Centenary celebrations to honour history and childhood memories of York's treasured green space at Rowntree Park

Founded on the principles of peace in the aftermath of war, York's Rowntree Park was intended as a sanctuary of sport and recreation which was open to all.

Rowntree Park in York is this year to mark its centenary year. Pictured Abigail Gaines charity manager of Friends of Rowntree Park. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Now, as the park reopens following flooding repairs, those charged with its care reflect on a moment in history as it readies for centenary celebrations.

This year marks 100 years since its formation in 1921 and, they said, the park has evolved to meet changing needs, with its future holding great promise.

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“It was a park for peace, but it has evolved, and will continue to evolve as people’s interests change,” said Dave Meigh, operations manager for the public realm at York Council.

Boating at Rowntree Park. Image submitted by the Friends of Rowntree Park

“There will be fond childhood memories for those who grew up in this part of York. For those that live nearby now it is their green space.

"The park was never built as it was planned and every 20 years it's changed," he added. "It has had so many evolutions, and it means so much in different ways to so many people.

“It has a great future, and we look forward to another 100 years to make happy memories.”

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Rowntree Park in York is this year to mark its centenary year. Pictured Dave Meigh operations manager at York City Council. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Rowntree Park, owned by the council but cared for by the Friends of Rowntree Park, was opened as a memorial to honour those who fell or suffered in the First World War.

A gift to the people of York from the Rowntree family, it was created to encourage a healthy lifestyle for all.

Primary in this ambition was a directive that it was to afford rest and recreation from the 'turmoil and stress of life and bring health and happiness to a large number of young lives'.

In the 1950s paddle boats were popular on the park’s serpentine lake, which would host miniature sailing boats and was popular with children collecting tadpoles and sticklebacks.

Families memories/ Image submitted by the Friends of Rowntree Park

Once there were open-air swimming baths, famed for their chill and used to store water in case of air raids in the Second World War.

Then there were the aviaries, alight with the sounds of exotic parrots and macaws, as well as a grand bandstand for concerts.

But the park has long been plagued with flooding from the nearby River Ouse, such as earlier this year, and these attractions were among those which have long since fallen victim to the vagaries of the weather.

Modern day

Children boating at Rowntree Park. Image submitted by the Friends of Rowntree Park

Today, the 10-hectare site on the south side of the city centre features play parks, ponds and wildlife walks, sculptures and mosaics as well as a skatepark and basketball courts.

Heritage Lottery grants and funding aided a £1.8m refurbishment in 2003, restoring many historical features and enabling the establishment of new areas.

Now, there are ambitions for the future to improve the park’s biodiversity, with wildlife ponds and gardens, native plants and greenery, as well as sensory areas.

This year the Friends are looking at ways to record people's experiences of the park these past months, as well as setting up activities and trails which can be done in small groups.

"A hundred years ago it was a way to remember those who suffered in war," reflected Dr Cath Mortimer, chair of the Friends of Rowntree park, which maintains this space.

"That was the aim of the Rowntrees - to give the people of the city, who had suffered so much, somewhere to go for rest and recuperation and healthy exercise.

Rowntree Park in York is this year to mark its centenary year. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

"Now, the area around it is really heavily built up, and most of the houses don't have gardens past a backyard. For a lot of people it is their garden, it is their space for breathing.

"It was once described as York's 'premier' park," she added. "As to the future, we are looking at ways to make it even better."

Memories

The deeds for Rowntree Park were signed in 1919, with the land costing £1,500, and handed to the Mayor of York in 1921 as a brass band played ‘lead kindly light’ by Rupert Gough.

Many people have shared their memories of the park over the course of the past century, with one figure featuring prominently being the first park keeper James Bell.

Parky Bell, as he was known, lived on site and served until 1945. He would ring a bell when it came time for visitors to leave, and blow a whistle when they misbehaved.

Since 2017, the Friends has maintained and improved the park, gardening and litter picking, and running events from forest schools to music.

As part of the centenary celebrations the park is now asking people to share their photographs and memories for a future display, to [email protected]

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Rowntree Park keepers. Image submitted by the Friends of Rowntree Park
Children playing at Rowntree Park. Image submitted by the Friends of Rowntree Park
Rowntree Park volunteers. Image submitted by the Friends of Rowntree Park