A cherished Leeds park is on the cusp of its centenary.
Middleton Park became a public park in 1920 when it was leased to Leeds Corporation by Wade’s Charity.
But the site’s history goes back much further than that and it is steeped in mining and railway heritage.
The first documented reference to coal mining in the area was in 1632 when the Manor of Middleton, including its woods and coal pits, was mortgaged to Robert Pierrepoint, Earl of Kingston upon Hull, for 999 years.
It is also site of the world’s oldest commercial railway. It was founded in 1758 to take the coal down to Leeds. And it is still going strong as The Middleton Railway Trust still carries passengers between Hunslet to the outskirts of the park.
But there is much more to the 630 acre park than its industrial past. Frances Jones, the treasurer of the Friends of Middleton Park, said: “The mining is just one aspect of the park. You can’t avoid seeing the remains as you go round. A community archeology survey found 278 visible remains of mining. But there is a vast amount of activity that goes on in the park.”
The park is home to an equestrian centre, and the South Leeds Aero Modellers Society also flies its planes there. There is also an urban bike park and two cafes. Another prominent feature is St Mary’s Church, which abuts the park. The Brandlings, who used to own the Middleton estate, gave the land for the church and provided the money for its building along with the community.
Frances said the park was also rich in terms of habitat for birds and fungi. And paths have been mown through the grassland to let nature ‘re-wild’ the site.
But it hasn’t always been this tranquil. The park has come a long since a group of concerned people got together at the end of 2003 amid fears the park was becoming run down and a site for burnt out cars.
A group of 60 people, including residents and local councillors, attended a Public meeting in November 2003 and decided something must be done.
The Friends of Middleton Park was formed and it has been on a mission of transformation ever since. Frances said: “Over the years we have really turned it round. It’s very rare you see a burnt out car there now.”
The city council maintains the park and woodlands, while the fiends group has a different role.
Frances added: “Our aim is not to do maintenance work as many other friends group do. Our aim is to put on events to attract people down to the park. And once they have been we hope they will be so blown away with this fantastic green space in the middle of inner city Leeds that they will come back on a regular basis and use it.”
Feedback from the public suggests just that. People who once thought it was “a dreadful park” now think it is wonderful and are amazed to discover it on their doorstep.
The friends group has also helped boost investment into the park. In 2010 the friends teamed up with Wade’s Charity and the city council to apply for Heritage Lottery Funding. In the end around £2m was spent in the park on a new visitors’ centre, improved entrances, a new performance area, paths and new signs.
Frances, who is proud of the friends group’s achievements, added: “We are one of the major city parks and almost as big as Roundhay Park. We have an immense diversity of things in the park and events going on.”
There are plenty of things to see and do at Middleton Park this summer.
This Bank Holiday weekend there is a kite festival on Saturday and Sunday. The Northern Kite Group will put on displays between 11am and 4pm on the Clearings, which can be approached from the Visitor Centre, the Bike Hub or from the John Charles Centre for Sport.
On Tuesday, May 28 Leeds City Council’s park and countryside rangers will lead a bug hunt as part of the free school holiday play activities from 1pm to 3pm. Later that day, from 6.30pm to 8pm, the Friends of Middleton Park will do a request walk where people can decide which aspect of park history to explore or which part of the vast site to examine.
There is another free school holiday activity on Wednesday, May 29 when Amy from Wild Apple Play will lead a den building session from 1pm to 3pm.
Looking further ahead there is the annual open air Shakespeare show by Oddsocks. The theatre company will stage A Midsummer’s Night Dream on Tuesday, July 2 from 7pm to 9.30pm. It’s a free event.
The biggest event in the site’s calendar is the annual Great Middleton show on Sunday, September 8 when there will be a wide mix of events ranging from art and crafts, flowers, live music, children’s entertainment and ferret racing.
For more information about its events, which are all free, please see: www.fomp.co.uk/html/events.htm.