Rock Park and Birkenhead Park

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Rock Park Esplanade
Rock Park Estate, Rock Ferry
Rock Park is a private residential estate that was laid out on the left bank of the Mersey estuary in 1836-7 by surveyor Jonathan Bennison. Detached and semi-detached housing was constructed up to 1850. The leafy enclave has a serpentine drive and an esplanade on the waterfront. It was mainly intended as a summer resort; there were ferry connections to Liverpool, Rock Ferry at the northern end and New Ferry to the south, each with a hotel (the Royal Rock Hotel and the New Ferry Hotel, respectively).
It was an exclusive location allowing for 'no trade or business other than the learned professions to be carried on'. American author Nathaniel Hawthorne lived here when serving as Americal consul in Liverpool. He reported a toll system that 'precludes all unnecessary passage of carriages' and talked of 'new and neat residences' each with an attendant barring the way to the 'ragged and ill-looking'.
Sightseers not welcome, then. Mind you, since the New Ferry bypass (described in the Pevsner Guide as 'an unforgivable act of vandalism') was constructed it has become tricky for the uninitiated to locate without a map. Intrepid explorers will find the estate nicely preserved.
Rock Park Estate in 1874
Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of England (1848) provides some interesting period detail:
About twenty years ago, a large tract of land here was purchased, together with the right of ferry across the Mersey, by a gentleman of Liverpool, who much improved the ferry, built a large and excellent pier, formed roads, and encouraged the erection of buildings. A company was subsequently established, by whom the Hotel was enlarged to its present extent; new pleasure-grounds were added, and more commodious ferry-boats were employed. Several members of the company purchased lands on the margin of the river, and these, with others, were formed into a park, planted, and laid out in a picturesque manner. No part of the shores of the Mersey has since undergone a more rapid or pleasing transformation.   The district comprises about 500 acres, of a stiff clay soil, and is chiefly laid out for the country residences of the Liverpool merchants, professional gentlemen, &c. The allotment, called Rock Park, contains a number of substantial mansions, and is embanked by an esplanade to which the river flows up at high water, and which forms a delightful promenade [...]. The river has a lake-like appearance at high water towards the southeast, at which point the views include Aigburth, Speke, Runcorn, Delamere Forest, Beeston Castle, &c.; while on the north-east is seen the town of Liverpool, with the entire range of docks and piers to the mouth of the Mersey.
The Grand Entrance
Birkenhead Park
Birkenhead Park was a very early example of a planned suburban villa park and the first ever public park. Originally marshland, the 185 acre (75 ha) site was purchased in 1843 by Improvement Commissioners Isaac Holmes and William Jackson. It was drained and excavated to leave two lakes with islands and some hillocks planted with forest trees. The expense was to be deferred by the sale of plots, at high profit because of the added value of the improved environment, for the construction of up-market housing around the perimeter.
Joseph Paxton's original plan of 1844
The Upper Lake
The Italian Lodge
The Central Lodge
The Rockery
The park and housing were laid out in 1844-7 to a design by Joseph Paxton. 60 acres (24 ha) between the encircling Park Drive and the polygon of surrounding roads were to be devoted to housing in the form of villas and terraces disposed, following the model of Regent's Park in London, so as to avoid straight lines. The architecture was carefully vetted (construction materials were largely restricted to Storeton yellow sandstone) but became stylistically diverse, including Gothic, Elizabethan, Classical and Italianate examples. Most of the original houses date from the mid-1840s to the mid-1860s, but in the event many of the plots were not built on at this time. Only 60 villas and no terraces were eventually built.
Birkenhead Park was part of a grand vision at that time for 'The City of the Future' and its opening on Easter Monday 1847, with brass bands, choirs and a grand dinner, was timed to coincide with the newly completed Birkenhead dock complex. It had a huge influence on subsequent urban park development in the UK, for example, Sefton Park in Liverpool, and elsewhere.
American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted incorporated many of the features he observed in Birkenhead Park into his design for New York's Central Park following a visit in 1850. He wrote: 'Five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People's Garden [...] I cannot undertake to describe the effect of so much taste and skill as had evidently been employed; I will only tell you, that we passed by winding paths, over acres and acres, with a constant varying surface, where on all sides were growing every variety of shrubs and flowers, with more than natural grace, all set in borders of greenest, closest turf, and all kept with consummate neatness'.
The park is divided into the Lower Park and the Upper Park by Ashville Road. Both parts are a picturesque blend of open grassy areas, woodland, lakes and winding pathways. The lakes were designed to have the appearance of sinuous rivers supplying idyllic vistas through gaps in the trees.
The grandiose lodges, designed by John Robertson and Lewis Hornblower, are a particular feature of the various entrances to the park. The Grand Entrance at the eastern corner of the park, with its pair of lodges connected by a trio of arches, is in a class of its own. The Roman Boathouse, originally intended as a bandstand, and the Swiss Bridge are also noteworthy.
The rockery was clearly inspired by the effects of Alpine landscape painting on the fevered romantic imagination. The huge sandstone rocks were excavated from land used to construct Birkenhead Docks.
The park was the subject of an 11.5 million renovation in 2004-6 funded by the National Lottery.
The Roman Boathouse and the Lower Lake
The Castellated Lodge
The (so-called) Norman Lodge
The Swiss Bridge
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
For further reading see Friends of Birkenhead Park: History of Birkenhead Park, from where I have borrowed the park plan; my thanks to the authors. The definitive book on the Garden Village Movement is the monumental study Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove (2013) to which I had the honour of contributing a number of photographs. Another essential source is the Pevsner guide: The Buildings of England - Cheshire (2011), by Clare Hartwell, Matthew Hyde, Edward Hubbard and Nikolaus Pevsner.
This is a non-commercial website that is intended entirely for research and educational purposes. If I have unintentionally breached copyright with any images, I hope that the copyright owner will tolerate my usage in the present context, otherwise I will remove the material. Modern colour photographs are by the author.