With plans for a new £4m wedding and conference venue, a treetop adventure trail and a brand new three-day music festival, these are exciting times for Lancaster’s Williamson Park.
Home to the majestic Ashton Memorial, the 54-acre park also boasts a Butterfly House, lakes and fountains, a nature reserve, a cafe, play facilities and unrivalled views over Morecambe Bay and the Lakeland fells.
Trip Advisor ranks it as the number one “thing to do” in Lancaster.
Gifted to the citizens of Lancaster by millionaire industrialist Lord Ashton following his death in 1930, the Ashton Memorial stands tall like a sentry overlooking the city.
Thousands of couples have said ‘I do’ there, children have grown up exploring the paths and play areas, and recent additions have made the site an even more attractive place to visit.
The Grade Listed park and gardens and Grade I Listed Ashton Memorial are managed by Lancaster City Council.
A team of 35 people run the Pavillion Cafe and Butterfly House and manage the natural environment within the park.
The Friends of Williamson Park are also integral in ensuring it looks its best, and have spent countless hours fundraising for new equipment, painting buildings, planting gardens and providing a haven for the wildlife that lives there.
The current Friends Group has been running since 2012, but there has been voluntary help at the park for years.
“They’re a huge part of the park and we’re very lucky to have them,” explains park manager Beth Nortley.
“They help us with general tidying up, and maintenance jobs, they put the funding in for the two new play parks, they bought log splitters for the ground maintenance schemes and part funded a new trailer.
“They’ve painted buildings, and they’ve created a Friends Garden near the Dell.
“They’ve also built and installed 150 bird boxes.
“People come from all over the district to help because the park has such a special place in people’s hearts.”
Beth said the park welcomes 60 school visits per year with pupils coming from as far away as Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Cumbria and North Yorkshire, as well as Lancashire.
Will Griffith, public realm manager at Lancaster City Council, is responsible for all the parks and open spaces in the district.
He took on the role in 2016 after managing Williamson Park since 2010.
“My love of the place first came about because my grandma was a Lancastrian,” he said.
“I used to stay with her, and I could see the Ashton Memorial from the bedroom window.
“When I first came up here, I never thought I’d end up managing the park!”
Will said the city council did the right thing taking the cafe back “in house”.
“There was never lots of money to throw into it,” he said.
“It was about sticking to the basics and the rest will follow, so we focused on good quality basic food at a reasonable price.
“Slowly we saw income rise.
“We’re now competing with the likes of the National Trust and that’s all down to the hard work and dedication of city council staff, and the volunteers and friends group.”
The Pavilion Cafe is Taste Lancashire Accredited, and there is a big emphasis on sustainability.
“It has low food miles, it’s sustainable, coffee is from Lancaster, fruit and veg is sourced locally,” Will explained.
“We’re in the process of eliminating single use plastics. We have biodegradable take out cups, paper straws, and we also now offer re-usable cups.
“People can bring their own and they get a 25p discount on coffee.”
Visitor numbers at The Butterfly House have also seen a huge increase over recent years.
“In 2010 the butterfly house had 26,000 visitors, and up to the end of March 2017/18 it stood at 50,700, so it’s doubled in eight years,” Will said.
“We’ve also seen a big increase in people attending the park generally.
“For us it’s about increasing the offer but keeping it good value for money.
“We’ve frozen ticket prices for the Butterfly House for a couple of years, and we’ve introduced the meerkats and marmosets which have been a great pull.”
Will said a recent customer satisfaction survey revealed that visitors found the park and cafe to be ‘good’ or ‘very good’.
The Ashton Memorial is a popular wedding venue too.
It has a 15 per cent share of civil ceremonies in North Lancashire, making it the most popular place for tying the knot in the area.
“It’s often people who had their first date here,” Will said.
“We have people who have moved to Australia coming back to get married, and also former university students.
“We do over 100 weddings a year, and it’s not something we really need to advertise.
“People just flock to it.”
Over the last few years, millions of pounds have been spent refurbishing and repairing the Ashton Memorial and The Butterfly House so they can be enjoyed for years to come.
“Absolutely nothing had been spent for decades,” Will said.
“There was even a point where they were storing lawn mowers on the ground floor of the Ashton Memorial.”
Next month, Williamson Park will be the setting for brand new music festival Highest Point featuring well known acts including Ocean Colour Scene, Embrace, Cast and Hacienda Classical.
Will said that the Hacienda Classical event in 2016 at the park proved there was an appetite in the Lancaster area for similar events.
He said: “The feedback from that was really positive.
“People have been saying they’ve been crying out for something like this.
“Why should people have to leave the district, or drive right past it, to go to an event like this?
“It will have a huge economic impact on the whole city.
“Our commitment is to ensure that the park is put back to its best after the event.
“We will increase cleansing staff, general maintenance, we’ll have staff engaging with people, and it’s a great opportunity to show off the beauty of it to a new audience.”
He added: “We’ll have a visible presence around the park at all times.
“Potentially there could be future events, but equally there’s nothing stopping this event happening elsewhere in the district.”
Williamson Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“We don’t lock the gates,” Will said.
“Dog walkers and runners use it at all time of the day and night.
“We’ve had major cycling events, outdoor theatre, parkrun, community festivals.
“The Dukes Play in the Park is the biggest walkabout theatre event in the UK, with 25,000 visitors attending over six weeks.
“There are exhibition spaces available in the Ashton Memorial, and there are Tai Chi sessions every Monday morning with the proceeds going to the Friends Group.
“There have been films and TV programmes recorded here, including Panto with John Bishop and Don’t Tell The Bride.
“The last Commonwealth Games photos were taken here with Chris Hoy, as it’s close to the geographical centre of the UK.”
Will emphasised that the council is “open for business” in terms of working with partners to look at redevelopment opportunities.
Plans are already in the pipeline for new facilities on the site of the current café which could include a much bigger café, retail, toilets, education suites and a wedding and conference centre.
In the meantime, Lancastrians can still enjoy the peace and respite the park provides just a stone’s throw away from the city centre. For more information visit www.lancaster.gov.uk/parks-and-open-spaces/williamson-park.