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During the early part of the 19th century many places developed open spaces into recreational areas. However following research, we are still not fully aware of the use made of this particular area, until that is the 1780s when a London hatter, Sir Richard Hotham came to the area to partake of the beneficial sea air. He took an interest in the area, returned, and eventually on the 18th January 1787 laid the first foundation stone of this new seaside resort. Sir Richard was in fact only to live here for seven years before his death in 1799, but not before he developed his dream of building a new resort, similar in nature to Brighton, whereby Royalty and the rich would visit, and his plans thus affected the area for the next 200 years or more.
Sir Richard Hotham built Hotham Park House as we know today, however it was called The Lodge during this time, and eventually became known as Aldwick Manor.
There were a series of owners over the years, culminating with William Fletcher who was to be yet another major benefactor to the town. He died in 1941 and his house was leased to the Ministry of Pensions for the duration of the war. At the conclusion of the war, it soon became apparent that no maintenance had been carried out, but it was still considered possible for this house to be used as a Museum, restaurant or meeting area for the town.
During the 1940’s there were many letters in the press about the use of this area, which of course previously had basically been the grounds of a private house, closed to members of the general public. One letter remarked that ‘Bognor has always lacked a place where, when the winds are high, residents and visitors can spent their leisure hours’ another wrote that ‘it would be deplorable to convert it into a modern park,’ finally one letter believed that part of it should be turned into a garden of remembrance. As we know these plans did not materialise. However on 23rd May 1947 Captain Corbishley, Chairman of the Bognor Regis Council, opened the area as a Park for the benefit of all.
There were plans in 1976 to demolish the house and leave just the clock tower standing, thankfully this did not happen but to many of us it is just a clock tower, whilst in fact the clock is the original mechanism that was placed there in 1794 and made by John Thwaites of Clerkenwell. This was hand wound until 1994, when modern technology took over. The climb to the top takes in approx. 63 steps and must have been a labour of love for the some of the staff who have undertaken this task over the years. Two such people were James McFadyen, Head Gardener and Lee Powell, who both worked for William Fletcher.
Finally Abraham Singer took a great interest in the house, which he eventually purchased in 1977. He was keen on its history and restoration, both inside and outside, retaining the charm and character of the building, while changing the house into a series of flats.
There are many other areas within the Park which have an interesting history, such as many of the plants and shrubs within the Park. During the 1940’s a local reporter had the opportunity to walk through the Park with William Fletcher and was able to hear first hand of some of the interesting plants that existed in his grounds. She kindly detailed over 36 varieties of exotic plants, shrubs and trees, many of which had not been seen in the area before William Fletcher planted them.
She remarked that the area had ‘everything of Kew Gardens, with the additional charm of absolute privacy. I wonder, Bognor, if you realise the unique glory of Aldwick Manor?’ she concluded.
There is also within the Park a cork oak tree, which it is alleged was planted in the 1870s when Mrs. Fletcher picked up the acorn at Goodwood, the year in which they married, it was to be their own special commemoration of that event.
Following the storms in 1987 the Rose Garden was developed.
Another little known fact is that between Hotham Park House and today’s library there was an enclosed garden, which was used by the staff of the house to grow their own produce for use in the house. To assist them they also had their own refrigerator – well not exactly, it was in fact the Ice House, which was built in 1792 and was within the grounds of the house which today can be viewed on London Road, near the front of Edward Bryant school. During this period there were in fact over 3,000 built nationally. The construction, similar to an igloo, is 18 feet deep from the top of the door to the floor, with approximately 12 feet below ground level.
There is an unnamed report dated 12th August 1793, when Sir Richard Hotham was entertaining the Duke of St. Albans, which reports, “I mused, stalwart servants had heaved up the ice blocks and hurried them away on a cart across the woodlands of the estate to the waiting kitchen staff.” Quite a way to travel with ice, not at all similar to going to the ‘fridge in the kitchen!’
When you walk through the Park it is interesting to take the time to look around and see some of these historical features. In addition to enjoying the peace and quiet of this green space, alongside all the wonderful trees and shrubs, visitors can have fun on the miniature railway and boating lake as well as enjoying refreshments at the new café which was opened in June 2015. We are lucky that we have this award winning Park close to the centre of our town, however, we must continue to use it and help the Trustees who are currently working to secure its future.