Everyone loves stumbling across treasures we never knew existed, and even in some of Plymouth’s most recognisable and famous locations, there are things that you learnt about which you never knew.
Central Park is the largest park in Plymouth, and was originally created in 1928 as a park devoted to the improvement of the health of city residents, according to Visit Plymouth.
Formed from a collection of farms and reportedly sold cheaply to the City Council by Lord St Levan in 1923, it was done so only on the condition that it remained a public open space. The City Council commissioned the landscape architect E. Reuben Mawson to prepare a plan for the park, and his far-sighted report was presented to The Hoe and Parks Committee in October 1928.
It’s stunning all year round, with wide boulevards which go through the park’s open meadows and woodlands – autumn or summer it’s the place to go for some fresh air. And there’s plenty to discover in Plymouth’s Central Park – from interesting sculptures to hidden faces, each has a fascinating history.
So let’s meet some of Central Park’s quirky sculptures and hidden history.
The Green Man and the lizard
Green Man is carved from an old tree stump
You may walk past Green Man on your dog walk or jog and not think much about his grumpy face and wild hair – but he is pretty hard to miss. He’s been carved out of a tree trunk and sits proudly watching over the woods near the cemetery entrance. He’s not far from his lizard friend, and they’re both part of a sculpture trail. The lizard is a place to play, and is made from timber from the park.
But what is the meaning behind the Green Man? According to Historic UK, the name was first used by Lady Raglan in March 1939 in an article she wrote for the ‘Folklore’ journal.
The lizard in central park
It is said that before this, the sculptures and depictions had been known just as ‘foliate heads’ and no-one had paid them any particular attention. She suggested the Green Man was ‘the central figure in the May Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe’.
These medieval images are very common in Devon, and are frequently found on roof bosses, fonts or misericords in churches. Carved between the 11th and 16th centuries, in either stone or wood, these decorative, architectural ornaments appear in various forms, and have many different meanings attributed to them.
As the Green Man is also portrayed with acorns and hawthorn leaves – symbols of fertility in medieval times – this would seem to reinforce the association with spring.
What is thought to be Neptune’s face in Central Park
Many may not have spotted this more hidden face in the park, but next time you’re there it’s worth having a look at this stoney character. Not much is known about why or when this face was created here, but it’s not far from the foot golf facilities and is hidden in plain sight.
According to local Plymouth man Dave Does History, in mythology, Neptune was one of three brothers. His siblings were Jupiter and Pluto. Neptune was seen as ‘ill-tempered and violent’, therefore he was given the task of watching over the turbulent and erratic sea.
Britannica explains that Neptune was “originally the god of fresh water” and “he was identified with the Greek Poseidon and thus became a deity of the sea. “His female counterpart, Salacia, was perhaps originally a goddess of leaping springwater, subsequently equated with the Greek Amphitrite.”
Dave wrote on his blog : “Of course, there is a link between the city of Plymouth and the sea, and this could explain the appearance of Neptune. But this doesn’t provide me the backstory as to who placed it in the park and the central reason as to why this was the case.” But one knowledgeable history buff who is part of Plymouth’s Historical Association has suggested it looks as if it is a keystone – a central stone at the summit of an arch, locking the whole thing together.
They said: “The path he is on is Neptune path. I have been told that the fields nearby were used to sort rubble from bomb damaged houses. They were known as tip fields. Could possibly be a keystone that came from the rubble?” While mystery surrounds just how old Neptune is, he’s an interesting character to have in our park.
The Ode to Elm
Ode to Elm in Central Park
(Image: Plymouth City Council)
You might’ve spotted this one near Pounds House, and is part of the sculpture trail which includes the lizard and Green Man. Ode to Elm was created by The Woodland Presents, using Sapporo Autumn Gold elm trees that once stood in the park but fell in a storm. It was commissioned in 2018 and now stands proudly near Pounds House.
The sculpture celebrates Sapporo Autumn Gold elm trees that resist Dutch elm disease and are homes for the protected white-letter hairstreak butterflies. According to butterfly conservation, the species declined in the 1970s when its foodplants were reduced by Dutch Elm disease, but it is recovering in a few areas.
The butterfly breeds where elms occur in sheltered hedgerows, mixed scrub and on the edges of woodland rides. The butterfly can also be found on large isolated elms.
Central Park in Plymouth, looking towards Pounds House
This beautiful mansion is tucked away at the edge of Central Park, and has a wealth of fascinating history behind it. The city landmark was once a hugely popular meeting place frequented by those who enjoyed the finer things in life and enjoyed taking in the park’s beautiful scenery in years gone by.
Banker William Hodge built and lived in the house in the early 19th century but it hasn’t been used as a home since 1933, although it has had several other uses including include a cafe, wedding venue, public library and offices. The extensive lawns around Pounds House are home to a collection of mature specimen trees. An unusual ring of pine trees is reputed to mark the spot where one of the estate’s owners buried his racehorses in the 19th century.
Sadly the mansion has been ravaged by bad weather and heavy rainfall had caused water to pour into Pounds House and inflict damage. In 2017 a new action plan was proposed with hopes to return the villa to its former glory.
“We know that Pounds House is a much-loved, civic building that has been sadly neglected,” said Cllr Mark Lowry, the then cabinet member for finance.
“Ideally we wanted to kick-start the restoration work last year, but like many things, the pandemic scuppered those plans. We are now raring to go. With the detailed investigation work about to begin to help us really understand the scale of the repairs needed.
“Whilst the works will not be quick – and could take up to two years, we are committed to moving this project forward and bring Pound House back into use, restored to its former glory.”
During the Second World War it housed the area’s Air Raid Precautions headquarters, its website says.
Take a look at our gallery of photos here.
The cider press
Early 20th century cider mill
(Image: Craig Miles)
This 20th century cider press isn’t too far from Pounds House, and may very well have something to do with it. The plaque next to it reads: “Early 20th century cider mill” but little else is known about it. According to Vigo Presses, cider making had seen a surge in popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries.
But interestingly by the 1800s fewer people were drinking cider and there was a decline in production. There was also a large campaign to see the eradication of alcoholic drinks as payment, and in 1887 the Trunk Act made this illegal. But the 20th century saw more people back on the good stuff, and could be the reason this press is here.
Bouquet of flowers placed by Pride in Plymouth in Central Park to mark 25th anniversary of Terry Sweet’s passing
(Image: Pride in Plymouth)
This is an awful but important piece of Central Park’s history to mention. The bench is a painful reminder of the murder of Terry Sweet and the savage beating of Bernard ‘Bernie’ Hawken by three teenage thugs on the evening of November 6, 1995.
The attacks left the city in shock and the gay community – already relatively hidden – increasingly fearful. As details emerged many found it hard to understand how three seemingly ordinary young boys could launch attacks so savage and brutal that local media felt unable to publish details of the assaults.
The collective organisation Pride in Plymouth and the city’s first openly gay MP, Luke Pollard, jointly launched a Crowdfunding appeal to ensure Terry Sweet and Bernard Hawken are not just remembered, but celebrated.
And they reached their target, so their aim is to introduce a plaque on the restored bench in Central Park and the planting of a mature willow tree in memory of Terry and Bernard to fund a dedication event when lockdown restrictions finally allow.
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