Last month I attended a Christmas tea at the Chapel Royal organised by the Friends of the Pavilion Gardens Cafe. There were the usual sausage rolls and
mince pies and talk of Christmas plans, but this year there was also worried discussion about the future of the Royal Pavilion Gardens.
I was impressed by the broad range of people attending this modest event, including two past mayors, a former MP, members of several political parties and community groups such as the North Laine Community Association, the Max Miller Appreciation Society and the Mary Clarke Statue Appeal, which I chair. Almost everyone seemed concerned about plans for the Gardens.
In fact, plans have been under internal discussion since 2017, when the Royal Pavilion and Museum service was under City Council control. However, until last summer, there was almost no community consultation. I first learned that plans were in preparation when, in late 2018, we launched the campaign to get a statue for Mary Clarke, the first suffragette to die for women’s right to vote. Mary and her fellow suffragettes had a close historic connection with the Estate. We suggested the statue be sited as close as possible to the Museum both to be accessible to school parties and to raise awareness of women’s rights and the struggle for democracy.
It swiftly emerged that the Museum service would not support any proposal to have the statue in the Gardens, even in the inconspicuous area we proposed, near the modern Education Pavilion. We were told the 2005 decision to site the statue of comic Max Miller in the Gardens had been a mistake, that it would be moved and that proposals for further statues would be opposed.
The reason given was that the Gardens provide a “unique” example of “Regency design”. We were informed that though ‘Grade II listed’ by Historic England, they recently had been declared At Risk. Also that Historic England was working with the Museum service to restore the Gardens to the original John Nash design, with proposed funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, money which could be lost if our proposal were to be accepted.
The Heritage Lottery Fund stresses its applicants must encourage inclusion and widespread community engagement. Despite this, all suggestions from us to the Museum service that the planned bid might be strengthened by stressing the wider history, including connections with the suffrage struggle, wounded Indian soldiers and British military amputees, have fallen on stony ground. As have our proposals that the Gardens could be better protected by increased security and enforcement; decent lavatories; and removal of inappropriate additions such as rickety wooden fencing and artificial grass.
At first, I took the ‘Nash justification’ seriously. However, over time, it has seemed less compelling. Historic England’s own 1987 on-line entry, which records its decision to list the Gardens, reveals that “virtually nothing of Nash’s layout survived”, including very few trees. The present design is a recreation, as close as possible to Nash’s vision, but adapted to planting and structures which came into being much later. The recreation started in 1982, alongside the Pavilion restoration.
Furthermore, Historic England’s At Risk register of 2017 identifies that “landscape restoration” in the “late 1980s” led to “increased popularity with visitors…affecting their overall condition.” It adds: “The special character of the Gardens is also being eroded by a disparate range of fencing, litter bins, signage and lighting and these combine to weaken the sense of the Gardens’ rich history for visitors.” It states that Historic England will work with the City Council “to develop a Conservation Management Plan which will identify how to redress the balance (my emphasis) and develop a strategy for keeping the historic gardens in good condition for visitors to enjoy for many years to come.”
This acknowledgement of the rich history of the Gardens and the focus on visitor-enjoyment and protecting the overall condition of the Gardens suggests less of a purist focus on the Nash design, which in reality cannot be fully re-instated, than on the importance of good upkeep of the existing Gardens, along with a genuine understanding of their extraordinary heritage. Their “special character” must surely include the period after 1850, when ownership of the estate passed to the people of Brighton.
Previous Conservation Management Plans have barely involved the community. However, recent, slightly more open consultation by the Trust which now manages the RPMS, reveals that while most trees are protected, some mature planting may go. It also confirms that when the Trust submits its imminent final bid for Heritage Lottery funding, it will probably include a proposal for fencing the Gardens.
This has caused concern amongst local people who fear the Trust may damage the gardens, charge for entry or hire the space out for daytime private use. Even those who support overnight closure, for reasons of safety and to protect the Pavilion, worry that the Gardens, like the Pavilion, may become steadily less accessible. Community groups are likely to ask for written guarantees that the Gardens will remain free and open every day of the year.
The formidable Max Miller Appreciation Society, which funded the comic’s statue, complains it has only recently been consulted. Committee members strongly assert their statue is contractually protected from removal without their consent.
The long-standing proposal for a statue of Mary Clarke, “in or very near the gardens”, enjoys widespread community and unanimous all-party Council support, but is not even mentioned in the Trust’s consultation documents. Despite this, trustees of the Mary Clarke Statue Appeal say they will continue to promote the cause of this heroic and inspirational woman.
The Royal Pavilion and Museums Trust has inherited a difficult situation. However, trustees should heed the community, which after all owns the estate, and delay their final bid for Lottery funding until they can be sure they have genuine support.
Trustees should remember that while John Nash made a garden for a prince – they are restoring gardens for the people.