Photographs: Charles Francis
February 2014: A conversation with Peter McLaren of the Friends of Thanckes Park
This site was once the ornamental parkland of the grand residence of Thanckes House, which is no longer here. How much is known about its history?
The house was bought by Captain Thomas Graves of the Royal Navy in about 1713, and the Graves family lived here until the 19th century. The park goes right down to the River Tamar. We don’t know who landscaped it, but we know it was done in the Georgian era. It became a public park in the 20th century, and it was a very popular place for promenaders in the 1940s and 50s. There was a massive great swimming pool on the waterfront called Horseshoe Lake, a tea hut in the old quarry, and a bandstand. Eventually the swimming pool closed, and it was filled in in the early 1960s. After that, not much was done to the park for years. But it was such a lovely place, and I thought it would be great to have a crack at doing it up a bit.
Where did you begin?
The starting point was the walled garden at the top of the park, near where Thanckes House used to be. It was being used as a council tip, and was a real mess. I was involved with the Torpoint Allotment Association, and the site was offered to us, but I said to the council: “You can’t put allotments here — it’s a piece of history.” We got some money from the National Lottery Community Spaces scheme, and then Alan Walker, a local garden designer, drew up plans for borders with lots of different shrubs and trees to give colour all year round, with a café, a stage at the front, and a lawn in the centre. We called it Benodet Park Walled Garden of Friendship to celebrate the link with our twin town in Brittany. The Benodet Twinning Association presented us with a yew tree, and in response to us having done Benodet Park, they’ve planted Torpoint Corner in the garden of the mayor’s office in Benodet. The backdrop to the flower border is a tree planted by Mike Pearn, the mayor of Torpoint, and fronting it is a bench presented by our twinning committee. It even has a British red telephone box.
What was the next step in the overall scheme for Thanckes Park?
We decided to create a woodland walk, and we got TCV (the Conservation Volunteers) and Royal Navy volunteers to cut a path through the woods in preparation for having a wooden walkway with a bridge across the ravine. Sadly, we failed to get Lottery funding, but the surveys and archaeological studies which were done will stand us in good stead for future applications. There are quite a few historic trees, like oak and chestnut, which need preserving. Melissa Ralph, landscape architect at Cornwall Council, has drawn up plans for the park, and we have had a lot of help from her and Alan Jeffery, an environment officer. Cynthia Gaskell-Brown, a local historian, has really delved into the heritage and history of the park, and Mike Pearn, who is a Cornwall councillor as well as mayor, has given us fantastic support.
What are your plans for 2014 and beyond?
The Cornish Gorsedh ceremony will be taking place here in September. It’s a perfect place to have it, as this is a historic site. The Gorsedh is an international event, and there is great interest in it being shown in Benodet: they really value their Celtic identify in Brittany. Apart from that, the Friends of Thanckes Park will just keep ploughing on. Alan and Melissa are attending a meeting about a scheme called Rethinking Parks in January. Now we have a blueprint, we’re in a good position to apply for more grants. The plans for the waterfront are stunning — we’re looking at having a promenade and maybe a duck pond. People say to us: “Don’t muck it up”. I can understand that — it’s a beautiful, natural place, and we only want to make it better.
Last year, Thanckes Park was awarded Queen Elizabeth II Field status to mark the Diamond Jubilee. What does this mean for the future of the park?
It is our biggest achievement so far. We were awarded £4,000 by Fields in Trust, which ran the Queen Elizabeth II Fields Challenge. Although the population of Torpoint is only about 10,000, we mustered around 500 votes and came in fourth in the UK. The people of Torpoint really showed their support for Thanckes Park. As a Queen Elizabeth II Field, it is now protected as an open space.