NOSTALGIA: New lease of life for Eastbourne’s hidden gem

Tranquil haven ... the gardens were laid out in the early 1920s
Tranquil haven ... the gardens were laid out in the early 1920s

What appears to be a wooded amphitheatre carved out of the cliff face actually began life as a chalk pit known as The Gore, writes Terrie Rintoul.

Quarrying ended abruptly when it was discovered the excavations were polluting a nearby pure water spring - the Holy Well, which was essential to Eastbourne’s water supply.

In the winter of 1904/05 the abandoned pit was laid out as a garden and named the Holywell Retreat.

Sometime between 1905 and 1918 the Holywell tea chalet was built which, as many of us know, is still thriving.

After the First World War the gardens above the chalet were redesigned in the Italianate style at a cost of £400.

The year 1922 engraved on either side of the central stage structure probably marks the year of its completion.

It also records the year that the housing equipment for a telegraph cable that ran from Holywell to Dieppe was moved from a shed near the beach up to a store in the gardens.

From being laid out in the early 1920s they were known as the Italian Gardens, although there are no signs formally naming them as such.

For at least 50 years the gardens were well stocked with flowers.

Sadly the pergolas are now empty but the fact that, especially on a fine day, people still enjoy the gardens is testament to their lasting charm and every year they provide a wonderful backdrop to the open air Shakespeare performances by the EODS group.

The Friends of Meads Parks and Gardens are helping to being the Italian Gardens back to something of their former glory and with the planned removal of some self-seeded saplings members are already beginning to make progress.

The best way to reach them is via the entrance to the Helen Garden on Dukes Drive, turn immediate left and head down the slope.

Turn right at the bottom and you will see the gardens ahead of you in all their faded glory.

Nearby Helen Garden is another gem in the area.

That went through the hands of several private owners including the Duke of Devonshire, the Grand Hotel and finally Mrs Helen Reid Stewart Hornby Lewis, after whom the garden is named.

Shortly after her death in 1930, the land was conveyed to the council, landscaped and opened to the public in 1935.

The Helen Garden is also home to the St John’s Bowling Club which in turn is celebrating its 80th anniversary.

Formed in 1936, the bowling club is the only council owned and run green in Eastbourne.

Officials say they have the success of the Eastbourne Open Bowls Tournament first held in 1924 to thank for the club’s existence.

By the time of the 10th tournament, it had become an international affair with competitors coming from as far away as South Africa and New Zealand.

During the deputy mayor’s farewell speech, Alderman Lt Col Roland Gwynne stated the tournament brought a lot of people to the town and that he had long been pressing for more bowling greens and pavilions attached to them.

Despite having limited facilities the club is thriving today and the popular taster sessions have seen 20 new members join over the last year.

The club plays an important part in the activities organised by various community groups in Meads and links with the Meads Community Association and others to this end.

At the launch of the Friends of Meads Parks and Gardens last September, an open bowls session was provided and members also assisted the Meads Community Association in providing cream teas.

A similar event was also held earlier this month when there was a cream tea and open sessions for would be bowlers.

The Friends of Meads Parks and Gardens was established in 2015 as a community group to help maintain, improve, restore and enhance the three public parks and gardens in the Meads area of Eastbourne.

These are the Helen Garden, the Italian Gardens and All Saints Park, part of the grounds surrounding the former All Saints Hospital.

The group aims to influence and raise funds for improvement projects as well as work with Eastbourne Borough Council and other government agencies over the management, maintenance and development of the parks and gardens.

For more information, find the group on Facebook.

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