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Newgate Fields: a beautiful wooded picnic area?

Bohemia born and bred Vic Chalcraft photographed in his beloved Newgate Fields

Bohemia born and bred Vic Chalcraft photographed in his beloved Newgate Fields

Local residents are campaigning to get Newgate Fields and Thorpe’s Wood restored to their former beauty and the path made safe for walkers. Vic Chalcraft of Aldborough Road, who is spearheading the campaign, remembers them as  “a beautiful wooded picnic and play area, not the stinging-nettle covered area it is today.” He said, “We’ve been fighting for years to have it kept reasonable. We would like it mown 3-4 times per year as an area for people to picnic in, children to play, and  people to go chestnutting. We have also asked for dog-bins.”

TREES
“All the time Hastings Parks Department employed its own gardeners it was kept in good condition,” said Mr Chalcraft. “It was always mown regularly, and the path kept in good order. There were even horses grazing there in the 1970s. Then slowly they went back to mowing only four times a year and then less still until the situation got as bad as it is today.The majority of trees there now are self-sown since the 1970s. Until then, at the bottom by the steps where it’s now  overgrown wood, was open ground. Only about four of the original trees are left: the Indian chestnut, a birch, a diseased laburnum and a big fir tree. There was also a Canadian maple which was recently chopped down. Until 1987 there were several different paths through the wood. After the storm they became overgrown. I’m told they planted lots of trees there after the storm, but people pinched them.”

PATHS
A major hurdle residents are having to overcome is getting the relevant authorities to agree which of them will pay for the upkeep of the area.  Cllr Andrew Cartwright explained that Hastings Borough Council is responsible for parks and open spaces, but the path is a dedicated public right of way, and as such is the responsibility of East Sussex County Council. Mr Chalcraft said, “There’s about twenty yards of path at the Newgate Road end which has a camber where people slip. We want it levelled (but not made up). A lot of people use that path. They all express the same concern – that twenty yards of dangerous camber. Some people are now frightened to walk on it.” As the Voice photographer was at the site, a dog-walker slipped and fell over at that very spot. Several yards at the Newgate Road end were covered with plastic mesh in 2007 but Mr Chalcraft explained that residents were not complaining about that part but the part further along. He and the passing dog-walker said the plastic mesh gets slippery when wet. Other problems are people living in adjoining houses dumping rubbish over their fences, which forces the path aside to avoid it, and badgers undermining the path.

“At the end of last year we put in a petition with about forty names and as a result some work was done.” said Mr Chalcraft. “They mowed a path and used a bit of weedkiller, but nothing has been done since then, and now it’s as bad as it was before. A woodland  needs to be managed, not just left neglected. Lots of the self-sown trees there are sycamores – weed trees. There was ragwort and Japanese knotweed. They sprayed some knotweed but there’s still some there. The bird-life has gone, though there’s still a few butterflies. There used to be all sorts of birds – cuckoos, bullfinches, owls and many others.”
If the residents’ campaign succeeds, Newgate Fields could once again be a valuable “green lung”, providing leisure opportunities and enjoyment for local people.  Mr Chalcraft is in no doubt about the incipient beauty just waiting to be restored. He pointed out the Indian chestnut, one of the four remaining original trees, to the Voice reporter, saying “You come along in the spring and look at that – it’s one of the most beautiful trees in Hastings.”

HISTORY OF NEWGATE FIELDS (Dec 2008)

Before the first world war Newgate Fields were a drying area for washing, used by washerwomen who took in laundry. Then the area was turned into allotments for the soldiers returning from the 1914-18 war. It was cultivated all the way down to the steps in Upper Park Road. A spring in the woods was used by the allotment holders to water vegetables and was good enough to drink. As well as growing vegetables and fruit, people kept pigs, chickens and geese there.
About 1930-33 Alderman Thorpe gave the land to the people of Hastings and it was taken under the jurisdiction of Alexandra Park. In the late 1930s Park Superintendent Cherry had it laid out, cut and tidied up, and had flowering trees and shrubs planted, including magnolias, laburnums and  flowering cherries, to turn it into a picnic and play area. After WW2 a lot of these trees were taken out and replanted in the Park.

ANDREW CARTWRIGHT local councillor Andrew says “I am pressing the Council to include the cost of maintaining Newgate Fields in their budget for 2009-10 and subsequent years. Upkeep of Newgate Fields has been a victim of responsibility being split between the Borough and County Councils. However, following pressure from residents and councillors, Council officers have informed me that they have reached an “understanding” with the County Council that it will pay at least part of the cost of maintaining Newgate Fields.”

DEREK IRELAND Hastings Borough Council Highways Manager, confirmed that the footpath is a public right of way on foot and that “the highway authority has a duty to ensure that the route is accessible to the public.” He added, “In terms of responsibility for the surrounding areas, I would assume that this would fall to the Council’s Parks and Open Spaces Manager.”

MARIAN HOLLINGSWORTH Amenities Admin Officer for Parks and Open Spaces, confirmed that Newgate Wood is owned by Hastings Borough Council. She said, “It is classified as an Environmental Area.  The area at the Amherst Road entrance is cut once a year in early September to a height of 75mm and cuttings left. The remainder of the site is cut twice a year,  in April and August, to a height of 75 mm. The contractor is required to maintain the height of the grass as specified and not on a frequency basis. The footpaths are maintained as a one metre wide swathe.”

COMMENTS

PETER POWELL writes (Jan 2009)

Dear Sir, I was very interested in your article on Newgate Woods, or Thorpe’s Woods as we called it. Alderman Thorpe gave it to the people of Hastings in the early 1930s. That is why they can’t destroy it. In total it is about eleven acres. The parks department put a lot of lovely trees in there, but people kept making off with them.  As boys we all used to play in the woods. Half-way down there is a bank which we boys used to call Devil’s Dyke.

We used to have battles there, pretending we were in the Crusades. We called the path the Black Path. There were iron railings by the side of it to stop us boys getting onto the allotments. We did though! A woman kept chickens half-way down. My friend Bushy Bryant and I used to help her when we were about eight (1928). We went on Saturdays when we didn’t have any school.

Bushy used to clean out the chicken houses and I used to carry all the water once a week for her to use for the chickens. I got it from the great spring down there. You could drink it. It was the overflow from Amherst Road Waterworks.

Peter Powell, Salisbury Road.

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