Dulwich Park is now unsteadily re-awakening; just a little like Sleeping Beauty after many years, from its Heritage Lottery Fund cosmetic and structural make-over. In conveys the impression that a great deal of entirely worthy work has been done, with the promise of better to come as new facilities become fully alive and functional. There was a grand opening ceremony on Saturday 22 July to celebrate completion of most of the basic work. This will be followed by a year of snagging, tweaking, and other mysterious rituals which contractors expect to carry out at the end of a major operation. Completion was just six weeks behind schedule, which on a programme of this scale and complexity must be judged a considerable success.
Osbornes, the main contractor, put in a surge of last-minute activity to bring the park to a presentable condition for the official opening. On the preceding Friday there was still much sawing, stone-cutting and sweeping to finish the new installations. Only three days before the deadline a large crane at the Court Lane entrance was re-assembling the central stone gate-post yet again. Breath is now being held in the hope that the gateposts will remain intact, following their vulnerable history in recent years.
Transformation of the park has been closely observed and inspected by a number of public bodies, including English Heritage, the Environment Agency and an array of wildlife, ecological, bio-diversity and social inclusion authorities. The contractors have striven to work steadily through all these interventions, and have achieved a result in which they can take justified pride. Signs of having met statutory requirements appear frequently enough to intrude on the park's visual serenity. The red lifebelts on which Health and Safety has no doubt continued to insist have reappeared at intervals around the lake, and at each end of the new boardwalk. They are not quite as frequent or dominant as those in position previously, but still look to be of more symbolic than practical value. For some reason Health and Safety has not insisted on hanging lifebelts on the College Road gates to provide for the next occasion when the road floods in the Village.
Much of the park renovation work has been directed at inconspicuous but vital infrastructure, especially on drainage and water supply systems which have either been crumbling for years or were never adequate for their purpose in the first place. The lake and its ornamental outlets have been emptied, cleaned and re-sealed and freshly planted. Work on draining the water was solemnly suspended while a coot finished its nesting season (until it was discovered that coots are unhelpfully prone to nest at any time of year). Roads and paths have been re-surfaced and re-edged with crisply designed and painted Victorian railings. Great trees in the park have been carefully re-shaped and new ones have been planted. Any that have not survived the summer drought will be replaced.
The main contract has been supplemented with specialised work by a range of sub-contractors. Co-ordinating these has been an important part of the planning process, a costly and time-consuming affair in the attempt to avoid an expensive disturbance of finished work. Classically perhaps, the café still awaits the installation of a proper gas supply.
Local residents and amenity organisations have engaged themselves devotedly in the whole process, and deserve high praise for their sustained concern that details should be given proper attention. Among other operations, the winter garden has been carefully tended by members of the Dulwich Park Friends and the Dulwich Society, a new Village copse has been planted in the corner of the park near Court Lane, thanks to the generous winding-up gift of the Dulwich Village Preservation Society. The full benefit of much new planting should become apparent over the next few seasons. In the new copse there will be a highly significant bluebell planting day on 4 November. A full muster of local residents is cordially invited to participate.
The Dulwich Park Friends above all, with Emily Montague as Chairman in particular, deserve our warmest congratulations for engaging themselves so closely with Southwark Council and the very limited number of greatly-extended park staff, helping to draft the Lottery Fund application, to discuss problems and solutions as soon as the need has arisen and to contribute time and resources in many ways. This has been a genuine community effort in which Dulwich can take much pride.
There have been some notable breakthroughs, which should now help to reinforce Southwark Council's ability to fulfil its responsibility for Dulwich Park's management, security and maintenance. One conspicuous achievement has been the recovery of both park lodges. Additionally, the sports pavilion has been rebuilt and considerably enlarged to become the 'Francis Peek Centre', that is a park management office and community centre, with a large room available for the use of school groups and for other local purposes.
The lodges have been renovated and cheerfully decorated. Their windows are still blind, to prevent any unauthorised incursion, but soon we should be able to dispense with signs on lodge garden railings that warn the public that these are 'private dwelling' to which they have no right of access. It is intended that the Rosebery Gate lodge should become the headquarters of Southwark's park warden service, and that the College Road lodge should be a horticulture centre.
We hope that the Council will now gear itself fully to manage the park properly, as its agreement with the Heritage Lottery Fund requires, and to ensure that these new facilities and amenities, so expensively provided, are effectively patrolled and monitored at all hours. The café has suffered a succession of recent break-ins. CCTV monitoring is at last promised, to be installed in September. We hope that the newly re-furbished public toilet blocks will also remain intact for some time. To have a resident 'Head Gardener' in the College Road lodge would contribute greatly to better security, as the Horniman Gardens have found and as a number of people in Dulwich have been saying for some time.
Dulwich Park is probably the most intensively used park in Southwark. Together with the Picture Gallery just across the road, and the Horniman Museum close by, it contributes vitally to making Dulwich one of the most welcoming visitor attractions in London. One of the great luxuries in a public park is freedom to sit peacefully on the grass in the shade of a large tree, or for parents with young children, to feed and water them there, with the support of a pleasant park café, while they enjoy a well-equipped playground and the other amenities around them. This is the environment we want to see recaptured and preserved.