‘The Mystery’, ‘The Mizzy’ or Wavertree Playground as it’s more formally known is a 104 acre park gifted to Liverpool Corporation in 1895 by a ‘mystery’ donor – hence its nickname. It was widely rumoured, and later established, that the donor was local shipping magnate and philanthropist Philip Holt. Holt gifted the land to the city at a time of both significant development in terms of building grand houses and mansions across Liverpool’s southern suburbs and also at a great boom time for public parks, particularly ornamental parks such as nearby Sefton Park, designed for promenading as the Victorians were prone to do; essentially a place to ‘see and be seen’. Going entirely against the grain and against expectation, this huge piece of land was not to be developed for housing, mansion-ing or promenading, but instead came with an express covenant for its use for organised sports and as an open space “for local children to run about”.
The park was opened by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool on 7th September 1895 to great fanfare and celebration, with over 60,000 people gathered to watch the fireworks. True to the Corporation’s word, there has been very little development on the land over its 125 year history. Rather, it has become a cherished open space for large-scale civic events, including ‘The Liverpool Show’ throughout the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, hitting a peak audience of 130,000 in 1965. In keeping with its sporting traditions, a corner of the park is now home to Wavertree Aquatics Centre, Lifestyles gym, tennis courts and athletics track. There is also a well-kept bowling green on the same side of the park.
The Facebook group ‘Friends of the Mystery Park‘ gives regular updates about the park, litter picks, events and activities. The park remains a well used and well loved place for sports, cycling, walking and ‘running about’ (including The Mystery Junior Park Run on Sunday Mornings and the new ‘RunWavertree’ group – on Wednesday evenings), for football, rugby, fitness classes, dog walking and all sorts of sporting and leisure activities. That said, anyone who has ever played field sports on ‘The Mystery’ (and this is written from personal experience of some very muddy rugby) knows that the grass can often be water-logged, and that there are particular spots around the paths that can flood in certain seasons. There is no, if you’ll pardon the pun, real mystery to this – the excess water is due to the fact that a culverted river – the River Jordan – runs right underneath The Mystery, heading through Greenbank and Sefton Parks and down through Otterspool into the Mersey. Now you know why ‘The Brook House’ pub on Smithdown Road is called The Brook House! No wonder things get a bit swampy.
Water – as featured in Love Wavertree’s logo – is historically a notable feature of Wavertree. The name Wavertree derives from Old English meaning the wavering tree, “clearing in the wood” or “the place by the common pond” and has previously been spelt Watry, Wartre and Waurtree. All very watery! We can see from old maps of The Mystery that there was once a fish pond and small lakes in the grounds. The mapped images below show the 1888-1913 Ordnance Survey map compared against present day (using the brilliant ‘Side by Side’ viewing facility provided by National Library of Scotland). Other notable features of The Mystery shown on maps across the years include a Cricket Ground and Sheep Pens, and there are several maps showing both Wavertree train station (Wellington Road) and Sefton Park train station (Smithdown Road) in operation.
Earlier this year, Mersey Forest planted thousands of new trees along the Prince Alfred Road side of the park and sectioned off a meadowland/wildflower space. We absolutely love our aspens and maples and poplars (White, Railway and Manchester) and are thrilled to welcome new life and more species to the park. Some of the new trees appear to have struggled in the recent unseasonal and unpredictable weather conditions – but some have survived and we are starting to see green leaves! It’s great to imagine these young saplings as wonderful trees for future generations to enjoy and we are (more punning, sorry) rooting for them.
With 104 acres at our feet, it feels that there is so much more that we could do with the space, while keeping to the terms of the original covenant. Perhaps there is an opportunity to maintain the central strip of land as open space for field sports, as it is now, and to consider some ‘light touch’ facilities and landscaping projects for around the sides of the park. There is ample space, for instance, in between the Athletics Track and the Bowling Green – as shown on these pictures below.
Is there an opportunity to bring a water feature back to the park? Would people enjoy and use a fishing pond, like the one shown on the 1880s OS map? Are there artistic and cultural opportunities that we can explore? A large-scale art installation in memory of Nelson Mandela is planned for Princes Park, Toxteth, led by local charity Mandela8. The piece will take the form of an ‘open air classroom’, featuring 32 sculptured seats as a ‘space for performance, conversation and contemplation’.
Perhaps we could take inspiration from this initiative to consider what we could do with the greenspace along the sides of The Mystery to support learning and knowledge – looking after our mental health and wellbeing, as well as our physical health. Could we create an ‘outdoor classroom’ – with temporary or permanent seating, an open air lecture theatre, stage theatre/ cinema, a place for storytelling, learning and sharing tales? Is there room for a speaker’s corner? (We know there are plenty of us in Wavertree who have knowledge and opinions to share on all sorts of things!)
Further down on the corner of Grant Avenue/Smithdown Road and next to the bowling green, there is a lovely little cosy nook which features one or two tree stumps that could be used as small seats. Could we get a few more in place and use this as a place for children to read and learn? Perhaps we could take inspiration from The Reader‘s work in Calderstones Park, and even work with them to develop something in here?
Old maps of the Mystery also show a number of rest points, shelters and pavilions dotted along the pathways. We wonder if there is scope to introduce more facilities for rest and shade, particularly for people who would like to access the park, but who would need regular stops. We also wonder if there is room for some kind of refreshments stall or cafe facility, even on a mobile/temporary basis. We would like to consider how The Mystery currently interacts with the homes and businesses along Wavertree High Street and how we can further develop that relationship.
We would love to hear your thoughts on how The Mystery might be improved as an accessible, enjoyable space for all of us – keeping the promise to Holt to use the land for organised sports and for children (and adults!) to run about, but also maximising what this wonderful space can offer to our local community – and what we can do for it in return.
Love Wavertree is delighted to be working with Placed as hosts for an interactive map and ideas platform. We are keen to hear from our community as to what they would like to see happen with our built, green and public spaces. If you have any thoughts and ideas for how we can better utilise and care for our wonderful Mystery, then please do share them here: Love Wavertree Placed
Here’s to The Mizzy and its next 125 years!