Skip to main content

Wicksteed Park

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2011

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard, and I wish you well in your career on the Panel of Chairs. I am delighted that the Minister with responsibility for culture, heritage and tourism is here to listen to the debate, and I thank Mr Speaker for allowing me to hold it. The debate is fundamentally about celebrating the 90th anniversary of Wicksteed Park in Kettering.

Wicksteed Park is a combination of a country park and a leisure park in the town of Kettering in Northamptonshire, and it is right in the middle of my constituency. I often speak of the Kettering constituency as being middle England at its very best, and Wicksteed Park represents the very best of Kettering. It is a park of some 147 acres, with about 40 different rides, activities and amusements, and everyone in the town, most people in Northamptonshire, and hundreds of thousands of people from the east midlands and further afield will at some point have spent time enjoying themselves there. It is a huge honour for the town and for the borough of Kettering that the park is now celebrating its 90th anniversary.

Wicksteed Park is named after its founder, Charles Wicksteed, who was an engineer by trade. He was born in 1847 and was a man of great energy and vision who, in his business career, invented lots of different machines. He was primarily involved with steam ploughs but also got involved with making gearboxes for early motor vehicles, and later in his life he invented a hydraulic hacksaw that would cut through steel at an extreme speed—perhaps his biggest success. He came to Kettering, married a Kettering girl and settled down, and in 1913 he started to purchase land where Wicksteed Park now is, to develop an amenity space for local people.

Kettering in those days was very much a boot and shoe town. There were lots of factories, and many of the workers helped to make the boots and shoes in the little outhouses of their own terraced properties. There was no leisure space, in the modern sense of the word, even though there was lots of farmland because Northamptonshire is a very agricultural area, so Charles Wicksteed had a vision to create an amenity space, a park that could be enjoyed by Kettering residents and their families. He purchased the 147-plus acres along the River Ise, and with the first world war starting in 1914 and with the land fit for heroes when the war was finished, his vision came into its own. He invested a great deal of his own money in the park, creating a man-made lake some 30 acres in size—Wicksteed Park lake—and the park was first opened to the public in any proper sense 90 years ago in 1921.

Wicksteed Park was the first theme park—in the modern sense of the word—in the country. It has other unique features, including the largest free children’s playground in the United Kingdom. In the water chute ride, opened in 1926, it has the oldest working ride in any amusement park in the country, and the railway that goes round the park attracts some 200,000 passengers every year. It is the biggest commercial narrow-gauge railway in the country. My point is that in the middle of Kettering we have a unique asset, of national importance.

Wicksteed Park is not Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Drayton Manor or Chessington World of Adventures. It could go down that route, becoming all-singing, all-dancing, commercial and multimedia, and attracting all sorts of leisure interests. There is nothing wrong with that, but Wicksteed Park has chosen another route because of its special status. Charles Wicksteed had the vision to establish not only Wicksteed Park, but also the Wicksteed Village Trust, to carry on the development of the park and his work after his death. Sadly, he passed away in 1931, but the trust continues to this day and its chairman is Oliver Wicksteed, the great-grandson of Charles. I pay tribute not only to Oliver but to all the other trustees on the trust board for their work, which is volunteering in action.

Kettering people are proud that the park was effectively left to the people of Kettering and the wider area to enjoy. They are proud of the fact that the park is run by a trust. It is different from a commercial outfit or a local authority-owned park. As such, Wicksteed Park is the ideal recipient of the funding that is now available through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Heritage lottery funding is there to do what it says on the tin: to preserve and enhance the heritage of our great nation. We have in Wicksteed Park an important part of our nation’s heritage—a visionary combination of a country park and a leisure park, which exists not to be all-commercial, but to provide recreational and amenity facilities for local families, and in particular children. What Wicksteed Park needs is investment to preserve the heritage of the park, and to encourage its educational use. There is a huge opportunity for the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund to make a difference to a little bit of Britain’s heritage, in the middle of the best of England.

The Wicksteed Trust was established by Charles Wicksteed in 1916 to carry on his work after his death. The objectives of the trust are to provide

“free access to open spaces conducive to health”.

The open spaces in the park of 147 acres comprise gardens, an arboretum and the general park land. The operation of the leisure park is carried out through a wholly owned subsidiary company called Wicksteed Park Ltd. The leisure park is situated within the wider Wicksteed Park. As a charity, the trust cannot attract commercial investment or operate on fully commercial lines. It is not local authority-owned or funded, despite the fact that Wicksteed Park provides the main recreational park facility in the borough of Kettering. Understandably—this is not a criticism—the park does not benefit from resources from the local authority, of which I am honoured to be a member, or direct Government funding. As such, I believe that it ticks all the boxes in terms of where Heritage Lottery Fund money should go.

The park has applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a “Parks for People” grant of approximately £2 million, which will help to restore the park, and present its social history in an interesting, educational and imaginative way. I am delighted that it has got through the first phase of that process, and now proceeds to the second phase. There is a huge local community buy-in to the success of Wicksteed Park, and if a local asset ever enjoyed huge local community support, it is surely Wicksteed Park.

Wicksteed Park is not reliant on funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but it would make a huge difference. It would make a huge difference to the increasing range of educational activities undertaken in the park. It has all sorts of assets that the community can enjoy. Not only are there acres and acres of open spaces, mainly grassland, there are nature trails, a fishing lake, the arboretum that I mentioned, and platforms on which productions may be staged, songs may be sung and plays may be delivered. There are many buildings that can take a large number of people. The main pavilion is big enough for more than 1,000 people, and I believe that it is the largest social event space in Northamptonshire.

The park wants to maximise its income through innovative activities such as Asian weddings. It is one of the main venues in the country for such weddings, and attracts newly married couples from throughout the east midlands and further afield. All sorts of attractions can be held in the park and its facilities. As for educational activities, it recently held a “one world, one people” event for Northamptonshire schools, when local schoolchildren came along to celebrate the different attributes of nations around the world. They became Chinese dragons, played the didgeridoo, did maypole dancing, and of course had a big, grand parade at the end.

There are Victorian theme days when schoolchildren are encourage to undertake a project, and to imagine that they are going to the seaside as a Victorian schoolchild, making use of the train in the park, and dressing up in Victorian costumes. That gives children a really wonderful experience outside the classroom. “Stories in the park” is an event when stories are read to children under the trees outside, in a different setting from their normal school classroom. Perhaps the highlight is the now annual Bastille day, when children come along to learn about the importance of learning modern languages. All the signs in the park are changed from English to French, and everyone is encouraged to speak a foreign language. That gives pupils, just for a day, a sense of what it might be like to live in another country, and to communicate in another language.

The park’s facilities offer local schoolchildren huge opportunities to enhance their classroom experience. That is why Wicksteed Park is unique. From Charles Wicksteed’s original vision of providing people with a place of recreation that gives them an objective in life and their children a safe and happy playground, we now have an increasingly modern facility that is adaptable and flexible to the needs of modern families and their children.

Wicksteed is also important to the local economy because it employs between 100 and 350 people, depending on the time of year—there is obviously a lot of seasonal employment there. Perhaps the best-known employee is Wicky Bear, the park’s mascot, who, along with his friends Charlie the dog, Pong the panda and Kerry the koala, regularly entertains local young children.

Lots of events are held at Wicksteed every year. For example, there is the crazy hats fundraising walk, which raises tens of thousands of pounds for local cancer charities. In this 90th anniversary year, the park is holding a number of themed events, such as “Wicksteed at War”, to commemorate the contribution of Kettering and Northamptonshire in the second world war; “The Way We Were”, which goes back to the 1950s and 1960s; and a 1970s and 1980s weekend. In September, the Abba tribute group Björn Again will perform an outdoor concert. Lots of imaginative things are going on in the park to get people to come along.

With 1 million visitors every year, we can see how important Wicksteed Park is not only to Kettering, but to areas further afield. Kettering is very proud of Wicksteed Park. It is important not only to Kettering, but to Northamptonshire and the wider east midlands that the park continues to be a success. With heritage lottery funding, we could make a real difference to the park as it approaches its centenary in 10 years’ time.

Wicksteed Park is a facility of national importance, and it would be a huge shame were it unable to build on the good work it has done. Its fundamental problem is that it is asset-rich and cash-poor. Charles Wicksteed had a vision of a superb amenity for local people, but the park does not have the endowment to keep it going every year. With heritage lottery funding, the imagination of Oliver Wicksteed and the rest of the trust board, the large number of visitors who come along every year and the good will and support of people in Kettering and further afield, Wicksteed Park has every chance of becoming even stronger as it approaches its centenary in 10 years’ time. I very much hope that the Minister shares my ideals.

No didgeridoos, but I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Havard. I understand this is one of your first outings, so I am delighted to be here when you break your duck, as it were.

I must confess that I almost did a double take when I walked in, because I am slightly more used to seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) sitting in the Chair, but this time he is representing his constituents in his usual enthusiastic fashion. I congratulate him on securing the debate, because it is all too infrequent that we have a chance in this place to celebrate a notable local success, and my hon. Friend has demonstrated the value and importance of doing that. His enthusiasm, and that of the people of Kettering, has come across very strongly in his remarks, and I thank him for that.

I am dredging the mists of a rather distant memory, but I have a feeling that I may have been to Wicksteed Park. I fear it was quite a few years ago, when I was a child, but I am pretty sure I was taken there by my godmother or a family relative. I suspect that, just as one knows one is getting old when policemen start looking younger, one must be getting old when a childhood play area one has been to starts to qualify for heritage lottery funding—that must be the definition of getting ancient.

I was fascinated by the news that Wicksteed Park was one of the first examples, if not the first example, of what I will call a theme park, although it is not only a theme park, but a leisure park and a country park, as my hon. Friend has rightly said. However, it is one of the first examples, if not the first example, of such a facility being created anywhere in the world. It struck me that where Kettering leads, Disney follows, and there is much to be admired in that.

It is fascinating to see the way the park concept has developed, because, as my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, it is a mixture of a leisure park and a country park. Obviously different, newer examples of the form have gone down different routes, but Wicksteed Park is one of the originals of the form. The park shows the social background in which it was created at the time and, based on what he has been saying, it has managed to remain true to those roots and to its function of serving the local community—a great many ordinary municipal parks have also tried to do that. The park is a fascinating blend and mix of that.

It is great to hear that the affection Kettering holds for this local amenity is clearly so strong. The park is a good example of the kind of big society volunteer support that a community is willing to provide and produce when it takes a facility such as this to its heart. People are willing to volunteer their time and sometimes their money in order to ensure that somewhere they themselves have played as a child is available for their children and grandchildren as well, which is clearly what is going on here.

My researchers have been hard at work and got very enthusiastic because they found what they told me is some fantastic old footage on the BBC website of people having a great day in the park many years ago. That was part of a report recently done by the BBC to highlight the anniversary, and it includes some comments from those who have had very happy memories of their past visits. The briefing note from my researchers says, “Catch it if you can, before it disappears.” Clearly the footage is worth seeing, and I commend it to everyone. For anyone who has not been to Wicksteed Park—I think that I did many years ago—that footage captures not only its historical essence, but its modern context.

More broadly, the park is an example of the kind of heritage asset—I am using a small “h” at the moment because I do not want to prejudice what I will say in a minute about the Heritage Lottery Fund—that is unusual in its own right. There are lots of different examples of other kinds of heritage asset in pretty much every hon. Members’ constituency dotted right around the country. They are vital for telling the local story of an area and illustrating a facet of the history of a local community. Some of those heritage assets are important from the context of the grand sweep of our national history. There are many examples of large ruined castles, stately homes or whatever. Many heritage assets are not so grand, but they are, none the less, tremendously important from the point of view of the local story. The park is clearly a heritage asset that is tremendously important from Kettering’s point of view, but there are many others around the country.

I urge hon. Members and, indeed, anyone else reading the debate to go to the English Heritage website and look at the new list for England, which is effectively a database of all the national listed buildings, including parks, gardens, battlefields, protected shipwrecks and scheduled monuments. All those things have been gathered together in an easily accessible database, which was launched last month or the month before, so it is still very new. That database gives amazing background, depth of vision and detail about the reasons why, in this case, Wicksteed Park—it might be any other asset in any other constituency—is tremendously important to that community. The database gives a wealth of interesting detail and, for anyone who is interested in heritage, local history, archaeology or any of the related fields, it is already proving to be an invaluable local resource. I hope that that database will serve to burnish some of the local pride that my hon. Friend has made clear is felt in Kettering.

I also want to make a few remarks on my hon. Friend’s comments about the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is important for Wicksteed Park. My hon. Friend has been in this place for as long as me, so I am sure that he appreciates why I must be careful in what I say. Ministers are quite rightly not allowed to intervene on or interfere with individual funding decisions by the lottery distributors. It would be a slippery slope, if any Minister—past, present or future—tried to move down that road, creating an open door for political favouritism and accusations of bias. Rightly, the lottery distributors, ever since they were set up, have jealously and carefully guarded their independence from anyone in Parliament telling them what to do.

The application for Wicksteed Park will therefore have to travel under its own steam and survive on its own merits. However, I am sure my hon. Friend has done its chances no harm by securing the debate and by making such a passionate and well informed case for its importance. The application going, as I think he has mentioned, from phase 1 to phase 2 of the “Parks for People” programme might therefore be worthy of serious consideration. I will have to leave the matter at that point, or I would be crossing the line that I have just drawn for myself and others, but I am sure he has done Wicksteed Park a huge favour by putting the case so clearly.

As I walked into the Chamber, my hon. Friend was kind enough to give me a map of Wicksteed Park, which includes the various facilities that he has described— boating lakes, aviaries and all the other bits and pieces. Featured in the bottom left-hand corner is a rather sweet picture of Wicky Bear, whom he has described as the park mascot. A picture of Wicky Bear is also hidden somewhere on the map, but I must confess that for the life of me I could not find it during his speech. I am sure that, given a lot more time and a microscope, I could, but perhaps he will point it out to me afterwards. The map demonstrates the depth and variety of facilities available in Wicksteed Park, which the local community clearly values hugely.

I will not go on too long, but I am entirely sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s comments. It is wonderful that there are such facilities around the country, in all their variety, and we must remember that the rather dry phrase, “heritage assets”, describes not only ruined or even roofed buildings, such as gorgeous palaces of one kind or another, but buildings in all shapes and sizes, and Wicksteed Park is one of the more fun shapes and sizes. I am delighted that Wicksteed Park exists, that it is being so carefully looked after and that it is so greatly valued and loved by its local community. I wish it every great success not only for the next 10 years, as it goes from its 90th anniversary to its centenary, but with any luck for the 90 years after that and beyond. Given how it is regarded by local people, it is set well to survive, so with any luck the hon. Gentleman’s successor but two—which will not be for many years, I know—will be able to stand up in this place and to lay out for the then House of Commons just how successful Wicksteed Park has been in the intervening 90 years of its career.

With that, I do not propose to delay anyone any longer. I am delighted to be here and to respond to the debate. I am sure that I speak for everyone when I wish Wicksteed Park an excellent and happy 90th birthday, and I look forward to many more.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.