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Castle Park - transforming historic Bishop’s Stortford site

PUBLISHED: 11:24 06 March 2017 | UPDATED: 13:22 07 March 2017

Flowering rush - a native of slow-flowering water. The project will allow light to reach the Stort and its banks, encouraging plants and wildlife to return (Thinkstock)

Flowering rush - a native of slow-flowering water. The project will allow light to reach the Stort and its banks, encouraging plants and wildlife to return (Thinkstock)

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National Lottery funding will help transform an historic park in the centre of Bishop’s Stortford, writes Countryside Management Service projects officer Gregory Ault

In the heart of Bishop’s Stortford, a historic market town in east Hertfordshire, are Castle Gardens and Sworder’s Field – both testaments to the town’s rich historical and natural heritage, but currently under-utilised and somewhat neglected.

In partnership with the landowners, East Herts Council and Bishop’s Stortford Town Council respectively, Countryside Management Service has developed plans to combine these adjacent green spaces into one vibrant area called Castle Park. The project aims to protect and showcase the site’s heritage, enhance wildlife habitats and improve public access and enjoyment. The project was given a major boost at the start of this year thanks to an initial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and BIG Lottery Fund’s Parks for People programme. This will allow CMS to develop its initial ideas into detailed plans.

History

At the centre of Castle Park are the remnants of Waytemore Castle, a Scheduled Monument. It’s origins are thought to date back to around 950, when it was a Saxon fort on the frontier of Viking Danelaw and the Kingdom of Wessex, perhaps controlling the fording point across the river Stort. It was later appropriated by the Normans and converted into a motte and bailey structure. Set 12m high on a defensive earth mound, ruins of that castle are still evident today.

The condition of the structure has deteriorated over the years, with public access currently restricted. Specialist conservation work as part of the Castle Park project will protect the masonry and allow the mound to be reopened for visitors to discover and explore.

The castle would have once been surrounded by buildings such as stables, barracks, a chapel and a workshop. Archaeological surveys will be carried out across the park to find out if there are any remnants of these hidden beneath the surface.

More recent history is evident nearby, where a war memorial commemorates the 314 soldiers from Bishop’s Stortford who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars. These remain a major focus of the annual Remembrance Day parade held in the town.

A redesigned park layout will make the castle and war memorial prominent features of the landscape, while the medieval history of the site will be brought to life through a series of events.

Wildlife

Running through the middle of Castle Park is the river Stort, one of the defining natural features of this part of the county. The river had a major impact on the growth of Bishop’s Stortford in the 18th century as a trading route for the town’s thriving malt industry.

A renewed effort to enhance habitats along the Stort catchment has seen the reintroduction of water voles and improved habitat for otters. Through Castle Park, however, the river remains in a poor condition, where a dark channel shades out life and hides it from public view. As part of the project, major habitat improvements will draw in wildlife from surrounding areas, bringing nature into the heart of the town, while a new river crossing will be installed to provide greater interaction with the river, allowing people to see the wildlife.

Castle Park will act as a gateway from the town centre to the wider countryside. Following the Stort north takes you along a corridor of green spaces to the edge of the town, offering a scenic and enjoyable route to discover the great outdoors.

Health & community

The reinvigorated area will be an excellent place to get active and healthy. One of the first things CMS wants to establish is an expanded programme of Hertfordshire Health Walks. An improved path network will make the park accessible to elderly and disabled people and a new social space will be created for young people to call their own. Alongside this, changes to the existing buildings will provide an improved community space alongside a new café and toilets.

Over the next 18 months the partnership will be holding a number of events as the project is developed. We will also be establishing a new friends group that will help shape the legacy of the park. If you are interested in participating in the project please do get in contact.

The Countryside Management Service works with communities in Hertfordshire to help them care for and enjoy the environment. For more information, and to join the Castle Park friends group, visit hertfordshire.gov.uk/cms, email northeast.cms@hertfordshire.gov.uk or call 01992 588433.

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