Author: Georgia Roworth
The first image that springs to mind when I think of Christchurch Park in Ipswich, is the timid deer, peering at me from between the autumnal trees.
Perhaps it isn’t entirely unique to see a deer in such a setting, but given that the park is situated barely a minute’s walk from the bustling town centre, I think it’s rather telling of its natural beauty.
Entering through the tall iron gates, the stone step worn by hundreds of years of feet, a visitor’s attention is immediately captured by the elegant sixteenth century Tudor brick mansion now known as ‘Christchurch Mansion’.
The impressive building is home to an art collection including works by Suffolk-born Constable and Gainsborough, and preserved rooms containing furniture and clothing from throughout history. From time to time the mansion hosts other exhibitions, which have recently included Rodin’s classic sculpture ‘The Kiss’ and Cardinal Wolsey’s Angels.
The narrow corridors and grand balcony place the visitor in a by-gone time, with each room made to feel as it would have in the days of the Withypoll family, who built the mansion. Popular displays include the Victorian toys and games, featuring an intricate doll’s house with working lights, and the Tudor kitchen, complete with a mock hog-roast on the turning spit. It truly feels like stepping back in time.
Close to the beautiful walled ‘Wolsey Garden’ at the rear of the mansion, is the first of two ponds, a favourite place for local children to feed ducks and geese during the summer months. Benches line the ‘Round Pond’, which is believed to have stocked fish for the monastery that existed on the site until the sixteenth century. Food purchased from the mansion’s tea room is often eaten while watching birds skim the pond’s water.
Further down the track, are the curved wooden walls of the ‘Reg Driver Visitor Centre’, which is named after the first chairman of the Friends of Christchurch Park organisation. Inside the centre, booklets detail many stories, including that of ‘Mabel the Owl’. The rare tawny became something of a celebrity when she nested in a Christchurch Park tree a decade ago, and many await her return every year, so many, that the park has marked Mabel’s favourite tree with a statue to aid those hoping to catch a glimpse of the magnificent bird.
The children’s play area gives way to an open expanse of greenery, a popular sledging destination when snow blankets the town. Clusters of flowers surround the tree trunks, dogs race through long grass to return tennis balls to their owners. Fresh air is aplenty this side of the park, giving the impression one is deep in the countryside, the hum from nearby roads barely audible despite the close proximity.
A refreshment hut selling ice-creams and drinks makes for a good spot to rest or play a game of pètanque in the sunshine.
Throughout the changing months, the park hosts a variety of festivals and celebrations. Perhaps the best known, is Ipswich Music Day, the largest free one-day music festival in the UK.
During July, six stages of live music, and a plethora of fairground rides and street food vans, pack the park, entertaining thousands of visitors. From country to rock, americana to jazz, there is something for every music fan to enjoy.
Similarly, the annual bonfire night celebrations attract a mass of revellers, all in anticipation of the extravagant display the park is renowned for.
On past the table tennis tables, the next area of historical note is the ‘Cabman’s Shelter’. The shelter was used to provide a dry space for horse-drawn cabs drivers in Ipswich in the late nineteenth century, and it now resides at the Westerfield Road entrance to the park. It adds a spark of interest to the wide expanse of greenery, marking the start of the ‘Mayor’s Avenue’, that will take the walker into the wooded area of Christchurch Park.
Active visitors will find plenty to occupy them as they head towards the arboretum. With a fitness trail, five hard-surface tennis courts nestled into the treeline and open spaces for team sports, there are plenty of activities to fill empty hours.
Walking through a picturesque brick tunnel, and arriving at the arboretum, there is a steady stream of dog-walkers basking in the calm atmosphere and strolling among the woodland of ancient trees. People read books on the benches and take photographs of the colourful wildlife. The grassy slopes are over-looked by the stunning Ipswich School building, its spikey architecture echoed in the elegant ornamental ‘Brett Fountain’ that stands in the school’s shadow.
There are many benches and saplings dedicated to loved ones in this area of the park and surrounded by such flourishing nature, it’s easy to see why.
Among the variety of giant trees in the arboretum, is ‘The Shakespearean Memorial Tree’. This breathtaking blue atlas cedar was planted in eighteen-sixty-four, to mark the three hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Its sweeping branches tickle the ground below, standing strong despite being struck by lightning during a storm that caused many other trees to fall.
Walking back alongside the ‘Wilderness Pond’, dozens of squirrels scamper past, through the well-tended flower beds and up gnarled trunks. Visitors pass the manicured bowling green and the one-hundred-year-old restored ‘Armillary Sphere Sundial’, its beautiful white stone gleaming in the sunlight. The sound of chattering sparrows fills the air, ducks swooping in to land on the overgrown islands in the centre of the pond.
Past the small but serene peace garden, one arrives at the sombre cenotaph and war memorial, just a short walk from where we began. Coated in red poppies every November, the list of inscribed names upon the monument is truly humbling. Close by is a monument to the Boer War, and visible rising high upon a hill is a monument to the Ipswich Martyrs.
Not far from where the cenotaph stands, is the oldest feature of the park, a six-hundred-year-old English yew tree. This tree has stood on the grounds since the reign of Henry V, or perhaps even earlier. It is older than the mansion and all the veteran oaks that cover the grounds, standing guard over the stunning seventy acres of rolling landscape.
Exiting the park, the last view is once again of the lush green lawn leading up to the grand entrance of the mansion, a memorable and iconic sight.
This guide was written by:
Suffolk Writers Group