Winckley Square reveals what Friends are for

Ask Patricia Harrison what friends are for and she will be spoilt for choice for an answer.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 20th February 2018, 5:25 pm
Updated Tuesday, 20th February 2018, 6:30 pm
Patricia Harrison (left) and Louise Mor in Winckley Square gardens

For as the Chair of the Friends of Winckley Square she knows more than most just how important a friend is - how they rally to meet immediate needs and also look to help with future projects.

Friends are also for celebrating with along the way.

In a nutshell that is what the 30 active Friends of Winckley Square have sought to do and be since Patricia set up the group in June 2017.

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New paths in Winckley Square

Their vision was to help re-establish the Square in the hearts and minds of residents, local workers and visitors to the city, to ensure it is well used and appreciated and to rescue its history for posterity.

That is not a small ambition.

But for Patricia, who lives on the Square, it has been a natural progression from restoring one of its most splendid properties, Starkie House, with husband Steve, to sharing her love for this city beauty spot.

The Friends are part of the Winckley Square CIC (Community Interest Company) which was set up in 2011 to revive the historic Square .

Winckley Square

Patricia recalled: “It was a group of local businessmen who decided to get together and so something about the Square. It was in a pretty poor state. It was just overgrown and the trees had got out of control.”

She recalls they “pump primed” with initial funds helping to harness a Heritage Lottery Fund and other grants. The Groundwork environmental charity, local residents and Preston Historical Society all became involved too, along with the city and county councils and Preston BID (Business Improvement District). The rest is history.

The Square Gardens’ £1.2m refurbishment was completed in late 2016 and the famous Peel statue restored. Drainage work was carried out, new paths laid, signage listing famous residents and explanatory panels made and installed.

Surprises along the way included uncovering a Victorian culvert, carrying the Syke waterway (which still runs under the gardens) and finding it still in perfect condition.

New paths in Winckley Square

Although the gardens are used as public space Patricia says some residents still own part of them and so were able to help put a brake on previous proposals deemed unsuitable for its future.

The next stage of their regeneration and renewal is, in part, a detective story as Patricia and fellow Friends work to unravel the hidden history of a Square which has always played an important role in Preston’s development.

The first house was built in 1799 by William Cross who laid out his vision for a Georgian Square with three storey properties. The last of the handsome historic properties were built in the 1840s and the 20th century saw further additions.

Three schools Winckley Square Convent, Preston Grammar and Preston Catholic College, (pictured left),solicitors’ firms, barristers’ chambers, the Inland Revenue, a presbytery and even part of Preston College have all been located here. Some properties have remained or been restored as fine town houses, others have changed into flats or been remodelled internally as modern offices.

Winckley Square

If walls could talk there would be many tales to tell. From famous occupants such as millowner Thomas Miller and suffragette Phoebe Hesketh, to couples who chose the Square as the location for wedding photos, all human life is and has been here.

The couples might have married at neighbouring St Wilfrid’s RC church or at the registry office which was formerly located in nearby Guildhall Street.

Today the Square continues to provide a mirror of city life with office workers seeking refuge in its green space for a picnic lunch new businesses rubbing shoulders with longer established enterprises.

It is this life and the Square’s previous life, as a home for the gentry with gates leading in to the Square’s then private gardens, which Patricia and friends are currently on a mission to capture.

The first fruits of their labours, an exhibition entitled “Inside Out” focused on eight properties on the Square and is currently on show in neighbouring St Wilfrid’s Church.

This year the Friends have a special mission to acknowledge and celebrate the role of women marking the centenary of the first UK women getting the vote. Patricia said: “We would like to feature ‘Women of Winckley Square’ in our newsletters and in our guided walks this year and ask for the public’s help. If you have lived, worked or been educated on the Square we would like to hear from you. Or you might have a mother, a grandmother or remember a teacher. Some of you may remember Mother Mary Cephas (1879-1981) who taught several generations at Winckley Square Convent.”

Groundwork managed all the capital works during the Gardens’ refurbishment and now has a key role in helping build its future. Groundwork Project Officer Louise Mor is busy developing a range of events and activities to support the Friends’ group and the CIC.

She said:“It’s important for the future development of the Square that it doesn’t just look nice, as it does at the moment, but also that its stories are revealed and animated.”

Immediate plans include working with three local primary schools. The Friends plan to host a Regency picnic, develop an audio app and extend their walks and talks programme.