Much of the gardens now forming The Seafront Gardens are believed to have originated piecemeal during the 18th C. as houses along the seafront were built and embellished by the landed gentry, such as Lord and Lady Harland, Philip Thickness, Sir Samuel Fludyer and much later FT Cobbold.
A visit to the town by the then German Imperial family in 1891 boosted tourism to the area. This, coupled, with the famous 'Felixstowe Spa', providing high quality spa water, made Felixstowe a fashionable destination. In place, at this time, were the Hamilton Gardens along the cliff top, the Town Hall Gardens and the steep ivy-clad terraces edging South Beach Mansion. The previous Cliff Shelter, located on the upper terrace of the Town Hall Garden, was described as 'one of the earliest municipal facilities to be provided for the holidaymaker, erected in 1899 at a cost to the urban district council of £2,759. Set into the cliff between Bent Hill and Convalescent Hill, it contained a tea room and public conveniences'. Felixstowe - A Pictorial History, Robert Malster, Phillimore and Co. 1992.
Felixstowe and Walton Improvement Act
To build on this success the Urban District Council passed the Felixstowe and Walton Improvement Act in 1902 to develop the seafront further. A promenade and granite sea wall were completed in 1904 whilst in parallel, gardens belonging to the Felix Hotel (now Harvest House) were extended and improved in 1903 by the then owner of the hotel, the Hon D Tollemache.
A bandstand was erected in the Spa Gardens in 1907 and the first Spa Pavilion named the ‘New Floral Hall’ was built in 1909 accompanied by impressive terraced gardens laid out by local horticulture and landscape company, Notcutts. At this time it is thought the construction of the Pram Walk beneath South Beach Mansion was constructed, to enable visitors a grand vista down to the Spa Pavilion.
Natural Spa Water well
A Dripping Well by the Spa building was a huge attraction and made use of the natural spa water seeping through the cliffs. In 1910 the Serpentine Steps and associated Round Shelter were completed. These proved a garden highlight to be featured in many subsequent postcards.
Records indicate that a considerable amount of money was lavished on the grounds of both The Lodge and Vernon Villa, private properties situated along the sea front, and that the same style of exuberant planting was reflected in the public gardens. The Gardens at this time were of a very exotic and distinctive nature, highlighting the fashion at the time for showcasing unique and exotic planting (much acquired from overseas, and nurtured in hot houses), and highly decorative landscape works.
In 1919, further extensive landscape works were undertaken by George Burrows, who was an architect for the Urban District Council. Steps and paths were created to provide public access from the top of the cliff at Hamilton Gardens (formerly Hamilton Terrace) to the gardens on the seafront. The well known Zig Zag steps were lost at this time. This period coincided with an increase in visitor numbers to Felixstowe as the resort’s popularity as a holiday destination grew.
New Cliff Gardens
The New Cliff Gardens (now named Cliff House Terrace and Gardens) below the Cliff House Tea rooms were laid out and opened by the Mayor of London in 1928. Adjacent to these gardens is the Long Shelter Terrace and Gardens, where the former Long Shelter was situated, together with a large symmetrical parterre, sunken Italian garden, archway and pond.
New Spa Pavilion
A new Spa Pavilion was completed in 1939 but was promptly destroyed by a bomb in 1941. A third Pavilion on the site was opened in 1957. Having hosted such acts as Jimi Hendrix and The Who, the Spa Pavilion remains a very popular venue to this day - the heart of the Seafront Gardens. In parallel to the development of the Seafront Gardens, the Felix Hotel had developed its own gardens, which incorporated its portion of the cliff and seafront. At one point, sea water was pumped up to the hotel for the use of guests. The pump house remains in-situ today. The Felix Hotel was sold and subsequently renamed Harvest House and used by Fisons as their headquarters.
Gift to the town
In 1952, Fisons donated their gardens to the Urban District Council, bringing the total area of the Seafront Gardens to its current 3ha. Harvest House was converted to apartments. Essential cliff stabilisation work and the loss of the Cliff Shelter (in the Town Hall Garden) and the Long Shelter for safety reasons are the only major works undertaken to the Gardens in the last 50 years. The Gardens, therefore, represent a rare cross section of over 100 years of gardening trends as well as portrait of Felixstowe’s historical development.
James Pulham (1793-1838), the eminent landscape gardener, and the first of the four James's behind the company Pulham and Son (that operated from the early 1800s to c.1940), lived and worked within the Felixstowe area. Pulham's gardens usually consisted of the construction of ‘Rock Gardens’, which were generally made from natural stone but this material was not always economically available. The Pulhams would literally ‘build their own’ building material by making heaps of old bricks and rubble, and coating these with cement. The craftsmanship of their workmen was based on their ability to sculpt the surfaces of these ‘rocks’ to simulate natural textures. It is thought that Pulhamite made up the fabric of the Dripping Well.