The Evolution of
Darwin Gardens
Millennium Green

A notional scheme to rejuvenate West View Park was first put forward by Frazer Irwin, a member of Ilkley Parish Council Tourist Management Committee, in mid-1997, in response to an appeal for suitable ideas to commemorate the forthcoming Millennium.

One suggestion was to restore the site to its late Victorian/Edwardian appearance, exploiting funds available under a national scheme for urban park renewal. An alternative idea was to increase its tree cover under the 'Woods on your Doorstep' programme supported by the Woodland Trust.

Neither of these ideas gained sufficient strength of support and were not pursued further. However the initial concept found informal support amongst a number of local residents, and was extensively remodelled with the incorporation of many innovative proposals, by Peter Harnett.

The proposals were organised as a number of realistically achievable, self-contained phases, each concentrating on a particular area of the site, but embraced by the common themes of:

A meeting of Ilkley Parish Council in July 1998 agreed to support this scheme in principle, but were unable to offer any financial contribution. The proposals were then considered by Bradford Council Recreation Division, the local authority responsible for maintenance of the site. They too, although impressed by the project's scope, were unable to commit capital expenditure, but offered assistance with initial site clearance, technical advice on construction work, and the provision of a site map on which to base detailed planning of the landscaping and planting layout. Bradford Countryside Service's response was also very supportive, with offers to work in collaboration with their Recreation Division colleagues by contributing labour and materials.

It had been anticipated from its inception, that much of the impetus for the scheme would have to come from local volunteers and fundraising efforts, plus sponsorship and grant aid achieved via the formation of a Charitable Trust to oversee and administer the project. The project was seen as giving all Olicanians, as individuals or groups, an opportunity to celebrate the Millennium by creating a feature which would combine reverence for the past with inspiration for the future, and as such, everyone in the local community was invited to 'lend a hand'.

Following the donation of a purpose-built display unit from a local hardware shop, a comprehensive public exhibition of the project proposals was mounted from December '98 to February '99, rotating between a local supermarket, the public library and a social centre, and was regularly featured in local newspapers. In preparing this display, Dr Harnett, a local resident with  project design experience, used 3D landscape design software to generate walk-through and fly-around simulations of parts of the proposed scheme. The exhibition invited a wide cross-section of the local community to view and comment constructively on the plans, and to put forward their own suggestions, via survey forms provided at the display stand. The scheme was also subsequently fully discussed at an open meeting of Ilkley Parish Council.

Two issues which emerged as major areas of concern were the future of the area used informally as a car park, and possible disturbance to wildlife. Promoters of the scheme had suggested that car-parking might be limited to provision for the disabled, in line with current 'green' transport policy, but there was considerable local opposition to this. It was agreed that whilst the scheme would highlight and encourage access on foot, by bicycle, or public transport, there would be no change to vehicular provision for the foreseeable future. (It was subsequently agreed to exclude the car-parking area from the lease of the site from the local authority). With regard to wildlife, it was explained that the scheme would actually increase habitat diversity and provision for wild creatures, by incorporation of such features as an extensive hedge of mixed native species, and development of a wildflower/butterfly meadow area. In general, the proposals were very favourably received, with the survey showing 77% being in favour of proceeding with the scheme.

After this extensive period of public consultation, a formal submission of the proposals, by Bradford Council Recreation Division, was unanimously approved by their Leisure Services Committee in March '99, and followed by agreement of terms for a lease of the site from the local authority to a Charitable Trust formed by the proposers. The Darwin Gardens Trust was established in May '99, achieving Registered Charity status in July, to administer the scheme by:

The initial phase, completed in the first half of 2000 AD, includes the Millennium Maze. This feature, laid out in flagstones on the site of the former putting green, has been devised to combine aesthetic appeal, an enjoyable recreational challenge, and the inclusion of monuments relating the landscape design to an evolutionary, spiritual theme. The maze path design was created by John Haigh, an Olicanian who has extensively studied this aspect of landscape architecture. The design was based on the fylfot symbol, used on the famous 'Swastika Stone' (an ancient carved rock on the adjacent Rombald's Moor), and the whole of the maze area was planned to be surrounded by a rejuvenated setting of young trees, restored pathways and new seating.

Detailed designs for the planting area were sensitively devised to blend in with the natural surroundings of the site by David Timmons, an ex-Ilkley resident and Land Management graduate at Askham Bryan College. Existing excessive incursions of bracken and scrub have been replaced by:

Progress on this phase received a substantial boost in November '98, by a generous pledge of funding and construction work from a company involved in a residential development occupying sites adjacent to the proposed Darwin Gardens.

Practical work on site commenced in June '99 by volunteers using flame gun treatment of overgrown path surfaces (with gas donated by a local hire centre), preceding herbicide application by Council operatives, to clear a length of path which had been neglected for many years, with the object of forming an unobstructed promenade for visitors to observe construction of the maze.

A questionnaire was distributed to help establish a network of volunteer support for the scheme, under the supervision of Brian Hill, a local resident with extensive experience of organising work parties. Volunteer labour on bracken and scrub clearance started in October, followed by community planting events supported by the Forest of Bradford initiative, when 1000 hedgerow trees were planted by the local community to form the wildlife hedgerow and several groves of 'Family Trees'. During November, turf was stripped from the maze area and relaid to form a grassy promenade giving attractive views alongside the ghyll. Mechanical excavation of the maze foundations by donated contract labour, followed by laying out of the flagstones with the assistance of Bradford Countryside Services, took place during Spring 2000.

As well as donations from individuals, support for the project was received from local charities, churches and businesses (including a supermarket and a plant hire firm) and societies such as the gardeners' association, civic society, and women's group. More unusual expressions of support included donations of a fibreglass flagpole, and a bicycle, presented to the Trust as 'official transport' in recognition of their commitment to 'green' transport policy.

During December 1999, negotiations were commenced with the Countryside Agency, which led to the project becoming included in their 'Millennium Greens' initiative from April 2000. This nationwide scheme, administered by the Agency and funded by the Millennium Commission, sought to create areas of open space to be enjoyed permanently by the local community and looked after by a Charitable Trust, as an enduring and worthwhile way of commemorating the Millennium. Every green is unique - as it is up to each local community to decide what the particular site should look like and what features it should have. The objective was to create 250 such Greens across the country, each of them to include a special 'Millennium' feature; such as the Millennium Maze in Darwin Gardens.

This welcome development provided access to a raft of funds, which taken together with our other sources of financial support, and extensive volunteer labour, ensured completion of all planned features by the end of 2001, and continuing maintenance until the end of 2002.

The Millennium Maze incorporates 1000 flagstones - one for each year of a Millennium, and individuals or families were offered  the opportunity to dedicate stones to be laid in their name. For a modest donation to the Trust, contributors received a decorative map showing the unique location of their stone(s). For a premium contribution, special feature stones were dedicated to local societies, community groups, and businesses; such group donors were able to arrange a date to be present at the laying of their stone, making a memorable social occasion to mark the Millennium. In a similar way, the 1000 newly-planted native trees forming the 'Family Tree' hedgerow and groves are available for personal dedication for a small donation per plant. In time these will grow together to form a complete community for wildlife, and be a living reflection of how individual contributions can co-operate towards mutual benefit within the human community.

In addition to regular publicity in local newspapers, a wealth of information and regular progress updates are maintained on the Trust's own website www.darwingardens.co.uk; whilst 'Ilkley's Most Outspoken Resident' Frazer Irwin has been active in publicising the scheme through the medium of local radio. Frazer was also responsible for securing the services of a major celebrity with local roots (Jilly Cooper) to perform the official opening of the scheme on June 24th (Midsummer Day) 2000.

The official opening was accompanied by several entertainments throughout the afternoon:

and was a well-attended and much-enjoyed occasion for locals and visitors from near and far, becoming the nucleus of a  'Midsummer Millennium Festival' in the locality.

Following the official opening, the next phase of the scheme, included a 'New Beginnings' wildflower meadow, which has been established by a local school, allied to an expanded and improved picnic area on the site. The intention is for pupils to raise and plant a range of suitable wildflowers, which could also attract more butterfly species to the site. Swathes mown through the meadow sward give access to picnic tables around an existing oak tree commemorating the Wharfedale Naturalists' Society.

The Trustees are keenly aware of the site's educational potential, recognising that Darwin Gardens Millennium Green can serve as an inspiring focus for project work over a wide range of ages and subject areas; and have involved schools in several projects of engaging interest to pupils, whilst also contributing to the development of the scheme.

Other features completed include a pebble mosaic based on the theme of the 'Tree of Life' - designed to represent the branching development of species, and the passage of the seasons, combined with references to another ancient rock-carving in the locality. A further mosaic, utilising pebbles collected from the nearby River Wharfe, and sited above a confluence of streams, explores the theme of  'Living Waters', and relates to the local tradition of hydropathic spa treatment, used by Charles Darwin. Another local school successfully fulfilled the imaginative challenge of designing the mosaic panels.

A further feature beside the picnic area is a human sundial carved from a local boulder with hour markers representing sun rays and doubling also as a millstone to commemorate the now-vanished nearby mill, which utilised the water power which is so evident in the site's swiftly-flowing ghylls.

The Trust has repaired pathways to improve access for elderly, infirm or less-able visitors to the site, and have established a long stretch of new pathway by installing an all-weather surface of crushed and rolled sandstone - named 'The Sand Walk' in honour of its famous original at Down House in Kent, which was habitually used by Charles Darwin as a sheltered walk, whilst thinking over his theories.

The main entrance feature, 'Darwin's View', takes the form of a monumental plaque honouring Charles Darwin, mounted on a local boulder and sited overlooking 'North View', the adjacent house in which Darwin stayed during the initial publication of 'The Origin of Species'. This feature was unveiled at our opening ceremony and will form an ideal focus to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th of his magnum opus in 2009AD.

A plaque of similar style, incorporating the site's logo, has been placed at the highest point of the site, adjacent to a belvedere constructed from drystone walling, which overlooks a steep-sided ghyll and commands a magnificent view of Ilkley Moor. Together with a monumental viewpoint seat dedicated to all volunteers and supporters, this 'Millennial Vision' feature marks the successful completion of all the original plans for the Green. It was supported by a grant from Shell Better Britain and was opened in October 2001 by celebrated children's author and local resident John Cunliffe.

The emphasis in all these features has been to make extensive use of durable materials and mostly native wild plant species. Among the most notable successes are the range of recycled plastic seats and picnic tables, and the spectacular displays of primroses, wild daffodils and ferns. The Darwin Gardens Trust and Bradford Council have established satisfactory terms for a joint maintenance agreement to ensure acceptable standards of upkeep on the site.

Millennium Greens are intended to include areas for community events, and one of these celebrated the anniversary of the announcement of Darwin's theory of evolution, which took place on July 1st 1858. We marked this 'enlightening' date by using garden candles to light up the maze area after dusk. The Trust has also played host to the Shell Better Britain '2002 Campaign' and to the 'Darwin Correspondence Project' from Cambridge University Library, which was  exhibited in Ilkley over the same dates that Charles Darwin stayed here in 1859.

During the Bank Holidays and Summer Festival of 2004, a series of 'treasure trails' based on wildlife and features of the Green have been organised principally for children/families. Suggestions for more events in the future include:

Although Countryside Agency support ceased as planned at the end of 2002, prudent financial management and intensive volunteer support has allowed the Trust to continue developing new features over the site. A pond with adjacent living willow arbour, seating area and dipping platform were completed in 2003, and has been very successfully colonised by plant and animal life. During 2004, a network of new pathways were terraced into the side of the ghyll, creating a most attractive waterside walkway, and allowing further planting to enhance biodiversity within this previously-inaccessible area.

Further grants and donations have resulted in: the creation of a permanent nature trail around the Green and erection of a blue plaque feature commemorating the adjacent Wells House hydro (2005); the laying of recycled plastic boardwalks on the waterside walkway and installation of a wheelchair-friendly observation and seating area beside the maze (2006); resurfacing of the main tarmac pathway and erection of protective bollards between the car park and picnic area (2007); and the planting of several dedicated trees on the adjacent slopes of Ilkley Moor opposite the Green (2004,2005,2006).

The site has received several awards recognising its success: a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Conservation Award in 2001, and the Yorkshire in Bloom Millennium Project Trophy in 2002 and 2003, which have encouraged the maintenance and enhancement of this varied and valued environment. The Green has also been awarded a Green Pennant, the Civic Trust's national quality standard for greenspace under management by voluntary groups, in 2004, 2005. 2006 & 2007. 

Looking ahead, it is conceivable that the partnership agreement between the local authority and the Darwin Gardens Trust might be extended to adjacent areas such as the wooded ravine of Mill Ghyll, to form a physically and thematically-linked continuum between the town centre and the open landscape of Ilkley Moor. Darwin Gardens volunteers have produced a pack of illustrated leaflets taking visitors on fascinating guided walks over the Moor and into the town, starting from the Millennium Green.

Amongst more distant developments, one tentative suggestion is to enhance an existing boulder wall by carvings of fossils from the geological record, illustrating evolutionary development through time. This 'Rock of Ages' feature would aim to inform and educate, whilst encouraging respect and reverence for all living things.

The passage of a Millennium is providing an ideal opportunity to create a uniquely inspirational, educational and recreational feature, of enduring value to both residents and visitors of all ages, and a demonstration of the local community's respect for Ilkley's past and determination to act positively for the future of the town and its surroundings.

Peter Harnett (revised March2008) For further detail, see the Archive and Latest News Update

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