spectators for the wide variety of attractions and entertainments, and it was very pleasant to observe so many children present, The day ended with a grand fireworks display at 10 p.m."

Another breathtaking spectacle which drew a crowd of 8,000 to the Arboretum Pleasure Grounds in the 1860s was the high-wire act of Madame Boutelle.

Billed as the Female Blondin but whose real name was Polly Freeman, she climbed to a tightrope suspended 100ft above the ground and stretched between two poles 200 yards apart.

In her perilous act, with no safety net, she walked gingerly across the high wire several times with her lengthy pole, finishing up blindfolded for a final "sky walk" amid a spectacular fireworks display.

It was recorded that "Madame Boutelle performed on a rope raised to a considerable height, and in the evening walked amidst fireworks".

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.

Nevertheless, an influential group of citizens led a public campaign which temporarily halted this development and almost rescued the gardens.

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!