Despite modern appearances, Chorley is an ancient market town and, unlike many of its neighbours, still retains the original manorial park and house (although these days Chorley is probably best known for its housing estates and ridiculously high number of roundabouts).
I spent the first nine years of my life in Chorley living on a 1970s estate on the fringes of Astley Park. I have many happy memories of the grounds and the renaissance-style house. Returning so many years later, I was prepared for it to be a pale imitation of my recollections, but instead I was pleasantly surprised to find it much improved.
The walled gardens were just a shell in my day but now there is a thriving orchard, kitchen and herb garden with a gorgeous rose path. There are signs around the garden with clear emphasis on interactive education for kids. This is teamed with the Ghastly Astley series of workshops for schools entitled Plague, Potions and Pestilence which sounds fascinating, and I’m wondering if there might be room for an adult version. I would certainly attend.
The stable block next to the walled garden has been upgraded to Café Ambio, a far classier affair than the basic café of my youth. Although I’ll admit part of me was disappointed at the lack of Wall’s ice cream sandwiches and plastic drink pots of Vimto where you stabbed a straw through the lid. Part of the same stable block now houses the Chorley Remembers Experience, an exhibition charting the people of Chorley’s involvement in military conflict over the years. Complimenting this is the fascinating Evaders’ Garden, transplanted to Chorley in all its quiet solemnity from the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show. There is also a Family Research Centre and art gallery situated in the farmhouse within the park grounds.
Growing up I must have visited Astley Hall hundreds of times, but I don’t think I ever realised what a rare treasure the house is. Now in the final stages of renovation, it has been rejuvenated to give us a glimpse of its former glory. The ceilings alone are worth a visit with their part stucco creations resembling some fabulously ostentatious wedding cake icing. The great hall at the entrance is still impressively grand with the ornate carved staircase and painted panels. Meanwhile, the carved wooden fireplaces and rooms are just as beautiful as I remember and I can see now why I decided I wanted to live there when I was five.
The grounds have been revamped since my day too, with a Royalist Retreat for the kids and a toddlers’ play area next to the sports pavilion. In my youth, it was rounders in extremely soggy grass or a game of frisbee if we were lucky. There is still pets’ corner but I suspect that feeding the ducks on the lake is frowned upon these days. As a kid, there was the Chorley carnival in the park and a large bonfire with fireworks on Bonfire night. But now it seems there are events all year round such as Theatre in the Park and Chorley Flower Show.
One part of the park which I am relieved to say seems largely unchanged is the woodland. This was my playground as a child and it still retains its ancient charm. I was also pleased to see wild flower meadows dotted about which I’m sure will be worth revisiting in a month or two. All in all, Astley Park is something to be very proud of in these austere times. It would be easy to allow gems like the hall to fall into wrack and ruin but instead Chorley Council and, I’m guessing, an army of dedicated volunteers have turned it into something very special and well worth the trip.