Landscaped legacy of a son of Lancashire

For somebody who left school at the age of 12, Thomas Mawson certainly left his mark on the world.

Saturday, 2nd November 2013, 7:00 am
Ridgeway Park Silverdale feature. Joe and Julie Foster and Pepe.

Mention any one of a dozen or more gardens and parks in the North West, and the name of this Scorton-born Edwardian designer, who preferred to be called a landscape architect, will crop up.

Preston’s Haslam Park, the Terraced Gardens at Rivington, Holker Hall, near Grange-over-Sands, and the gardens at the Space Centre in Preston, which are currently undergoing restoration, were all originally Mawson’s work, although some have been extensively redesigned or neglected.

One of his lesser-known gardens, which is now up for sale along with the property on the site, lies down a winding country lane overlooking the sea in Silverdale.

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Ridgeway Park Silverdale feature. Joe and Julie Foster and Pepe.

Ridgeway Park was completed in about 1925, and not only were its gardens designed by Mawson, but also the house itself. It is a rather plain-looking building, built on and from limestone, surrounded by a 22-acre estate in which lie several examples of Mawson’s designs.

Originally called Grey Walls, to reflect to dominance of that colour in the building, the house had a name change 20 years ago, when it was bought by sportswear tycoon Joe Foster.

“I bought it as an investment and rented it out as a care home, so the name Grey Walls wasn’t a great marketing tool,” says Joe, whose name may be familiar as the founder of Reebok.

Now a very sprightly 78-year-old, Joe has never lived in the house, although he and his wife Julie and their Maltese terrier Guiseppe, or Pepe for short, are in residence until a sale is completed.

The buyer will need an imagination; the house was, most recently, a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and they have left their mark. But it would be a cosmetic exercise, albeit a rather pricey one, to restore it as a comfortable home.

More likely, according to Joe, it will be turned into apartments, with the possibility of the two cottages on site being sold as separate lots, each with five acres of land.

In addition to enjoying the house with its beamed ceilings – mercifully, low enough to make the place feel more like a home than the manor house it is described as – the new owners will acquire land that has received the Thomas Mawson stamp, with characteristic walls giving structure to the gardens.

The kitchen garden, sadly, has been lost beneath tarmac, but surrounding one of the cottages is a gently overgrown patchwork of specimen trees, a pergola and borders, all full of promise to anyone able to apply a lot of time and love and some garden nous.

“It can’t be what it was in 1925,” says Joe, pointing out how mature trees now obscure the view of the coast. “But most people who come into the garden fall in love with it. I wouldn’t want it as it was originally; it’s grown into itself and some of it would be best left alone.”

Here he stops at an area peppered with slabs of limestone, which have been incorporated into the design and, left in the hands of nature’s gardener, are now cloaked in a downy layer of moss. As the cloudbursts give way to dappled sunshine through the trees, it is easy to agree with him.

As for the house, with its splendid entrance hall and staircase, oak floors and panelling, its wonderful views of the sunsets and some surprisingly modern touches (integral vacuum system), Joe has his own thoughts. “Ideally, I’d like to see the house converted into apartments so more people can enjoy it here.

“If it stays as it is, there will come a time when that has to happen anyway; everything moves on.”

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You do not have to travel far to see Thomas Mawson’s legacy. Lancashire and Cumbria are peppered with gardens designed by the man who began his working life in the building trade in Lancaster.

Thomas, who was one of four brothers and five sisters, was born on May 5, 1861 and began work after leaving school at 12 to help offset the family’s poverty. Later he moved to a London nursery to gain experience in landscape gardening, moving back north in the 1880s to start the Lakeland Nursery in Windermere with two of his brothers.

The success of this venture made it possible for him to branch out into garden design, beginning with a local property, Graythwaite Hall and eventually graduating to other Cumbrian gardens, whose names will be well-known to enthusiasts, at Holehird and Brockhole.

As his profile was raised, by word of mouth and through winning competitions, he was invited to submit designs further afield and examples of his work can be seen in Monmouthshire, Northamptonshire and Cardiff as well as overseas.

He won a competition to lay the gardens at the Peach Palace in The Hague, advised on the development of the Smoky Mountain National Park in America and accepted positions as president of both the Town Planning Institute and the Institute of Landscape Artists.

Plans, photographs and drawings relating to his work were transferred to Kendal Record Office after the closure of Thomas H Mawson and Son in 1978.