• One hundred years 16 June 2017 | View comments

  • 6th June 2017 | By David Jolley 

    This weekend we celebrated the Centenary of John Leigh Park. The 14 acres were previously the estate of Oldfield Hall which has a history going back several hundred years. But by 1917 the hall had become neglected and had been demolished for safety. Earlier the Earl of Stamford had sold a tranche of the land along the Oldfield Road border to Mark Clark who built a ribbon of splendid semidetached villas, one of which is now our home. The remainder of the land he sold to John Leigh.

    John Leigh’s father, also John Leigh, had established a family business in cotton and cotton waste and had become very wealthy, moving the family from north Manchester to the more affluent Sale. That was where our benefactor John grew up. Although he was clever he did not stay on in education but joined the business and boosted its earnings. He moved the short distance to Altrincham as a young man and began a career of good works, making generous gifts from the family fortune.

    The times were dominated by the First World War. John made over the former family home in Sale for a rehabilitation unit for returning soldiers. He followed this by the purchase of Townfield House near St George’s church. This was converted to a rehabilitation unit for injured officers. The Oldfield Hall estate came close to the site of Townfield House and might offer benefits of exercise for the officers.

    That potential was certainly there, but John gave the land to be used for townsfolk of Altrincham of any standing and in perpetuity, naming the park after his father.

    The centenary has given us encouragement to research the history. A new brief history of the park has been written and can be purchased from Friends of John Leigh Park. http://roundhoundcouk.ipage.com/whats-on.html

    Even more information on the history is available on the website itself. We have collected stories from individuals who have known the park, often for very many years. We will continue this exercise and perhaps write another short book devoted just to these. The mix of formal history and oral history is fascinating.

    Our celebrations this weekend used the Big Lunch format which we have joined since 2014. https://www.edenprojectcommunities.com/thebiglunchhomepage

    Threaded into this were elements of the first real celebration of the gift to the town, soon after the war in 1919. There was a march from the middle of town. We did this with the generous support from the police. There were to be Mounted Police but they had to withdraw because of demands on person power since the Manchester bombing two weeks ago. Sea Cadets also withdrew because of a family event affecting their leaders. But we marched with a brass band, the Air Cadets and Scouts, guided by volunteer marshals of differing shapes and sizes, resplendent in Hi Vis.

    They came through the streets, across the A56 and down to the park where they waited their time to allow the warm-up dancers to complete their Charleston before the ‘troops’ homed in on the stage to be received by the VIPs. Graham Brady MP was joined by two of Sir John Leigh’s grandchildren. Graham knows the park well but for Peregrine and Corinna, this was a first sight of the legacy their grandfather gave to us. They were charming and clearly greatly moved to walk this piece of the earth. We had reflective, inspiring and caring speeches and a Black Mulberry Tree was planted. The Streford Brass Band struck up and gave us tunes and style which would have been entirely at home in 1917, 1919 and for many of the hundred years that have passed since those dreadful but wonderful days.

    The weather held. Families gathered around their picnics. There were several hundred in the crowd, listening, talking, trying their hand at games, crafts, competitions or just gazing at the E type Jaguar, Triumph Mayfair and Lotus. Leonard Cheshire were with us to share their centenary celebration of their founder’s birth and to bring liveliness and acts of kindness from their Can-Do project. https://www.leonardcheshire.org/support-and-information/life-and-work-skills-development/can-do

    Wood turners demonstrated their skills and passion. A Health Walk talked followers through some of the trees which give the park its character. These included the 400-year oak which we believe was planted as a gesture of defiance against Cromwell by the owners of the hall at that time. They subsequently fled to Ireland for their lives. We saw how exercise with buggies keeps young mums in good shape. Many came mainly for the crazy games with water and much screaming and running about. Or the calmer but gripping craft of hat making through the ages.

    We had the winner of The John Leigh Park Centenary Bowling Challenge cup. Arthur told us he first bowled here 1948. We had winners of 5 a side football for young and younger teams.

    And all the time there were conversations, ice-cream if you wished, and a good old fashioned feeling of belonging and trusting. Music drifted over all. More brass, the Besozzi trio, and a mix of local Jam musicians and singers which gave anyone who would the chance to sing. We all knew most of the words. 

    The finale came from 55 voices of the Altrincham Choral Society singing with power and tenderness, Songs from the Trenches. Not a dry eye.

    Official activities wound down 3.30. One family was still with us at 9.

    Thanks to the Eden Project for an idea. Thanks to Sir John Leigh for the park.

    Thanks for the continuing threads which hold us.

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