What do a 19th-century asylum, a World War II aerodrome and the Harry Potter films all have in common?
The answer is Leavesden Country Park, in Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire. It was officially opened earlier this year, after a £1.2 million programme of investment in heritage, environment, arts and community facilities, funded by Three Rivers District Council, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden.
The site has an intriguing history. The ‘Leavesden Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles’ and St Pancras Orphanage/Workhouse opened in October 1870. It was 90 per cent self-sufficient for 2,085 patients, 639 orphans and staff, with a school, nursing college, gas works, sewage system, church, cemeteries and a 42-acre farm. By the 1950s, there were more than 3,500 patients and 1,200 staff at the Leavesden Hospitals. But following the introduction of ‘care in the community’ in the 1980s, the hospital drastically reduced in size, finally closing in 1997.
Nearby Leavesden Aerodrome was acquired by de Havilland to build Mosquito fighter aircraft and Halifax bombers during World War II. After the war, the aerodrome and its huge hangars were taken over by Rolls-Royce to produce engines for aircraft and later helicopters. By 1994, the airfield and factory had closed and the site was disused.
“The council is delighted and proud to have delivered this project
But in 1995, EON Productions was looking for somewhere to shoot the latest James Bond film, GoldenEye, and converted the aircraft hangars into a working studio and the airfields to a backlot. Many major feature films made use of the site, including the first of the Star Wars prequels and the Harry Potter series. In 2010, Warner Bros. purchased the studio as a permanent European base and since then has invested over £100 million into the site – now one of the largest film studios in Europe and home to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.
This history was the basis for the development of the park into a destination attraction, showcasing the heritage and natural environment of the area. The key to the project’s success has been largely due to community involvement, embracing the memories and aspirations of local residents, from the project steering group and artists’ workshops, to many community activities and the growth of an active ‘friends’ group.
Nine sculptures, with their themes of ‘Minds, movies and machines’, carry significance to the community and its local history, and form a stunning heritage trail against the backdrop of the park. Each has its own interpretation board.
The Leavesden HIVE, a centre for learning, is supported by a specialist historical association, dedicated to the hospitals’ history. The park ranger uses the HIVE as a base for a diverse activity programme for schools, individuals and community groups.
A meandering woodland walk has been established to enjoy the peace and quiet; a community fruit orchard is being developed; and a play area, weaving in the heritage and wildlife themes of the park, has been created. Within the park, there is also the Woodlands Café and Leavesden Cycle Hub.
The hard work and huge contribution of the community has now been recognised nationally, with Leavesden Country Park shortlisted in the community involvement category of the Local Government Chronicle Awards 2020 (results out in March). Three Rivers council is delighted and proud to have delivered this project, for the benefit of the community for many years to come.