News from Played in Britain

Restoration of historic Wolverton Park grandstand meets mixed response

September 15 2009

Tree planting in front of Wolverton Park's restored 1899 grandstand

Tree planting in front of Wolverton Park's restored 1899 grandstand, unveiled on September 12, cannot obscure its new role as a decorative shelter. (photo by Played in Britain)

The restored 1899 grandstand at Wolverton Park

Stripped of its seats and with an even roof profile instead of its original stepped-up bays, the restored 1899 grandstand at Wolverton Park has taken on a new role overlooking parkland designed for 'relaxation and leisure'. (photo by Played in Britain)

The Grade II listed railway sheds

Wolverton Park's restored grandstand looks out over what was until 2006 a football pitch surrounded by a banked cycle track. The Grade II listed railway sheds behind, seen here on September 12's Open Day, have been converted into townhouses. (photo by Played in Britain)

Milton Keynes City played at Wolverton Park

Before the MK Dons came to town, Milton Keynes City played at Wolverton Park in the South Midlands Football League. The 1899 grandstand, with its distinctive three-bay stepped roof, accommodated around 100 spectators. (photo courtesy of Andrew Gray)

Visitors to last weekend's Heritage Open Day at Wolverton Park in Buckinghamshire gave mixed responses to the redevelopment of the former LNWR sports ground and its 1899 wooden grandstand, which now forms part of a major residential scheme completed by the developers Places for People and the Milton Keynes Partnership.

There had been hopes amongst local sporting interests that while the neighbouring Grade II railway shed (formerly the home of the royal train) was converted into residential units, the seven acre sportsground – laid out in 1885 by the London North & Western Railway Company – would continue to offer some kind of community sporting usage, to reflect its historic status as one of the last surviving company sportsgrounds of the 19th century.

However one former tenant, the Wolverton Park Bowling Club, has been relocated to an adjoining site (complete with new clubhouse paid for by the developers), while the former cycle track and football pitch have been covered with paths and turfed parkland, leaving 2.5 acres of open space for 'relaxation and leisure for the new residents'. A small 'eco pond' now occupies the south west corner.

The shell of the original wooden grandstand, meanwhile, built in 1899 by the Wolverton Amateur Athletics Club, has been rebuilt, but in a slightly different form. Instead of its three distinctive bays being stepped to take into account the site's sloping ground, its profile in now level. Also, instead of seating tiers under the roof, token shallow terracing has been built.

The planting of trees in front of the grandstand make it additionally clear that the structure is not intended to fulfil its original function, and will mainly serve as a decorative shelter.

Commenting on this restructuring, Played in Britain series editor Simon Inglis said, 'There were attempts to have the stand listed back in 2001, but these failed. We also hoped that the sportsground itself would be deemed sufficiently rare and important to be entered on English Heritage's Register of Historics Parks and Gardens. But again, this was turned down. As it happened, the park's entrance lodge was then listed, and the Royal Train Shed that overlooks the ground was already listed Grade II. Both these structures appear to have been treated rather more sympathetically than the grandstand.

'Admittedly the original was in a parlous state after years of neglect. The last tenants, Milton Keynes City, who were not related to the MK Dons, went bust in 2003, and this left the structure highly vulnerable to vandals and water penetration. Even so, it was a handsome building and it is most disappointing that its future role will be a token one and that the sportsground itself is now unsuited to field sports or track cycling, presumably because the developers did not want the residents in the new flats and townhouses to be disturbed.'

'It is also telling that on the Heritage Open Day, amid all the historic material depicting Wolverton's proud railway past, nothing was said of the park's sporting heritage, other than a completely erroneous claim that the 1899 grandstand was the first grandstand in the country. It was no such thing. But it was one of the oldest surviving stands in Britain. In fact, although there are older stands associated with racing and racecourses, and older pavilions at cricket grounds, we know of only one grandstand at a sportsground that is older, and that is the 1892 stand at Wellesley Road, Great Yarmouth.

'As such, I would argue that the one at Wolverton deserved a more sympathetic and faithful restoration.'

Wolverton Park was one of the earliest company sportsgrounds built during the 19th century. Opened on August 3 1885, in front of 15,000 railway workers and Wolverton residents, during its 120 years of operation it staged football, athletics, bowls, tennis and quoits. Various Olympic cyclists trained on its unusually egg-shaped banked track. Its last major crowd of around 4,000 attended a local football final in 1987, and for many years it was the home of Wolverton Town FC.

But it was never intended as a professional or first class venue, and its value was much more as place of community recreation.

'It's hard to explain,' the park's unofficial historian Andrew Gray told the Observer newspaper in 2003, 'but as soon as you enter you feel this mystical quality. It gets to everyone who comes here.'

That aura still just about clings on, despite the overshadowing presence of two new apartment blocks to the immediate south.

But Wolverton Park's days as a sportsground are now over.

Click here for more details on the Wolverton Park redevelopment

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