Upton House – ‘secret’ no more

Upton House from on high. Photo by Wayne Stroud

For years it was one of Poole’s best-kept secrets, but lately Upton House and Country Park has been making much more of its many charms. It is now one of the town’s top ten things to do on the inescapable TripAdvisor review site and last year welcomed more than 670,000 visitors, a twelve per cent increase on the previous year and a number it is confidently expected to surpass this year.

Sixty years ago the last private owner, William Wigan Llewellin, gave the house and 55 acres of land to the old Poole Corporation and in keeping with a somewhat chequered history, it has since endured its share of ups and down. Now, though, the new Discovery Project is the subject of a meticulously planned £1.8 million Heritage Lottery Fund bid to expand the park, restore historical features and re-instate lost landscapes.

In a two-stage process, a decision is expected in December on an initial £165,000 development phase to advance ideas before the go-ahead is given for the delivery stage in the autumn of 2019. If the bid is successful, over the following three years a major new welcome centre will appear with improved facilities for volunteers, there will be new infrastructure with better pathways and signage, a new bird-watching facility will be created and Coopers Yard will be repaired to improve access to the Walled Garden. The Borough of Poole has pledged £170,000 and the Friends of Upton Country Park charity, the lifeblood of the estate’s ardent volunteer activity, has earmarked a further £125,000. That leaves potentially £65,000 to be found by local fundraising and sponsorship.

‘People really like coming here,’ says Visitor Services Officer Emma Coveney. ‘There’s lots to do and it’s free to enter. Families love it and we have grandparents now who came here as children bringing their own grandchildren. It’s very much a community facility and every penny we make – and that includes car parking fees – goes back into running the park.’

This summer’s Upton House Music Festival drew thousands of revellers over three nights with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Sir Bryn Terfel, American superstar Michael Bolton, and ’eighties survivors Billy Ocean, Kim Wilde and Toyah Willcox. Other major outdoor events include the popular annual Poole Town & Country Show, the first Gung-Ho! Dorset 5k run with inflatables, and Striking Chords, a Poole and Bournemouth schools music performance in the Walled Garden.

Upton House. Photo by Liz Mace Photography

‘We’re always open to new ideas and Upton is becoming a destination in itself with people travelling from Dorchester and even as far afield as Swindon and Bristol for the big events, then returning to have a closer look at the park and what it has to offer,’ adds Emma.

The grade II* listed Upton House, 200 years old in 2018, is very much its own best friend as far as income generation is concerned and an increasingly popular, fully licensed venue for weddings and other functions. On the ground floor the entrance hall, library, dining room, drawing room and games room have been extensively restored and are regularly hired out.

It is all a far cry from 1957, when Poole’s cash-strapped corporation despaired at the running costs and advertised for a tenant. Eventually, in 1961, the exiled Prince Carol of Romania took a 22-year lease, only to hand it back in 1969 as he was overcome by impecuniosity. The house lay empty and the grounds untended for years until the Friends group formed and the park re-opened to the public – for free – in May 1976, some months after the completion of the Upton bypass. A year or so later, the Friends’ kiosk opened and has been a vital source of revenue ever since.

Careful but concerted management has seen the grounds extended over the years, but they are now midway through their most accelerated growth spurt in recent history as the Borough of Poole re-allocates adjacent land to the park in four phases as Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) to offset local housing development. It is a substantial investment in the park, which now extends to some 150 acres of woodland, meadows and shoreline, as well as pathways connecting the parkland to urban Hamworthy and Upton.

‘It’s all about encouraging people into the park,’ says Emma. ‘There’s an acknowledgement that over-use of Canford Heath and Upton Heath has taken its toll, so we’re making Upton Country Park more attractive to a range of groups, from families with children to dog-walkers, cyclists and runners, as well as nature enthusiasts and bird-watchers. Our bird screen is very popular and we had Cobham apprentices from Bournemouth & Poole College research, design, raise funds for and build our new picture frame feature down by the shoreline. That has been a real hit.’

It overlooks the northern edge of the internationally significant Holes Bay Nature Park, designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area and recognised as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. The next two phases of development will see agricultural fields in front of the picture frame re-allocated as wild meadows.

The natural beauty on offer is undeniable. What’s more, it is easily accessible and there is no sense of over-development – even the new dual-purpose aggregate paths will mellow into the landscape in time. Signage appears more than adequate, although given the extent to which one group that approached Estate Officer Steve Gadd on our tour was lost, perhaps there is still more work to be done. ‘I’m afraid that’s probably true,’ he admits, suggesting that mobile phone GPS may be to blame for some people’s fading sense of direction.

Steve goes on: ‘What I love about the park is that there are still places we haven’t touched where people can wander in and get a bit lost. At the moment our new Stream Splash for kids and dogs isn’t well signposted so people come across it and feel a sense of discovery, which is brilliant. It connects the park to the water without compromising the important habitats on the shoreline. We’ve also got stepping-stones across the stream in one place, which is great for dogs to have a dip – kids, too.’

Discovery Project plans also include the restoration of views towards Sterte and Poole that were created when the house was built between 1816 and 1818 for Christopher Spurrier, the profligate son of four-time-mayor-of-Poole William Spurrier, who had made the family fortune in the Newfoundland trade, only for his progeny subsequently to lose it all.

Within ten years the house had been sold to Sir Edward Doughty, born a Tichborne but obliged to take his cousin’s name in order to inherit her wealth. Having built Poole’s first Roman Catholic church where the RNLI headquarters stand today, his wife was able to enjoy a view of it from the Drawing Room at Upton House – one of the views due to be restored along with the original pathway and formal lawn to the rear of the house that have long since been reclaimed by nature.

Sir Edward’s nephew, Roger Tichborne, became the subject of a legal cause célèbre in the 1870s. Having declared his love both for Upton and for his cousin, Edward’s daughter, Kathryn, Roger was banished from the house and set sail for New York. A week later his ship, the Bella, was lost at sea and Roger presumed drowned. Edward’s fortune and the Tichborne baronetcy passed to Roger’s father and on his death to Roger’s younger brother, Alfred, but by the time he died in 1866, a man claiming to be Roger had turned up in Australia. His mother, Lady Tichborne, was convinced her son had returned and even though the man had been shown to be one Arthur Orton, the pretence persisted through two protracted court trials and extensive newspaper coverage. In the end Orton served ten years for perjury, but on his death in 1898, the coroner, his death certificate and his coffin plate all acknowledged him as Sir Roger Tichborne.

Making tracks. Photo by Liz Mace Photography

The case all but ruined the Tichbornes and in 1901 Upton was sold as William Llewellin set up home there with his wife, Frances, who died in a car accident near Merley Gates in 1907, and children William Wigan (WW), John Jestyn (Jay) and Margaret Mary. All enjoyed notable lives – WW as the pioneer of the borstal system and Jay as Churchill’s wartime Minister of Food, then raised to the peerage as Baron Llewellin of Upton and sent to Rhodesia as its first Governor-General, where he died in office in 1957. After that, WW Llewellin gave Upton to Poole and moved to Bere Regis with his sister, Margaret, a JP and Poole councillor who had already served as the town’s first female Sheriff and then its first female Mayor and Admiral in 1951 and again in 1953.

‘The history has gripped me just as much as the natural beauty of Upton,’ says Steve as he looks out towards Pergins Island. ‘Many of the people who have lived here have been just as remarkable as the landscape and I think what we’re doing now is very much in keeping with that.’

At long last perhaps, sixty years after it was bestowed on Poole, Upton House and Country Park is shaking off its reputation as a hidden gem and starting to sparkle like a genuine jewel in the town’s crown.

Friends of Upton Country Park: www.uptoncountrypark.org

• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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