Hunting through the November 2003 edition of The Link for another article, I stumbled upon a whole page story by Sarah Finch-Crisp, the former Keeper of Lydiard House, marking 60 years since Swindon became owners of the house and park, writes Link magazine publisher Roger Ogle.
But ten years on, Swindon Council has forgotten to organise an event to mark the visionary decision of former Swindon Corporation town clerk David Murray-John (DMJ), left, to acquire the house and surroundings land in the middle of World War II.
Whilst his idea that Lydiard Park was ideal for a university was never realised, it has become a Swindon gem, renovated with lottery money, and transformed to provide attractions for everybody, yet retaining the sense of history that goes back at least 800 years.
Cllr Gerry Perkins, Swindon Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Economy, Regeneration and Culture who is responsible for Lydiard Park, paid tribute to the man who saved Lydiard Park for the town.He said: “Seventy years ago, David Murray John, the Town Clerk of Swindon, showed great foresight in lobbying to secure the purchase of Lydiard House and its parkland for the people of this town.
“It’s incredible to think that this wise decision was taken during the dark days of the Second World War when the pressures on the Swindon Corporation, the fore-runner of today’s Council, must have been immense.
"Many historic houses didn’t survive this turbulent period so to see Lydiard Park today as such a thriving visitor destination is testament to Murray John’s vision.”
Right, the mannequin of Lord Bolingbroke studying his family tree going back to Norman times in the library at Lydiard Park
Here we reproduce the 2003 magazine article
Lydiard Park: A Historic Anniversary 1943 – 2003
Swindon Borough Council and English Heritage are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the purchase of Lydiard Park by Swindon Corporation in 1943. While joint exhibitions are taking shape Sarah Finch-Crisp writes about this historic anniversary and the partnership with English Heritage which helps support Lydiard’s Heritage Lottery Fund bid to restore the park today.
The fact that Lydiard House stands today is a testament to the vision and determination of Swindon’s remarkable Town Clerk David Murray John.
Remembered as the man who set Swindon on the path to expansion and prosperity, DMJ was equally committed to providing the people of Swindon with meaningful social, cultural and recreational opportunities.
When the Bolingbroke’s ancestral home at Lydiard Tregoze appeared on the market during World War II, he saw its potential and jumped at the chance to acquire it.
Lydiard House in 2002, top. Below, the house, St Mary’s Church and the walled garden before renovation
For £4,500 Swindon Corporation became the proud, if somewhat bemused, owners of the nucleus of this once great estate; an exquisite but sadly neglected mansion and 147 acres of quintessential English parkland. Much of the park was occupied by a hospital camp serving the 101st American Airborne Division, many of whom explored the grounds and the mysteriously shuttered house.
Meanwhile, Swindon Corporation’s rescue of Lydiard at such a difficult time brought the town increasing acclaim. Despite the damp and rot, the beauty and craftsmanship of the house’s 18th Century interiors were plain to see. The proximity of St Mary’s Church with its nationally significant monuments added to the national importance of the site.
Determined to restore the house and park for the benefit of local people but only too aware of the many other demands on the town’s finances, David Murray John set about engaging the support of national institutions and government ministries.
The Ministry of Works whose successors are English Heritage and their National Monuments Record Centre in Swindon, were quickly involved in providing surveys and advice. The example of Lydiard Park proceeded to inform national post war policy on historic buildings and the house was one of the first, if not the first property of its type, to receive a government grant for repair and restoration.
English Heritage have remained actively interested in Lydiard Park to this day, including sharing the costs of re-roofing the house. Most recently they have undertaken an archaeological survey of the park in support of The Lydiard Park Restoration Project, and taken the public on tours exploring and interpreting the humps and bumps in the landscape.
Dramatic aerial views captured by their survey team in October bring further exciting new evidence of Lydiard’s rich archaeological landscape.
Bob Hook who is co-ordinating English Heritage’s involvement commented, “Lydiard is an outstanding example of a site where the landscape and buildings are intimately connected. The quality of the house and church are easily recognised, and we are adding to that an understanding of the many historical features which survive in the park.
Aerial photo by permission of English Heritage, ref: NMR23179/26. Note the overgrown lake in the bottom left of the image.
Below, Lydiard House after the lake was cleared in 2006
"As well as our landscape survey, the dry weather this summer means that from the air you can see a virtual plan of the history of the grounds around the house. The photographs have given us a snapshot back through time by showing clearly the outlines of the 800 year-old field systems around the site and the shape of the formal gardens from the 1600s which lie underneath the present lawns as well as the 18th Century layout of the kitchen garden and the original extent of the great lake.”
It was always David Murray John’s intention to restore Lydiard Park. In a letter to an enquirer about the lost glories of the park, he wrote ‘ I have seen an old print showing the lake and it is naturally the hope of the Corporation to restore it’.
Today, Swindon Council has a golden opportunity to win the Lottery money needed to complete the work which he began.