‘Haven of peace, charm and beauty’ at risk from tennis courts plan for Heigham Park

The Heigham Park grass tennis courts which the city council are proposing to turn into all weather c

The Heigham Park grass tennis courts which the city council are proposing to turn into all weather courts. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017

John Litster, administrator for the Norwich Society laments a proposal to replace grass tennis courts in the city's Heigham Park.

Heigham Park. Pic: John Litster.

Heigham Park. Pic: John Litster. - Credit: John Litster

You may disagree with its planning decisions, moan about its road works, gripe about its services, grumble about its stewardship of the market and denounce its lack of ambition, but the one thing you cannot usually complain about is how Norwich City Council looks after its parks.

From Mousehold Heath to Marston Marsh, and from Earlham Park to Woodrow Pilling Park, Norwich's open green spaces are well tended and cared for by the council, which makes what they are planning to do to Heigham Park all the more bewildering.

The council wants to replace the 10 grass tennis courts – the last remaining public grass courts in the city – with three floodlit hard courts, thus changing forever the beauty and tranquillity of this small but perfectly formed green oasis in the midst of a heavily populated area.

Heigham Park was the first modern park to be opened (in 1924) in the city, the smallest of the four major parks laid out by Captain Arnold Edward Sandys-Winch.

Heigham Park. Pic: John Litster.

Heigham Park. Pic: John Litster. - Credit: John Litster

Appointed Parks Superintendent of Norwich Corporation in 1919 when the city possessed only Chapelfield Gardens, the Gildencroft, Sewell Park and one or two small playgrounds, by the time he retired twenty years later it could boast 600 acres of parks, recreation grounds and open spaces.

He provided useful work for the unemployed during the inter-war trade depression and was responsible for planting 20,000 trees.

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The Captain's legacy will shortly enter its second century, notably with Eaton, Waterloo, Wensum and Heigham Pparks.

His visionary and meticulous planning was sensitive to local needs; the facilities and design of each park reflecting the leisure requirements of its surrounding community, which makes the current plans to change Heigham Park all the more unpalatable for the people who live nearby and frequent it.

Heigham Park. Pic: John Litster.

Heigham Park. Pic: John Litster. - Credit: John Litster

It would appear that the city council have been seduced by a potential substantial grant available from the Lawn Tennis Association, who – commendably – wish to encourage more people to play tennis; it's just that they don't want them to do it, on a Lawn, in Norwich, despite the first word of their title.

In contrast to 1924, the council has not consulted local residents, groups, park users or councillors, and have thus far not responded to the barrage of reasons why this scheme should not proceed.

These include: loss of green recreation space, loss of peak time capacity, visual intrusion of floodlights, shortage of evening parking spaces locally, unsubstantiated financial savings, etc. etc.

Alongside the fundamental change to the look and feel of the park, unexpectedly poignant reasons have emerged from the complaints of users.

Older tennis players wonder how much longer their fragile knees and ankles will allow them to continue to play on a much less forgiving surface, when they could look forward to more years of sporting activity on the softer grass.

The prospect of saving a small amount of annual maintenance cost threatens to overwhelm the argument that more people will be encouraged to play tennis if the 10 grass courts are saved, and the three floodlit hard courts are built in another area of the city which does not currently have tennis courts of any description, and which has far higher levels of deprivation than the comparatively affluent Nelson ward.

The reluctance, indeed refusal, to engage with local residents and users is particularly dispiriting.

The cabinet member would not attend a recent hastily-arranged public meeting because it had been convened by two of the three ward councillors, who happened to be from the opposition party.

The third councillor is from the ruling group, and has been predictably and understandably publicly silent on this issue.

The planning notices will be posted on the council's website, stuck on a few lampposts and have been reported on in this newspaper; otherwise a great many residents will be oblivious to the changes that will take place in their midst.

Only then will the Friends of Heigham Park make reference to it on their prominent noticeboard at the entrance to the park, inviting formal responses not through themselves, but via the forbidding council planning process.

That could be too little, too late for a delightful park described in Andy Anderson's 2012 book 'The Captain and The Norwich Parks' as: 'What it lacked in size, Heigham Park more than compensated in charm. A truly delightful small park of peace and beauty, it also possessed quality in its gardens and in the standard of its tennis courts.'

Not for much longer, apparently, although one hopes that better sense will prevail and that Norwich City Council's enviable record for looking after its public parks will survive, along with this little haven of peace, charm and beauty.