The first evidence of human habitation in the vicinity of what is now Astley Park, and the oldest remains found to date in Chorley, was discovered in 1963. It is a Bronze Age ‘henge-like’ monument used for ritual burials. Not fully revealed by archaeologists until the 1970’s, the artefacts found include two burial urns (now part of the Astley Hall collection) dated to perhaps as early as 1400 BC. The discovery is marked by an inscribed slab at the rear of the Astley Farmhouse alongside the path leading from the Hall Gate carpark, however the actual site is under Oliver House School.
A stretch of land known as ‘Astelee’ was rented as farm land by the Charnock family (of Charnock Richard) throughout the Middle Ages (which started in the late 5th Century AD). During the 1400’s the extensive Astley agricultural estate included parts called Wymundsley and Judland, places which in the 1970’s were used (with a minor spelling change to the latter) as street names in the Astley Village housing development. Another area which was also used for modern street naming – The Farthings – was not included in the Astley farmed lands until 1825 when also a new stone boundary wall was erected alongside the recently constructed Park Road.
As for buildings at Astley of course the most important is Astley Hall itself. It is thought there was a hall present in medieval times, maybe from the 13th Century. However, construction of a new hall was started in 1577. Astley Hall as we know it today has been much altered since then. The Charnock family associated with Astley evolved through marriage in 1665 to the Brooke family.
By the 1700’s it appears there were formal gardens, the dammed lake, and orchards within the grounds of the Hall. Later that Century a stable block (more recently known as the Coach House) was built and is now used as a café, gift shop and gallery space. It is not clear when the adjoining Farmhouse was constructed which is now home to a shop and a family records centre.
In 1787 the Brooke heir Susannah married Thomas Townley-Parker. Following his premature death due a horse-riding accident, she married Sir Henry Houghton. They lived together at Walton Hall for a short time before moving to Astley around 1814.
From this time the grounds of the Hall, overseen by Susannah, were greatly changed to a style that had become popular with many hundreds of grand homes across the country. In what is known as the Picturesque Period, which covered many aspects of high society living, art and literature, there was introduced the English Landscape Park style of which its most famous exponent was Capability Brown.
At Astley and elsewhere formal geometric gardens were replaced by natural looking grounds that brought the appearance of the countryside close to the main residence, with grazed and hay pasture, ha-has to hold back the farm animals, specimen tree planting and rivers regraded to more winding courses.
The landscape designer of the Astley grounds transformation is thought to have been John Webb who was particularly noted for his water engineering. The lake next to the Hall was remodelled with an embankment down from the newly created front lawn. The course of the River Chor was altered to meander more through Great Wood with numerous footbridges built over it to allow the Hall’s residents and their visitors to promenade from the Hall into the ‘countryside’.
The carriage drive (now known as the main path) from Park Road was slightly re-aligned planted and with trees on either side so that clear sight of the Hall was only gradually exposed to visitors in the ‘conceal and reveal’ manner typical of the English Landscape Park style.
In 1825 Ackhurst Lodge was built as was another lodge on Euxton Lane – indicating how extensive the full Astley lands were, which at the time also included a deer park. When the farm was let for tender in 1844 it consisted of just over 55 acres (22 hectares) with pasture and meadows.
However, over the centuries the estate had become more than an agricultural holding and parkland, at times various industrial activities took place including brickmaking, cotton and possibly corn milling. The water driven cotton carding mill was located on a dammed stretch of the River Chor, the site of which is identified on the Astley Park Trail.
Ownership of the Hall transferred by inheritance to Reginald Arthur Tatton in 1906 when he also became the owner of nearby Cuerden Hall and Royle Hall (at Burnley).
About 15 years later what is now Astley Park as we know it today came into being. At the end of the First World War, Chorley Corporation were looking to provide a memorial to its war dead. In 1919 Reginald Arthur Tatton decided to donate his ownership of Astley Hall to the local authority. The associated Hall grounds and farm land were offered for sale to the Corporation.
The War Memorial Committee was tasked with raising the money to buy the land comprising the Astley estate. The formal handover of the parkland was in February 1922 and the official opening of the Hall and Park was marked at a ceremony held on 31 May 1924. By this time, the main entrance to the grounds off Park Road was under a re-erected stone archway that previously served as the entrance to the nearby historic Gillibrand estate, where Letchworth Drive is now.
The farmed part of the Astley estate, which Chorley Corporation bought along with the park land, was not open to the public. Most of that land eventually became developed as Astley Village in the 1970’s and 1980’s. At this time the Farmhouse was used for Chorley Borough Council office accommodation and the walled garden served as a horticultural nursery for the local authority. After falling into disuse, the fully restored walled garden is now open to the public and looked after by the Astley Walled Gardeners.
Much of the material for this article was sourced from A History of Chorley by Jim Heyes, published by Lancashire County Books, 1994 and from a talk given by Elaine Taylor at a meeting of the Chorley Family History and Heraldry Society held on 12th April 2023. Thanks also extend to Amy Dearnaley and Dave Goulden for their helpful contributions.
Further information can be accessed through the Lancashire Past website www.lancashirepast.com
Curiosities of Astley Park
Around 2010 Rosemary Boyd, a founding member of the Friends of Astley Park, produced a short but fascinating booklet with this title. Compiled from her own research it features numerous structures and artifacts that exist in the Park, some of which are little known. Curiosities of Astley Park.