Holidays at Home
To discourage people from travelling away from home for holidays during the war – which would have made accounting for casualties difficult after air raids-there was a programme of ‘Holidays at Home’, this included children’s entertainment in the park throughout the summer. Most of it consisted of clowns and conjuring shows in the lawned area just north of the bandstand. At that time at the Powys Lane end of that lawn there was a stage in a kind of theatre which could be completely locked up when not in use, but which provided a magnificent arena for those popular entertainments. The bandstand at the side of the large pond was then often used on fine weekends for musical entertainment by military bands.
Air Raid Shelters
During the war there used to be underground air raid shelters parallel with Aldermans Hill and between the park perimeter and the running track. There was another shelter, but much smaller and consisting mostly of sandbags filled with a sand/cement mix, in what is now a flower bed against the wall of the southern corner of the back of Broomfield House. I never had cause to go in any of these shelters during the war years, nor ever saw inside the ones by Aldermans Hill; but the sandbagged one eventually began to fall apart and was for some time quite a fun play area for boisterous youngsters. Also during the war we used to watch ‘Dad’s Army’ – the Home Guard – drilling and exercising in the field beside Broomfield Lane adjacent to the running track.
The large pond had been a public swimming pool at some time and when I was young still had the remains of a diving board at the deep end, although the pond itself would never have been swum in at that time and was full of roach and gudgeon and the haunt of ducks and swans. It was the only pond from which the swans could fly because they needed its full length to get up to take-off speed, just becoming airborne to clear the path between that and the next pond opposite the house. Although fishing was not generally permitted there, it was occasionally allowed as part of the Holidays at Home programme. The second pond held little interest for kids, although we occasionally clambered down to look into the grotto-like feature in its far right corner.
The pond to the east of this had a nest in its centre where black swans lived for many years until sadly someone poisoned them. As kids we also fished for sticklebacks there- though this was not permitted and we were constantly on the lookout for ‘Felix’ the park- keeper who wore a dark uniform with shiny peaked cap and leather gaiters. Although we always lived in fear of him, he was actually a quiet kind man whose rapid strides towards us were more for dramatic effect than with the intention of catching us. But we never took a chance on this and fled with our own dramatic effect.
The fourth pond was the very popular boat pond where model boats of all sorts drew crowds of onlookers. Some boats took an incredibly long time to set up before being put on the water, and this was as entertaining to many people as the sailing itself-as indeed it was to brother Tim, who even as a child had a technical bent; but I found this aspect very boring. The boat pond was only about 18 inches deep, and on hot days was sometimes used by children for paddling – but the bottom was quite slippery with algae and there was an occasional nasty accident when a foot got gashed on broken glass. A couple of times a year the pond was emptied and the park staff scraped the algae into piles to dry before being carted away.
The Artesian Well
The park contained an artesian well and after the fourth pond was cleaned it was then refilled from the artesian well which was tapped at a point above the tennis courts in the corner of the putting green.The artesian well had pure water and sometimes during the war, supplied drinking water from a standpipe when mains water pipes had been damaged. On the other side of the path at the far end of the pond there was a drinking fountain. On the announcement of Victory in Europe, this area was more than any other I remember as being packed with jubilant families picnicking and paddling with children just awash with anything red, white and blue to celebrate.
Children’s Play Area
Above a steepish slope from the boat pond there used to be a figure-of-eight children’s cycle track which was especially popular around birthdays and Christmas when parents looked for somewhere safe for kids to try out their new bikes.
Above that moving away from the pond was the playground – all hard tarmac and potentially quite dangerous. There was a very high slide which when it was polished with candle wax could send the unwary a considerable distance beyond the end! Also the adventurous climbed all over it – some even on top of the cabin-like structure where the actual slide began.
There was a roundabout known as the Witch’s Hat – a conical metal frame with wooden seats around the hat’s brim, which was balanced on the top of a high metal pole. It had the potential of being spun round very fast with a powerful centrifugal force threatening to thrown off anyone not holding on tightly. But to add to the dangers, the more daring users climbed on to the metal crossbars halfway up the frame, hugged the centre pole with their legs and used the leverage to rock the spinning roundabout with quite scary results! Later this type of roundabout was disabled in all playgrounds,initially by lifting them off their poles and padlocking them to the ground.
There were also some interesting see-saws, which in normal use were pretty safe, but show offs ( me among them) would stand in the middle and rock them violently by transferring weight from one side to the other and at some point they started to behave like bucking broncos – bouncing the riders at each end and uncovering some hefty mechanism which could have caused serious mangling if anyone came too near.
The swings were not without dangers that I sometimes look back on with a missed heartbeat. When holiday weekends produced larger crowds than usual I would swing to a considerable height, then jump off! Although I never actually had or caused an accident, I could easily have landed badly on the ground and been fairly severely injured; and the empty swing could have injured someone when it swung back on the loose. None of that is there now.
There was a large running track which was used for several events such as St George’s Day parades of all the uniformed forces and associations and it was also the stage for a colourful reenactment of the coronation of Elizabeth I as part of the celebrations for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In this reenactment I led the procession – playing the part of the bearer of the sword of state.
Broomfield House after the war
After the war, Broomfield House cafe was reopened and the ground floor became a museum and natural history resource, with multi-drawer cabinets containing a massive display of moths and butterflies and glass cases of stuffed animals. There was also a beehive with one glass side so visitors inside the building could view the ongoing activity of bees coming and going through an outside vent.The first floor, accessed by a wide wooden staircase with large framed paintings on its panelled walls, became a mother and baby clinic.
The trees and the park
The largest area was the land bordered by Powys Lane which was most noted for the magnificent avenue of elm trees which formed a viewing channel with the focus on Broomfield House. West of the trees – which were later all lost to Dutch Elm disease – was an area frequently used for small league football matches and occasional funfairs. Soon after the war there were craft fairs and flower and vegetable shows each summer, with the marquees using the advantage of the elm trees to provide shelter from the sun and rain.
Cycling in the park was strictly forbidden and rigorously enforced, but one year my brother Tim persuaded the flower show organisers and judges that he could act as a speedy ‘runner’ on his bike. He could then carry messages around the park from one official to another. With no other form of mobile communication at that time, they loved the idea and wrote him a special authority to ride anywhere in the park on their business, without let or hindrance! Boy was he happy- and me sooo jealous.
Beautiful cottages demolished
The one other memory which I think to be of particular historical interest is that during the war and for some time after there was a terrace of three beautiful cottages fronting Powys Lane at its junction with Aldermans Hill in the north-west corner by the Village Gates. I believe they were lived in by park employees, and although they were well maintained, they were eventually pulled down for no obvious reason. The path parallel with Powys Lane inside the park still loops at that point around what is now a group of trees exactly where the cottages and their gardens stood.
I used to know every nook and cranny in Broomfield Park and I still remember it with happiness and affection.