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Blog: A Century of the Peoples' Park

About Elizabeth M. Lumley

Elizabeth M. Lumley, Libby to her friends. Born in Gateshead she worked across the world but returned to the North East after retiring, she lives in what was once her grandmother's house, just a few minutes walk from Saltwell park. Before she retired Libby was a mechanical engineer, working across the world and later in life lecturing in universities. She is a keen amateur historian and on her return to the North East she started to explore her own family history. She discovered that her Grandmother and Great Aunt had at some point worked for the Wailes family in Saltwell Towers which piqued her interest in the mystery surrounding Ursula. She has begun work on a book about The People's Park from which the following blog post has been taken. 

20 October 2017

In my years of researching The People’s Park, one name comes up again and again; Ursula Wailes. There’s not much to be read about her by the general public to be honest - wikipedia barely mentions her and there are scant details to be found in books or newspapers from the time. Now that there are rumours that the strange rumblings in Saltwell Park have returned and that Ursula herself might make an appearance, it seems fitting for me to share my findings.

Ursula Wailes was the eldest daughter to William Wailes and heiress to the Saltwell Towers Estate. As per her father's wishes in his will, Ursula makes a gift of the park to the people of Gateshead. The People's Park it becomes known as, a green lung in the middle of industrial Gateshead. 'Make yourself at home' Ursula is quoted as saying but this may be second hand as I haven't found any actual interviews with her, nor pictures of her as a grown up. Forgive any assumptions I've made but this is the picture I've built up from my research.

The park is loved by its people and is way ahead of its time. The young heiress has a penchant for inventions and is keen to use the park to improve the health of the people round about. Inventions which use the height and strength of the trees, the force of the stream and the power of the wind make the park feel 'of the future' and 'one of the first known theme parks'. Ms Wailes puts a lot of thought into making the park child-friendly, little doorways and windows are spotted in the tree trunks and children are encouraged to talk to the plants and share their giggles with the grass. Children report hearing the plants talk back but are dismissed by adults as the fantasies of children. It's certainly had a lot of care put into it, each area feeling like it has its own distinct character. People report that the park feels alive, the moving parts of the inventions can be misheard as voices on the breeze. Ursula also dabbles in herbalism and botanicals for healing. Plants are brought from all over the world as are the weird and wonderful creatures that populate Pets' Corner. 

At the dawn of the new century, 1899 sees Ursula try to host a World Fair for inventors, inviting men and women from all over the world to show their creations. The North East has long been a place where invention and imagination have sprung up, influencing not only England but the rest of the world. Ursula sees the new century as the dawn of the generation of optimists. But somewhere along the line she has lost the good grace of the people nearby. Suspicion starts to grow about the sounds, sights and even smells coming from the park after dark. These seeds of suspicion take root in the collective consciousness leading to bitterness and resentment. 

'Who does she think she is?' "There's something not right with her' 'It's not natural what's happening in there'. Whilst no-one used words like magic or witchcraft, they hung in the air.
Members of her staff (her cook and groundskeeper) are quoted as trying to warn her that the people are growing suspicious but she's either not bothered or simply determined to complete her work. On the eve of the new century a small gang of people decide to sneak into the park to see what's happening. It's not quite flaming torches and pitchforks but there's a threat and things go badly wrong. The people have never seen the park at night, naturally it's confusing and frightening. The gentle inventions by day are shadowy and threatening at night, their strange noises are haunting now. The men instinctively lash out, destroying the inventions and the trees they're attached to. Ursula can see this unfolding from her room in the top tower but it’s assumed that she can only think is that it's an attack. The people throwing her father's gift back in her face. They don't deserve this park!

Accounts of this night vary from the ridiculous to the downright fantastical. Some say it was Ursula controlling the inventions with magical powers, turning them on the intruders. Some say she escaped into the dark. Others say she haunts the tower still.

All we know for sure is that the park was closed and kept closed since that night. Its secrets locked inside, its once moving parts rusted into inertia.

Ursula took back the gift...until now...

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