Today I visit Abington Park. It is a bright, cold December morning, dry under foot and the air is crisp. I have dropped my son at band practice, so now the dog and I have time for a bracing walk. I park the car along one of the side avenues with houses set back from the main road and enter through a side gate.
Situated in the centre of Northampton, the land was originally occupied by a village, but in 1892 it was cleared, emparked and donated to the people of the town by Lord and Lady Wantage. Adjacent land was later added and in 1897 the park was first opened to the public in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
The Abbey was converted into a museum and the bandstand and bowling greens were added soon afterwards. Some of the early buildings from that period still remain, including the 17th century thatched cottages that were used as the rectory up until 1846.
The park also boasts newer facilities, including an aviary, tennis courts, a boating lake and twenty acres of the most popular walks in the town.
Located within a good lofted hook shot for six runs from Northants County Cricket Ground (home of The Steelbacks) is the pub opposite the main entrance. Cunningly called the Abington Park Hotel, the pub now has its’ own micro-brewery and used to be one of my favourite haunts as a teenager. But gone are the days when I used to meet up with friends for a few pints, before heading into town in my chinos. Happy days – how utterly cool and original I was back then.
Thirty years later and I still am — wrapped up in a quilted coat, flat cap and my favourite walking boots.
Despite its’ location, the park does not feel enclosed. The chilling wind has clear passage via the wide-open spaces — a reminder to everyone to keep moving. I follow the tree-lined avenue down to the lake but then cut across the grass to avoid the crowds that are noisily feeding the ducks. Instead, clarion voices from the football pitch a few hundred metres away carry alpha male cliches that I half-expect at this standard in a public park: ‘Down the line Danny, down’, ‘Steve-o, pass…nice one Steve-o.’ Their commitment must not waver at the final whistle, as I glance over to see the changing rooms. Any chance of comfort and a hot shower seems remote in such a bleak, square building with a run of sharp twisted metal over the entrance to deter ambitious juveniles. It looks more like a bunker from a war zone than a community funded friendly facility.
We navigate through the spinney and come out the other side onto what used to be the fairway of a golf course. The remnants of the original stone Hunting Gates stand weathered and tall looking down on us as we cross a boggy brook.
We climb the bank and find the best spot with open views across the park and take a moment to sit on the wooden bench.
The cold pierces through my jeans and I soon realise we cannot stay long. The late afternoon sun and the unspoilt views across the park are pleasing and we both exchange pleasantries with other walkers; although our methods differ. I deliver a smile and the occasional ‘hello’ and ‘lovely day isn’t it?’, whilst the dog just sniffs their bottoms. My approach seems more polite, though the dog’s perhaps more genuine.
As we begin to make our way back, we come to the old stone water tower. Built in 1678 as a combined Well-house and Dovecote, it remains an attractive feature. Grade II listed and protected by Historic England (Ref:1372155), the pigeons use it as their preserve. The door is barred and locked but I wonder if this could be a nice little local tourist attraction. It might bring people in to enjoy the surrounding views, though I suspect Health and Safety would not allow unattended use. I abandon this thought, take a photo and walk on.
We soon arrive back at the main entrance and cross Park Avenue South to return towards the car. But the best landmark of all is saved for last – The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.
The oldest parts of this beautiful building – the lower part of the tower and south doorway – date from the twelfth century. Although, sadly it is not mentioned in The Doomsday Book, the earliest record of it occurs in 1224, when Isabel de Lisors, Lady of the Manor, presented Peter of Irchester to be vicar. The Church has changed much over the last eight hundred years and most notably has a slate memorial inside the Lady Chapel, of Lady Elizabeth Bernard, the granddaughter of William Shakespeare. She was the only grandchild he ever knew, because his three cousins were born after his death in 1616. She was the last of his direct descendants, which is exciting though I can’t pretend to feel any presence of the great man.
The Thursby memorial, recognises the contribution from two hundred years of service as Lords of Abington, which included making improvements to the manor house and adding a new water supply. Eight coffins of the family are placed in a vault beneath the chapel.
After a few photos, looking north-west across the graveyard, I notice the regular care and attention to plant life, which includes climbing rose bushes. These will be magnificent during the summer and it is no wonder the church has become such a popular spot for people to tie the knot.
I leave the grounds after taking a few photos and head back to the car, having enjoyed an afternoon of culture and fresh air. Thankfully, the heater soon warms me up and the towel on the back seat absorbs the mess from my happy, but muddy wet dog.
I return later that night to take some photos of the church. The graveyard feels different, more sinister now as a cloak of darkness and cold has descended over everything. I feel quite alone as I approach the main tower using the eastern path, shoulders hunched, hands firmly in coat pockets.
Distorted shadows leap and dance on the ancient stone walls as the icy wind shakes the trees.
The deceased inhabitants have been waiting all day for some privacy to begin their discussions. There is much for them to gossip about amongst the headstones from several hundred years of events in the town and no visitors to correct their outdated opinions.
I smell his smoke before I see him. A dark shadow sat alone on a bench about twenty feet away. The red tip of his cigarette glows as he takes a long drag, filling his lungs with disease. I stop for a moment, frozen to the spot, unsure whether to go on. I fiddle nervously with my phone, take some more photos and leave, quickening my pace as I hurry down the path.
I am relieved to reach the sanctuary of the car and drive off wondering who the figure was, but then feel silly and go home.