Campbell Park, Unforgettable Garden of the Month by Claire de Carle, Buckingham Gardens Trust
Created between 1977 and 1984 by Neil Higson of Milton Keynes Development Corporation
Registered Grade II
Campbell Park in Milton Keynes is one of the most imaginative people’s parks to have been laid out in the 20th century. In August 2020 Historic England recognised it as being of national importance and added it to the Register of Parks and Gardens at Grade II. The landscape design follows in the tradition of English 18th century landscape gardens. It is loosely based on that of Central Park in New York and was largely the work of Neil Higson, who worked for the Milton Keynes Development Corporation.
When people think of Milton Keynes, what often comes to mind is a town built on a grid system with 130 roundabouts and concrete cows, rather than its spacious suburbs and 5,000 acres of integrated parkland. Very few large public parks were created during the late 20th century and certainly not on the scale of those in Milton Keynes. Campbell Park is particularly significant because it was incorporated into the plan for the commercial area of Central Milton Keynes, whereas public parks in the UK’s inner cities have tended to evolve historically, the land often gifted or sold by wealthy property owners to local authorities.
The 45-hectare park is a key part of the planned cityscape which links the urban centre through naturalistic parkland to the Ouse Valley. The park lies on an axis with the shopping centre to the west and in the east rises to a mound offering exhilarating panoramic views to Willen Lakes, the Newlands Tree Cathedral and beyond to Bedfordshire.
Nigel Higson said: ‘Our plan was to create a unified composition of various landscape types, partly developed from existing and adjusted landform and partly guided by character and function as elements of a people’s park. We were, after all, dedicated followers of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities Movement, as well as believing that landscape can have a fundamental influence on the health and quality of life of all citizens, and in consequence the success of the new city.’
From the start the park was the focus for ambitious ideas and was intended as an international sculpture park. Unfortunately, this ambition fell victim to financial cuts, but there are still eight significant sculptures situated in the park. The reduced number is more than made up for by the detail of materials. They work together with the variety of horticultural features and planting, and the natural and artificial topography, to produce an outstanding, unified design.
The central area of the park is grassed and is crossed by a network of paths; there are groups of trees and some individual oaks which predate the park. The trees have been thinned to preserve views across the park of features such as the light beacon and key works of art. These wonderful views through the park evoke the 18th-century English landscape style of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, with glimpses out to different aspects. Areas alongside paths are mown to give reassurance that the park is managed. Otherwise, the sward is left uncut until mid/late summer then cut for hay as a crop for livestock, followed by periodic grazing by sheep.
The Light Pyramid is situated on top of the mound or Belvedere, the highest point of the park, where it acts as a beacon for miles around. It was commissioned in 2012 and was created by Liliane Lijn as part of the Campbell Park Art Plan and to replace the basket beacon, which had been situated on the belvedere and was hit by lightning in 2002. The Light Pyramid was first lit to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on 4 June 2012 and is illuminated to commemorate special local and national events.
The Milton Keynes Rose is a public space designed for commemoration, celebration, and contemplation. Developed in partnership by the Parks Trust and the Cenotaph Trust, with support from Milton Keynes Council, the Milton Keynes Rose was created as a central civic space to host events of significance and occasions of remembrance.
Created by internationally renowned artist Gordon Young in 2014, the Milton Keynes Rose is an open-air circle with markings based on the mathematical beauty of a flower. The art piece was created by installing 106 granite pillars of varying heights. Sixty-six pillars have been engraved with dedications, leaving 40 for future inscriptions. Inscriptions so far include dedications for important dates in Milton Keynes’ history. These include 23 January 1967, when Milton Keynes was designated as a New Town and 5 July 1953, the date when the first tea bag was produced in the UK at Tetley’s factory in Bletchley.
The Labyrinth sits north of the Milton Keynes Rose and has a functional sundial, ‘Armillary Sphere’ by Justin Tenley, at its centre. The labyrinth was planned as a turf maze with stone setts in the grass and is surrounded by evergreen shrubs to give wind protection. This area, as well as that along the Belvedere, was formerly ornamented by specially designed seats, with canopies made of metal and glass, but these have recently been removed.
Today, the park continues to be developed while maintaining its character and is maintained to a high standard. Since 1992 this has been the responsibility of the Milton Keynes Parks Trust, alongside all the other parks and green spaces in the city. Campbell Park was added to the Register of Parks and Gardens at Grade II in August 2020 as part of the Gardens Trust’s successful Compiling the Record campaign to recognise and protect significant post-war gardens and landscapes.
Claire de Carle, Buckinghamshire Gardens Trust
Many thanks to Jill Stansfield and Gill Grocott who compiled the BGT report on Campbell Park.
Full reports on Campbell Park and other parks in Milton Keynes are on the Buckinghamshire Gardens Trust website.
There is further information on Milton Keynes parks on the Parks Trust website.
Find out more about our campaign to highlight the many unforgettable gardens we all treasure.